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Is a vegan diet really better for the environment?

Rob Hobson
Article written by Rob Hobson

Date published 03 November 2020

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Veganism is becoming increasingly popular as environmental concerns grow, but is it really the most sustainable diet for the planet? We look at the evidence.

The popularity of veganism has boomed in the past 10 years and, according to the Vegan Society, has become one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements.

While the percentage of vegans in the UK is still relatively small (just one to two per cent of the population) this is still more than 500,000 people.1

The plant-based revolution that has dominated the health world for some time has helped to drive awareness of veganism. The popularity of this diet has also increased with the help of endorsements from celebrities and professional sportspeople who have played a pivotal role in the way this diet is perceived.

However, veganism isn't for everyone, and according to a survey carried out by YouGov, more people than ever (14 per cent of Brits) are instead adopting a flexitarian way of eating.2

This involves cutting right back on, but not completely eliminating, meat consumption in favour of a plant-based diet - a happy medium, if you like. The question is, could a flexitarian diet be as environmentally sustainable as going fully vegan?

What is the environmental impact of going vegan?

The decision to eat less meat and more plants is often to do with health, but environmental concerns are increasingly at the forefront of this dietary choice.

A study carried out by Oxford University suggested that if the world went vegan it could save eight million human lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion (£1.15 trillion).3

Although these stats are impressive, vegans still need to be conscious about the foods they choose to eat, as the production of plant-based foods can still take their toll on the environment - especially as interest in this way of eating increases.

Why is seasonality so important?

Veganism is about eating lots of plants, and although this is great for your health, if you don't eat with the seasons the environmental impact of your diet is going to be little different to any other.

Eating with the seasons is a challenge and does require some skills in the kitchen, especially in the winter months when it's mostly root vegetables on the menu.

You only have to take a quick stroll up and down the fruit and vegetable aisles of supermarkets to see that we exist in a continual summer season, with foods such as berries and salad vegetables on the shelves all year round.

Not only do these foods come with a huge number of food miles, but the landscape of the countries that supply them have completely changed to accommodate the polytunnels used to grow them.

The issue of plastic also exists no matter what diet you follow, given its excessive use in food packaging.

Which vegan foods are high in air miles?

Vegan foods high in protein such as beans, pulses and lentils are mostly imported from Brazil, Canada and the US, while other popular vegetables used extensively in vegan cuisine, such as avocados, are flown in from Kenya and Mexico.

According to the Vegan Society, the UK has growing conditions that are suitable for producing plant proteins such as beans and pulses for direct human consumption, but the UK currently assigns only 16 per cent of its agricultural land to growing such crops, most of which are used to feed farmed animals.4

What about water?

Cattle farming uses vast quantities of water and also releases copious amounts of damaging gasses into the atmosphere. However, plant food farming can also require extensive water usage, as it takes a lot of water to produce similar quantities of foods such as nuts (especially almonds and cashew nuts) and avocados.

Is it more sustainable to have a balance between plants and animal products?

Some farmers argue that sustainable cattle farming based on rotational systems, permanent pasturing and conservation grazing helps to restore soil quality and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

They question whether it is actually ethical to promote fully plant-based eating, which will drive up the demand for crops like soya, maize and grains. These foods require higher amounts of fertiliser, fungicide and pesticide, which can pollute and have a damaging impact on the biodiversity of land.

Impact on the demand for vegan food on supplier countries

The demand for on-trend vegan foods also impacts the country from which they are sourced. The popularity of foods such as quinoa has driven their price so high that they've become unaffordable to those relying on them in their country of origin.

Social media has helped to drive the popularity of vegan eating, and you will struggle to find a single vegan Instagram profile that doesn't include an avocado.

Avocados are an extreme example because they take their toll on the environment by requiring more water to cultivate than any other crop. The fact that countries such as Mexico now make more money from stoned fruit than petroleum has also driven extensive deforestation to make way for more avocado trees.

Finding a balance

Veganism and plant-based diets have huge benefits for your health - and certainly cut down on climate-damaging emissions from cattle - but they are not exempt from the environmental concerns of any other diet.

It's all about finding a balance, and it may be the case that including a small amount of meat, fish and dairy in your predominantly plant-based diet is more sustainable than consuming large amounts of soy, almonds and avocados, which can have a significant environmental impact of their own.

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Rob Hobson

About Rob Hobson

Rob Hobson MSc RNutr is an award-winning registered nutritionist (AFN) and sports nutritionist (SENR) with over 15 years of experience. He founded London-based consultancy RH Nutrition, and has degrees in nutrition, public health nutrition and sports nutrition.