By Fleur Howe – Environmental Editor
With the ending of January, we say goodbye to the annual ‘Veganuary’ and watch the temporary vegans flock to buy a pizza with real cheese, whilst the long-term vegans say goodbye to the temporarily inclusive menus; with this behind us we can reflect on what it means to be vegan and why an Oxford University study has coined it the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact.
With the meat and dairy industry responsible for 60% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, it seems reasonable that a reduction or complete restriction of meat and dairy from your diet could drastically improve an individuals carbon footprint. Whilst we all know we should walk instead of drive, the same environmental emphasis has not been stressed on diets; despite the fact the UN stated that meat and dairy accounts for 14.5% of manmade greenhouse gases. According to BBC Good Food it is ‘roughly equivalent to the exhaust emissions of every car, train, ship and aircraft on the planet. This is an astronomical and frankly terrifying statistic when you consider that this is an industry that makes up just 18% of calories to diets worldwide. From landmass, water usage, methane emissions, and transport, this is an industry that is severely unsustainable…before even considering the conversation of ethicality.
One of the biggest hesitancies from the average person considering veganism is the price; it’s no secret that meat alternatives tend to be more expensive that the meat they are imitating. McDonald’s recently launched a new vegan burger the ‘McPlant’, which has been praised for its uncanny resemblance to regular burgers, however, a regular cheeseburger from McDonalds costs just 99p whilst the McPlant comes in at £3.39; a significant price to pay for a cruelty free meal, especially for something that tastes essentially the same. To consider it further, is it a more ethical or sustainable choice, if it contributes to a company that’s entire brand is reliant on the meat and dairy industry.
As one of the many who engaged in Veganuary, and as a student, considering the cost of my weekly shop was important to me. For the most part, the food I cooked at home remained the same: a 70p bag of pasta was still 70p, and the 90p sauce was still 90p when I chose the vegan version. A 40p portion size remained an accessible meal price. This was not the same for all foods though, with a litre of cows milk costing 79p/litre whilst the oat milk alternative totalled in at £1.80/litre working out to be an 227.8% increase. What I soon came to realise was that veganism may be affordable if you are cooking meals from scratch, but the costs quickly add up when aiming for convenience. But is convenience a sacrifice we need to consider when helping the environment? No impactful change can be done without the expense of convenience.
Even if people are willing to give up their favourite foods, spend a bit more on their weekly shop, and more time cooking, is that enough? The Harvard Political Review has worked to emphasise the importance of food production over food products. An individual item of food itself is harmless, but when you consider where it was grown, how much water did it use? Was the land it was grown on a victim of deforestation? How far did it travel? and how did it travel? Everything has a carbon footprint.
BBC Good Food produced a table displaying the impacts of alternative milks. While almond milk ranked highly – using around 70 litres of water per glass – dairy was still staggeringly more impactful requiring 120 litres; this before even considering the land use and emissions. It is no secret that the rise in popularity for avocados has contributed to deforestation and is very water intensive considering it requires 2000 litres per 1 kilo of avocados. Meanwhile, Soy has grown to become the second largest agricultural contributor worldwide – following animal farming. So, whilst alternative meat choices may be better in some ways, they in themselves aren’t impact free. The Harvard Political Review called veganism ‘an incomplete solution to the ethical environmental problems it seeks to remedy.’, Whilst reducing meat and dairy intake its undoubtedly a positive contribution to the environment, the issues with alternatives products highlight the impossibility of ethical consumption within the current climate. It very possible to be both vegan and still eat unsustainably; enforcing veganism as the ultimate cure to environmental anguish can be harmful to marginalised communities as well as culturally insensitive. It is not about what you are eating, it is about the impact that food has and, in some communities, eating meat is more beneficial than importing vegan food.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that sustainability is not a simple term, it is not something that can be generalised or enforced by sweeping solutions. Whilst veganism is undoubtedly a more sustainable choice, it is not an absolutist fix. Sacrificing and altering aspects of your diet that are feasible, shopping locally grown instead of imported, are still valid and active contributions to the environment. It may compromise convenience, but it is yet another thing to consider as an active consumer on a dying planet.