By Tanja Holc, Competition Winner
Illustrations by Rashi Agarwal, Creative Director
Edited by Lucy Phillips, President
If you have seen people posting about their green new year’s resolutions, chances are one of their goals was eating less animal products. This year, more than 400,000 people have signed up to Veganuary to start the year off trying to live vegan.
But why are we being told to focus on the environmental impacts of animal products? Surely vegan food is not the only sustainable and ethical option? Let us explore a few ways to transition to a more sustainable and ethical diet, while touching upon the issues with both animal agriculture and mainstream veganism.
I hope you find the linked resources useful. If you are new to veganism, I recommend watching Dr. Melanie Joy’s TED Talk.
The Devastating Impacts of Animal Agriculture
Most of us have heard that eating meat is bad for the environment, but why exactly is that?
Animal agriculture requires a lot of land, mainly used for growing livestock feed. Half of the Earth’s habitable land is used for agriculture purposes, and 80% of that for livestock. To illustrate, extensive soy farming is bad for the environment, and this is often blamed on vegan foods like tofu. In fact, 90% of soya in the UK (which mostly comes from South America) is fed to livestock to produce meat, dairy, and eggs. This page explores the land requirements of different diets across the globe.
This extensive land use carries with it the problem of deforestation. In the Amazon, farmers burn down forests to clear land for growing animal feed and for cattle ranching, destroying biodiversity and releasing carbon into the atmosphere in the process. According to Greenpeace, a UK-sized area had been burned down in Brazil in 2020 alone, mostly for growing animal feed.
Deforestation due to cattle ranching (source: Greenpeace).
As a result, animal agriculture causes vast amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, some sources stating it to be 18% of global emissions, which is more than the 13% coming from all combined transportation.
In addition, raising livestock requires a lot of water, and therefore water footprints of animal products are on average much higher than those of plant foods. For instance, vegetables require just above 300 L of water / kg, while beef has the biggest impact at over 15,400 L / kg. Moreover, water bodies are polluted by substances used in the industry, such as fertilizers, antibiotics and pesticides. Meanwhile, oceans are being harmed by overfishing.
Many of these issues are a direct result of factory farming: intensive animal farming focused on being as profitable as possible. This results in devastating impacts on animal welfare, the environment, and human health. As much as 85% of land animals in the UK are kept in factory farms.
The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
These facts indicate that ditching animal products is a good thing to do for the environment. An Oxford research analysis conducted in 2018 by Joseph Poore describes switching to a plant-based diet as the single most important action an individual can take to combat climate change. Poore argues that a vegan diet still has a larger impact than being flight free, as the latter only cuts down on GHG emissions:
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”
– J. Poore, The University of Oxford
As an example of comparing animal products with vegan equivalents, the infographic below shows the environmental impacts of different milks. Dairy is clearly the worst offender in terms of land use, water use as well as emissions, while oat and soy milk seem to be the most sustainable options. For emissions from other food sources, see this calculator.
What About Protein?
A widespread belief is that vegans are protein deficient. In fact, Poore’s analysis has shown that meat and dairy only provide 37% of protein globally. Protein rich vegan foods include legumes like lentils and beans, nuts and seeds, as well as oats and other grains, and these are typically cheap staples.
By eating a balanced vegan diet, people are thus not at risk of deficiencies, though it is advised to supplement B12, as this vitamin is usually fed to livestock and consumed by people indirectly.
Eating more plant-based can actually decrease the risk of developing serious diseases like heart disease, diabetes, stroke or cancer. Moreover, zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 are connected to close contact between humans and non-human animals, which often arises from using animals for food.
But Aren’t Humans Carnivores? Examining Carnism and Speciesism
To change what we eat, we must first be mindful about the belief systems that influence it. Many decide for a plant-based diet because of its positive environmental impact, while for others, the major factor in ditching meat are ethical reasons: not wanting to cause harm to non-human animals.
Why use “non-human animals”? The importance of terminology becomes apparent when looking at veganism and its implications more broadly. Eating plant-based is not the same as being vegan, since vegans also refuse to use any cosmetics tested on animals, in addition to not wearing clothes and shoes made of animal materials. Being vegan is in turn different from being anti-speciesist, which means rejecting, and striving to dismantle, speciesism. The first step in doing so can be using “non-human animals” – this term reminds us that we are animals too, albeit of a different species than those we deem to be livestock.
Speciesism is the predominant belief system that discriminates against sentient beings based on their species. For example, most humans view themselves as morally superior to non-human animals, and some cultures view dogs as superior to cows (though dogs too can be victims of speciesism).
As shown in the figure above, speciesism is closely connected to carnism. The term was coined by the psychologist Dr. Melanie Joy to describe the widespread meat eating that we see today. Because carnism is so widespread, most people never realise it is an ideology, and take eating animals as a given rather than a choice.
Carnism tries to justify the cruelty involved in eating animals by claiming that this is natural, necessary and normal, while also utilising denial and language, for example by referring to animals as “it” rather than using pronouns for sentient individuals. Carnism is an inherently violent ideology, because it exploits and oppresses both the farmed non-human animals and human workers involved in animal agriculture.
Say you now want to shift to a more plant-based diet. In my opinion, this involves a mindset shift, as well as changing your habits. Having experienced this shift, here are my tips on how to go about it:
Of course, some vegan foods are more environmentally friendly than others. Air transported fruit and vegetables can generate GHG emissions comparable to poultry, so it is best to buy local and seasonal vegan foods.
A typical unsustainable example are avocados. The trees require a lot of water, putting pressure on the environment if grown in dry regions of Mexico or Southern Spain, for instance. In Mexico, the avocado industry has caused deforestation. Adding the emissions caused by air transportation makes even organic avocados unsustainable.
To choose foods that are as sustainable and ethical possible, it is also important to consider whether modern slavery or child labour might have been present in the production process. For instance, these practices occur on African cocoa farms, so it is important to look out for Fair Trade products, as well as any Slave-Free signs on the chocolate we buy.
Beware: Vegan Capitalism is NOT the Solution
Even though a vegan lifestyle can have a positive impact on the planet, it is not the magical solution to all our global problems, primarily because of the systems currently in place.
The exploitation of workers is one of the problems of so-called vegan (or green) capitalism. Vegan does not automatically equal cruelty free, since often, a demand for vegan products will lead to the industrialisation of vegan foods, and thus companies will seek to maximise profit and exploit farmers in the process.
For example, mass production of foods like quinoa as their popularity grows in the Global North often has negative effects for the communities producing them. A high demand for export can lead to the price rising so much that native communities can no longer afford the foods they have been growing for decades.
As a result, individual action based on shifting from meat-eating to vegan capitalism will not fix many of the sustainability and ethics issues in the food sector. Ultimately, it is not enough to just shift to eating plant-based foods, since even though the global number of vegans is rising, global meat production is still increasing.
Therefore, advocating for system change is crucial, and a good starting point can be examining our own mindset and how it upholds these unsustainable practices. When advocating for system change, it is also important to ensure support for the farmers transitioning from animal to plant-based agriculture.
Further issues arise when examining how mainstream veganism is often connected with whiteness. This piece has been written from a European point of view, where the main stereotype of a vegan is a white woman doing yoga.
Too often, plant-based diets are being whitewashed by influencers, and so it is vital to acknowledge that some communities of colour have traditionally been eating mostly plant-based. We quickly see a pattern emerging on the map below, which shows meat supply per person; for example, about a third of Indians are vegetarian.
This whitewashing is rooted in privilege. In mainstream veganism, people might judge indigenous communities for hunting animals, instead of focusing on the truly important issue: factory farming being a consequence of colonialism.
It is vital to note that a plant-based diet is not for everyone, as some people are not able to achieve food security without animal products, while others might have underlying health issues that prevent them from going fully vegan.
Intersectional Environmentalism for the Win
Mainstream veganism tends to view non-human animal rights as an isolated issue, often dismissing intersectionality as something that dilutes the vegan movement. However, in the words of Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” To be as sustainable, ethical, and just as possible, it is important to view veganism as a social justice movement that is embedded into intersectional environmentalism. In other words, we must strive to create individual as well as systemic changes to protect the planet, the people, as well as non-human animals. It is all about recognising that we have a choice, and always choosing anti-oppression.