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From the blog

Is being vegan good or bad for the environment?

by Laura Fanthorpe

We all know this can be one of the most controversial environmental discussions. It is the debate that seems to fuel the most anger, fixed opinions and disagreements – with opposing advocates rarely meeting in the middle.

And understandably so. Our food fuels us, nourishes us, brings us together and mealtimes are where we share some of our most heart-warming moments with family and friends. It is something that is pivotal to how to live our lives and the choices we make.

I know people hate this term – it’s perhaps viewed as ‘sitting on the fence’ – but I class myself as a ‘flexitarian’. I choose not to eat meat and try to source the rest of my food sustainably and locally, supporting independent and ethical producers where I can. I also aim to reduce my dairy and fish intake, opting to buy better quality produce in smaller amounts for environmental reasons. My partner has been vegan for 20+ years, and that is his choice and one I support wholeheartedly. It is also a choice that I haven’t made – yet!

I believe the only way we can facilitate change is by aiding discussion, listening, and understanding the other person’s point of view. Did you know that veganism is protected as a human right under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights? Everyone is entitled to their right to choose and follow their beliefs.

PECT has been working on a project called Cool Food for a couple of years now. This campaign aims to encourage people to pledge online to make small changes to their diet and food shopping habits, in order to make a difference to climate change. This could include everything from reducing food waste, cutting meat intake, buying locally and seasonally, and drinking less fizzy drinks. The online tool then calculates how much carbon you could save with your consumer choices.

As you can see, how we adapt our diets to tackle climate change isn’t as clear-cut as simply not eating meat (although this does have a high impact) and instead involves a multitude of factors. For example, it isn’t going to help the environment much if you swap out locally produced meat for overpackaged and mass-produced meals containing large amounts of soya or palm oil.

“You can’t lump all vegetables together and say they’re good. You can’t lump all meat together and say it’s bad,” explains researcher Paul Fischbeck. “My bottom line is that there are no simple answers to complex problems. Diet and the environmental impact of agriculture … is not a simple problem.”

However, what we do know (according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation) is that farmed livestock is responsible for 15% of man-made greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to emissions after fossil fuels and is a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution and biodiversity loss.

A Guardian article recently stated that avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth, with livestock providing just 18% of our calories but taking up 83% of farmland. A UN climate change report, compiled by more than 100 experts, called for people to eat less meat as an essential action to tackle climate change. Adding to these claims, researchers at the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73% per cent.

There’s also been concerns raised about it taking “100 to 200 times more water to raise a pound of beef than it does to raise a pound of plant foods” and that “A lot of the food that’s grown in the world isn’t being eaten by humans. In fact, 70% of the grain grown in the US feeds livestock, and, globally, 83% of farmland is set aside to raise animals.”

However, as always, the argument is complex and there’s points on both sides of the discussion. A vegan diet isn’t an environmental solution in itself, especially if the demand for exotic produce racks up the food miles.

Rather than eating products made from industrially grown soya and maize, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production and conservation grazing. “We should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, while demonising sustainable forms of livestock farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon,” says writer Isabella Tree.

Agricultural experts from Edinburgh University and Scotland’s Rural College have added to this by arguing that if the planet went meat-free, it would lose the biodiversity essential to sustaining a healthy ecosystem.

It seems there is no clear-cut answer to this debate. But one thing worth considering it that a reduction in industrially produced meat and dairy produce may have additional benefits. Since 1961 the consumption of meat has more than doubled and our high calorie diets mean that two million adults are now overweight or obese, but at the same time an estimated 821 million people are still undernourished.

Perhaps opting for reducing our red meat intake can help tackle some of these problems – and choosing a higher quality product will help to support local producers and those who are working to improve conservation methods and biodiversity in farming. Maybe this can be the topic of your next dinner table debate?