The number of vegans in the UK has increased to 600,000, with Google searches for ‘veganism’ growing sevenfold between 2014 and 2019. While increasingly ambitious meat-free alternatives are becoming mainstream, 35% of vegans are making the switch due to climate concerns. But little is known about the sustainability of vegetarian meat substitutes, and research is emerging on the unexpected environmental impact of veganism. If you’re taking on Veganuary this month, here are some factors to consider about the environmental impact of a vegan diet.
So, you know reducing meat helps climate change – but you’re not sure how? A study by the University of Oxford found that if veganism was adopted globally, greenhouse gas emissions from food production would almost half. This is because almost half of all food emissions come from animal products. By removing meat from our diets, we would remove the 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions that the FAO states livestock creates.
Food’s carbon footprint
Vegan and vegetarian protein alternatives also carry their own carbon footprint, with studies finding some vegan diets have carbon emissions as high as omnivore diets. Carbon impact, from production, transportation and packaging, still needs to be considered when switching to veganism. Leading meat-alternative brand Quorn is the first to have its products’ carbon footprint certified by the Carbon Trust. With Quorn’s beef alternatives boasting a carbon footprint 13 times lower than beef, you can be assured it’s the more sustainable option.
The story with soy
Many vegetarian protein alternatives use soy. When produced sustainably, it’s a great alternative to meat, producing more protein per land area than any other main crop. But soya production has been linked to deforestation and soil erosion. And because soy is not generally grown in the UK, replacing meat with soy could also increase the amount of land used abroad as well as carbon emissions. However, with most of the world’s soya being fed to livestock and only 6% eaten directly by humans, reducing your meat intake automatically increases food value per calorie. You can eat soy meat-alternatives like Linda McCartney’s veggie sausages with peace of mind! Alpro also only uses soy beans certified to the ProTerra standard, requiring good agricultural practises and water management, and Cauldron Foods’ soy beans are grown organically and sustainably.
What’s the pulse on pulses?
Despite the UK having good conditions for growing plant proteins, only 16% of UK’s agriculture land is used this way. In switching from meat to pulses, less livestock would free up more land to grow pulses, reducing our dependence on imports. Instead of buying high-carbon imported pulses, buy yours from Hodmedod’s. The company produced the UK’s first commercial crop of lentils and now produce a range of popular pulses like quinoa and fava beans.
Peas are another pulse that thrive in the UK climate. And they’re not just a side veg. If you’ve been sampling vegan ice creams you’ve probably had pea protein. Ice cream giants like Ben and Jerry’s and Unilever’s Magnums use it. Peas also uses less water because they’re grown in cooler conditions, and are a ‘regenerative’ crop as they put enriching nitrogen back into the soil. If the sustainability credentials of pea protein appeals to you, try pea-protein based products like Linda McCartney’s vegan-friendly sausages or Beyond Meat’s popular ‘Beyond Burger’.
Your plate’s air miles
With the average vegetarian breakfast having travelled a distance equal to the circumference of the earth by the time it reaches your plate, its carbon footprint still needs to be considered even once meat has been removed. Buying food produced locally increases the sustainability of your diet and cuts down the carbon emissions of transportation, with seasonality going hand in hand with this. Consider localism and seasonality when shopping for vegetables; choose cavolo nero, cabbage and kale in winter and think asparagus, spring greens and watercress for spring. Avoid your shopping basket’s contents reading like a world map by checking air miles with apps and online tools like Foodmiles.com. As transportation methods are not always clearly displayed, buy veg boxes from Riverford or Abel and Cole as an easy way to ensure produce is seasonal and local.
Considering the impact your food has on the communities that produce it is vital to ensuring your diet meets the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Overdemand of certain products has pushed up prices to the point they have become unaffordable in the countries they are exported from. Take avocados, which have become almost emblematic for veganism. Overdemand has led to unavailability in countries like Mexico, where locals have always depended on avocados as a food staple. It’s important to consider food security for the communities these foods are exported from, whilst avoiding completely boycotting exported food that supports millions of livelihoods. Look out for stamps such as Fairtrade and the Soil Association and follow headlines and UN reports for the full story on what to avoid when.
The palm oil debate
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you have probably seen Iceland’s anti palm oil advert. But did you know many vegan substitutes for dairy products contain palm oil? Despite being previously linked to deforestation, palm oil is the most yielding of all vegetable oils. So RSPO has developed a production standard for palm oil that ensures no deforestation and protects biodiversity. Check products for RSPO certification – Linda McCartney, Cauldron Foods and Quorn all use RSPO certified sustainable palm oil.
Taking part in Veganuary helps reduce your carbon footprint, but it’s important to remember there’s more to food sustainability than meat versus plant food. Consider the carbon cost – including packaging, transportation methods and distance travelled – of vegetarian options for a truly sustainable diet, as well as checking the sustainability of individual ingredients. Ultimately, with 8-10% of all greenhouse gas emissions coming from food waste, the easiest way to reduce your diet’s environmental impact is to avoid food waste, whether that be vegan or not.
If you’re taking part in Veganuary, please share your tips with us on Twitter @Greenhouse_PR – because we can all learn a thing or two about eating more sustainably. Let’s join hundreds of thousands of people in eating to support a better future for everyone.
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