Cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce your carbon footprint from food by up to 73 percent. A plant-based diet can also lead to improved nutrient levels and reduce premature deaths from chronic disease by more than 20 percent. That’s according to the University of Oxford.
There’s no denying that veganism is on the rise in the UK. Veganuary 2021 – in which people pledged to try a vegan diet for the month of January – saw 582,538 people take part. That’s compared to 400,000 in 2020. Everywhere you look, chains and retailers are offering new vegan ranges; from Pret to Tesco to M&S. The way that supermarkets and retailers have promoted the benefits of plant-based eating this year was truly game changing.
The hope is that Veganuary will encourage more people to make the switch permanently, or at least think twice about the amount of animal products they consume.
So why vegan?
It’s important to note the distinction between vegan and plant-based. A ‘plant-based’ diet is one that consists solely of plant products, whereas ‘veganism’ is defined as a way of living that attempts to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty – not just from food, but in clothing, beauty, cleaning and lifestyle products.
Here, we’ll focus on food – the ethical, environmental and health implications of a vegan diet. The environmental and ethical case for a diet free of all animal products, including meat, fish, dairy and eggs, is compelling. Here, we’ll delve into the many reasons for cutting out animal products and give you some tips for introducing more plants onto your plate!
Firstly, there’s the environmental impacts. According to Greenpeace, the industrial meat system is the single biggest cause of deforestation globally. Those Amazon forest fires you saw on the news? They were set deliberately to clear land for grazing and to grow huge volumes of animal feed. This deforestation leads to a rapid loss of biodiversity and directly contributes to climate change. The global food system alone is responsible for one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s also an inefficient way to produce food. Over ¼ of the world’s entire land area is used to graze or grow food for farm animals – food that could be eaten by people in the first place. If everyone ate a plant-based diet, we’d need 75 percent less farmland than we use today.
The climate crisis is increasingly on people’s agendas – environmental charity Hubbub found that 1 in 6 people are resolved to reduce their impact on our planet in 2021. And with growing awareness of the climate impacts of animal agriculture, assessing what’s on our plates is one of the most impactful ways we can reduce our carbon footprint.
There are also significant health benefits to veganism. A vegan diet is naturally richer in certain nutrients, has been linked to a lower risk of developing high blood pressure, and benefits heart health by reducing the risk factors that contribute to heart disease.
There is also growing awareness of the link between animal farming, the climate crisis and global pandemics – with COVID-19 highlighting the link between zoonotic diseases and modern intensive farming methods designed to keep the cost of meat as low as possible. Three quarters of new diseases affecting humans come from animals. A 2020 UNEP report notes that although wild animals may harbour zoonotic diseases, livestock act ‘as a bridge for transmission between the animal hosts and humans’.
In 2020 vegan charity Viva! went viral gaining 2 million views on videos linking the origins of coronavirus and why pandemics are caused by animal exploitation. People were clearly starting to listen and take note.
There are also the ethical implications of meat consumption. For many vegans, the driving force behind their lifestyle is a desire to minimise the exploitation of and cruelty to animals. Animal agriculture causes pain, suffering and death – is causing this pain morally defensible on such a massive scale?
Of course, the sustainability of diet depends on a range of factors. A vegan option can be great, but if it was flown across the world – such as popular vegan staples like avocados – can it really be considered the most planet-friendly option? That’s why taking a really considered approach to what you buy is key.
And what about fast food chains and major retailers? As plant-based food hits the mainstream, companies like KFC and Burger King have jumped on the bandwagon. But while adding a vegan option is a step in the right direction, it won’t change the massive demand for meat in the fast-food industry. Ultimately, the fast-food business model, which centres around sales of meat-based dishes, is incompatible with preventing the destruction of our natural world. That’s why supermarkets and retailers have a huge role to play in shaping customer demand through advertising, price cuts and special promotions.
Don’t fall victim to brands that use veganism as just another marketing ploy. Do your research and dig deep into any facts that you don’t think quite add up.
We think that the only sustainable way forward is plant-focused. The environmental, health and ethical benefits of veganism are beyond doubt – if the world went vegan, the impacts on the earth’s climate and public health would be significant.
Here are our top tips to make your plate more climate-friendly in 2021:
1. Educate yourself about meat production. It’s easier to transition to a plant-based diet if you understand why it’s so important to eat less meat. We recommend watching Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret – a documentary that explores the impact of animal agriculture on the environment.
2. Invest in a plant-based cookbook. There are literally thousands of cookbooks with recipes that don’t contain meat – and having one to hand can give you inspiration and new recipes to try to expand your plant-based culinary repertoire. We recommend anything by BOSH!, Lucy Watson’s Feed Me Vegan, or Max La Manna’s More Plants, Less Waste.
3. Don’t be afraid to try new things! The prospect of tempeh bacon or cashew cheese may sound daunting at first, but we promise you it’s worth it.
4. Eating out? There are a few great apps and websites that will help you navigate vegan restaurants and options. We recommend Happy Cow – a location-based directory of all vegan, vegetarian and vegan friendly restaurants, shops and services in your area.
5. Don’t be too hard on yourself. With all the vegan options on offer today, it’s easier than ever before to opt for a plant-based diet. But if the idea of cutting out meat and dairy feels daunting, start with small steps – like a Meatless Monday challenge, or swapping your regular cow’s milk for a dairy alternative. Look at some of your favourite recipes and think about how you might adapt them.