How far does a plant-based diet go in reducing climate change?

March 23, 2021

Collage created by Olivia Eken with images from Pexels

Olivia Eken explores why veganism isn’t always as green as it seems

As global temperatures edge towards the 1.5ºC limit of warming, climate change has never been a more prevalent issue.

The release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has driven us towards a devastating climate crisis, threatening our ecosystems, public health, food and water security.

Extreme weather events have already begun to displace communities, particularly in the global south, highlighting the pressing need for action.

When faced with a crisis, we often consider what we can do personally. Adapting our diets has transformed our understanding of our role in climate change, encouraging us to believe that we are personally responsible.

Veganism has immensely influenced the UK’s eating habits. A survey by a shopping comparison site finds the number of people adhering to a plant-based diet quadrupling in the last five years, ushering in a new wave of hungry vegans.

But is veganism something we can consider as a solution to climate change and is it as inclusive as it aims to be? These are questions we must consider if relying on veganism to save our dying planet.

It’s argued that you can reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding foods containing meat and dairy, minimising greenhouse gases

What is environmental veganism?
Veganism is a diet that excludes the consumption and use of all animal products.

People turn vegan for many reasons such as for their health, against animal cruelty, and even because of celebrity endorsements. However, one reason brandished by environmentalists is in regards to sustainability.

According to a study by the University of Oxford, veganism can reduce your carbon footprint by 73%. For those concerned about the environment, it’s no wonder veganism is such a popular practice.

It is argued that you can reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding foods containing meat and dairy, minimising the greenhouse gases produced through the farming of animals.

Whilst all this is true, is veganism still the best way to tackle climate change? An answer to this question is impossible to gauge without looking at the bigger picture.

Unfortunately, many multinational companies have carved their way into the movement, finding ways to profit from it through mass production and disrupting the balance of food systems; clearly undermining the environmental values of veganism.

‘Avocado fruits hanging on a tree’ – now luxury products for export, unaffordable to the locals, Mexico. Photo by Matthias Oben from Pexels

As alternatives to dairy or meat, many vegans switch to plant-based choices in order to avoid the large carbon footprint attached to the animal industry.

However, whilst beef, lamb, pork, and dairy consumption remain unparalleled in the environmental damage they are responsible for, many vegan substitutes are not the answer to this problem either. Indeed, what innocent consumers perceive to be the sustainable option is actually far from it.

Free-from harm? ­
Behold, three staples of the vegan pantry: avocados, quinoa, and soy. For many, these form the basis of our newly constructed appetites. These vegan companions have conquered our menus and supermarkets, adding to the extensive list of how we are spoiled for choice in the West.

All as a byproduct of Western demands, these beloved foods have disrupted cultural norms in the countries they originate from.

Take Mexico, a prime example of how these trendy fiends have contributed to the destruction of local cultures. In a country where avocado exports have now surpassed petroleum exports, many locals have been forced to concede their traditional staple of avocados to Western consumers.

Due to our demands, prices have skyrocketed, transforming this fruit into a luxury that locals are unable to afford. Communities in Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil share the same issue, not being able to afford the high prices of quinoa and soy generated by our consumption. You can read more about this here

What can vegans eat without harming the planet? Experts recommend local and seasonal produce but is this option accessible to everyone?

Yet the horrific truth behind these adored vegan staples is only the tip of the iceberg when compared to the monster we all know as palm oil. Ironically this ingredient is used in many vegan foods and underpins the supposed clean conscience that veganism promotes.

Infiltrating its way into so many items on supermarket shelves, the repercussions are practically unavoidable. In a report by Grain, a small international non-profit organisation, deforestation, labour violations, and land grabbing are several of the many issues faced in Indonesia due to the production of such a valuable commodity.

Impeding on indigenous communities and their rights to their land, resources, and culture, palm oil has shattered the very core of their existence, even leading to the murder of indigenous land protectors.

What are the alternatives?
The bitter truth behind these beloved vegan foods is a hard pill to swallow. Our initial reaction might be to boycott these products immediately, but that is still not the solution.

Totally Vegan Buzz, a digital media company report on how even vegan essentials such as soy, cashew, and almond milk offer environmental issues. They require huge quantities of water and land to cultivate, for example, a gallon of water is needed to produce a single almond, once again challenging ethical consumption.

Forest fire. Photograph by Pixabay

So what can vegans eat without harming the planet? Many experts recommend local and seasonal produce as the best way to cater to an environmentally friendly vegan diet, but is this option accessible to everyone?

Switching to a plant-based diet is more complicated than sheer willingness; cost, time, and lifestyle are all barriers to veganism. Not all people have the privilege to make such a transition.

With the Trussell Trust end of year statistics showing the dependency on food banks rising by 74% in the last five years, the truth is that many families reliant on food banks, do not have the privilege of maintaining a vegan diet. With the added pressure of the coronavirus pandemic, struggling to make ends meet, and looking after a family, how can we expect underprivileged individuals to commit to veganism?

Surely many people would love the opportunity to become more sustainable, but as an intersectional environmentalist, I understand that not everyone has the chance to exclude certain products from their diet or buy local produce.

Instead, this lifestyle has become almost exclusive to the middle and upper classes who can afford and access such a variety of choices.

‘It’s not easy being green protest’ Photo by Markus Spiske at Pexels

Who is really to blame?
Veganism as a solution to climate change has become yet another way for the duty of protecting our environment to be shifted from polluting industries to individuals.

According to a report by Carbon Disclosure, only 100 companies are the source of 71% of the world’s emissions. Are individuals really expected to bear the responsibility of climate action?

Unless we reform our global production systems there is not much we can personally do to escape the unsustainable reality behind the food industry.

As a practice and ideology, veganism can be considered a brilliant and efficient way to reduce the personal role we all play in the climate crisis.

Yet for us as individuals to find the balance between the unviable and the sustainable is close to impossible. And so the opportunity to cast veganism as the messiah of environmental demolition must end.

Olivia is currently a student taking English Literature, Politics and Geography at A-level. She is extremely passionate about the environment and some of her other interests include photography, painting and reading.

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