Is veganism good, or bad, for the environment?
A UN report suggested that switching to a plant-based diet could be one of the biggest ways to tackle climate change, but others believe the move away from meat could negatively impact biodiversity (the delicate balance of ecosystems).
Another study also suggested a vegan diet could have negative implications for brain health – so how do we navigate what’s best for us and for the planet?
The rise of veganism has been astounding, but from carnivore to vegetarian, pescatarian to ‘flexitarian’, we can all play our part, however we choose to eat. We asked experts for their workable advice on how to eat more sustainably.
Meat lover? Here’s how to enjoy it more responsibly.
Not everybody advocates stripping meat completely from your diet. In fact, keeping animals in certain farm systems can actually be useful – Anna Clayton, a researcher at the not-for-profit Ethical Consumer, told HuffPost UK. While Clayton herself follows a vegan diet she says that in some instances, smallholder farms can benefit from animals on the land grazing and adding nutrients to it by, err, going to the loo.
But it’s an often repeated fact that, worldwide meat and dairy production is more energy-intensive than vegetables and pulses. This is because animals need a lot of feed, they need to be kept warm, and they can release harmful gasses into the environment. Simply put, it takes a lot of resource to rear an animal for meat.
Scientists warned that if we keep up with our current levels of meat consumption, it will “greatly affect the Earth’s environment”, emitting 5.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide as well as damaging levels of methane and nitrous oxide.
If you’re happy following a carnivorous diet but also want to do your bit, there’s lots you can do without missing out.
Firstly, “make the meat go further”, as Jennifer Coles, head of marketing at cookery school Leiths, told HuffPost UK. Instead of making meat the main part of your meal “work it in” to other recipes that include more vegetables, beans, and pulses. She also suggests using unusual cuts of meat to make the use of the whole of an animal, rather than always reaching for popular cuts.
“Make sure you’re not necessarily just buying chicken breasts every day,” she says. “Using a slow cooker can be really good – because you’re not using too much energy to cook and you can chuck unusual cuts of meat in before you go to work.”
Flexitarian: it doesn’t have to be a passing food fad.
A ‘flexitarian’ diet means switching between vegetarian days and meat eating days. It might sound like a food fad but it can be a good place to start if you want to reduce your impact but can’t end your long-term love affair with steak.
According to Annabelle Randles, who blogs as ‘The Flexitarian’, some people “will have a meat-free meal once a week while others will only eat meat on rare occasions”. Essentially, it’s about cutting down when you don’t want to cut out.
Another way to do this is to only eat meat once a day, says Jennifer Coles at Leiths: “Try and do meat-free Monday or just look at the number of times you’ve eaten meat in a day.” She’ll skip meat at dinner if she’s eaten it for lunch.
Pescatarian: there aren’t ‘plenty more fish’, so choose sustainably.
The old saying ‘plenty more fish in the sea’ might be popular but it’s also not always true, if statistics from the Marine Conservation Society (MSC) are anything to go by. The MCS says that 90% of the fish stocks we eat are under threat thanks to a double whammy of climate change and overfishing.
Fish is a nutritious protein and fishing does have a lower carbon footprint than farming animals for meat, but some of the nation’s favourite species are under pressure. The MSC has a free ‘good fish guide’ which is kept up to date and can be downloaded to your mobile or viewed here.
Veganism: good on you, but don’t forget to shop locally too.
“If you compare a vegan diet to a meat diet on a carbon basis then without a doubt veganism trumps the meat diet,” Anna Clayton, a researcher at Ethical Consumer says.
“I think we definitely have to reduce our meat and dairy consumption. Eating meat products on a daily basis and not appreciating the energy that goes into them is really important to remember.”
But with a vegan diet there are other things to consider too, such as whether demand for products like coconut milks, soya, and exotic pulses are having a knock-on effect elsewhere overseas. Clayton recommends swapping food stuffs that can’t be grown in the UK for others like oats.
To minimise the impact of any diet, she says, you should consider buying everything from local suppliers to reduce air miles and also going plastic-packaging free.
“There’s no one answer for people but I believe the most sustainable diet will come from the area you live, with maybe some input from sources that organically farmed and Fairtade,” Clayton adds.
Food waste: cut it out.
Finally, and this one’s for all of us: don’t waste food. The energy and resources that have gone into growing, cooking or packaging food are essentially wasted if that food ends up in the bin. Many of us simply forget about food languishing in the back of the fridge, store it at the wrong temperature, or chuck away perfectly edible bits of meat and veg instead of getting creative.
An astounding 10 million tonnes of food is wasted per year, 70% of which could have been avoided. A huge amount of food is wasted by supermarkets, restaurants and cafes every year. In UK households, people throw away seven million tonnes of food, worth a total eye-watering cost of £15 billion.
The charity Love Food Hate Waste has a number of recipes online, which can be adapted to suit what’s leftover in your fridge. You can view them here.