Vegan- I am sure by now you have heard of the term either from someone you know trying it out, or the millions of social media profiles promoting the lifestyle. Whether you have a friend that’s been vegan for years or want to try it out for yourself, it’s not hard to notice the upsurge in popularity it has been gaining for years. I remember growing up pretty traditionally, eating meat and dairy, without a second thought as to the ethics or implications. Simply put, most children follow what parents show them in terms of eating patterns and habits while growing up and don’t think to question it until living independently (excluding picky eaters and young innovative thinkers). My first exposure to veganism was in my own home- a couple of years ago, my older brother had been working at a pizza place for a couple of months and had developed some pretty stubborn acne (the restaurant let the workers eat the leftovers…you can see where this goes). Of course, the dermatologist that he visited told him to analyze his eating habits and try his best to limit dairy and greasy foods; pizza had to go. That’s when he made the extreme turnaround in his eating and decided to go full-on vegan. He quit his job at the pizza place and got a new job at a vegan restaurant to learn how to make dishes. It was an arduous process for him through and through, and although he isn’t strictly vegan anymore, he still struggles with eating “regular” food without guilt-free.
Veganism is a word that confuses many because of how simple yet complex its definition is. Veganism purely means a diet without any animal products. Now, this is where it gets a bit hairy- a lot of the foods that people eat on a regular basis have added ingredients that most are unaware of. When I went vegan, it was ASTOUNDING to find out just how little people know about how food is prepared. For example, one of my coworkers last year tried to offer me an M&M and I declined because I was vegan; I told him “I can’t have any dairy”, to which he responded, “M&M’s don’t have dairy!!!”. I was shocked- it was obviously chocolate candy, specifically MILK chocolate. I wondered how people could think like this, blatantly ignorant of what they’re eating. But back to veganism: animal products are a large genre of food that include any kind of animal meat, dairy(milk, cheese, whey), and any kind of animal byproduct like eggs. In some cases, vegans will not eat gelatin because it is created from animal bones. In cases where veganism goes from a diet to a lifestyle, vegans will not wear any clothes or use any products that come from animals, like leather.
The story that follows veganism is that it “will cure the earth and society’s morals”, meaning if nobody is eating or using animals for products, then the world would have more animals to sustain the lands and ecosystem. As well as, abstaining from killing animals for food would better the morals and ethics of society as more cohesive and united to the earth. Moreover, it is no secret that the meat industry is one of the leading causes of high emissions of greenhouse gases, one of the main contributors to climate change. The animals that we discuss in regard to the food industry are cattle, “who are estimated to cause approximately half of the food-related climate emissions due to land use impacts and methane produced by ruminating animals”(Kortetmäki, Oksanen 2021). Knowing this and pairing it with the veganism diet itself makes it clear to see that it is commonly held that going vegan would greatly benefit the environment. Joseph Poore, a writer for the journal Science, once stated in an article regarding veganism that “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use”. It’s almost as if by not going vegan, you are adding to the climate catastrophe that the world is facing and not doing your part.
What Researchers Say about the Environmental Impact
Before getting into what the scientific community has been reporting about the true impact of veganism versus traditional diets, I wanted to clarify why it is veganism that is being highlighted as a solution to the climate crisis instead of regular vegetarianism. Vegetarians do not eat any kind of meat, but they can and do enjoy all types of dairy and eggs. Cheese, one of the world’s most beloved foods, has “one of the highest GHG footprints among foods and is common in non-meat diets” (Kortetmäki, Oksanen 2021). Therefore, veganism is a better alternative to vegetarianism when discussing solutions that would most benefit the climate.
So, what are researchers really saying about veganism and the environment? An article that analyzed the argument for climate-centered veganism brought up three big points worth discussing. The first point and probably the most obvious, was that there are animal-based foods that have close to or even lower carbon emission rates than some plant-based foods. For example, “emissions of a small, 100-g piece of chicken (approximately 1.15 kg CO2eq) equals the emissions of approximately 1.1 L of soymilk or 500 g of tomatoes” (Kortetmäki, Oksanen 2021). That’s crazy! To think that chicken and soy milk have similar carbon emissions is mind-blowing. The second point that was introduced was the food waste problem. A vegan person that is accidentally served chicken ramen instead of veggie ramen would have to send back the original, thereby wasting a nutrient-dense and high-carbon emitting food. This is just one example but can be applied to the grander scheme of things. Lastly, and most important in my opinion, veganism and avoidance of animal-based foods advance the climate-friendliness of a diet, BUT do not guarantee it! The reason behind this is that foods with high fat and protein content have higher carbon footprints than foods that are primarily carbohydrates. This means that foods like avocados, chickpeas, and tofu still have high carbon footprints, and therefore are still contributing somehow to climate change. Thus, a vegan person eating only fast food would not be benefiting the environment whatsoever
It is hard to say for sure at this point if veganism is strictly bad or strictly good for the environment, but we have some clues as to which direction the pendulum is currently swinging to. Although the research outlined above does a great job of poking holes in the climate-based argument for veganism, I still find that the environmental pros outweigh the cons. A lot more research is definitely needed to come to a real conclusion on this topic, and I am excited to see what comes of future findings. For now, I stick with the fact that veganism is more beneficial to the environment than an animal-based diet.
Kortetmäki, T., Oksanen, M. Is there a convincing case for climate veganism?. Agric Hum Values 38, 729–740 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-020-10182-x