Is universal veganism the answer?
By Bridget Stuart
Veganuary 2020 has put ‘Vegan’ at the top of our newsfeeds, at the front of our supermarket shelves and plastered it across shop fronts from Greggs to KFC. According to the Vegan Society, there are 600,000 vegans worldwide and this number only continues to grow. People become vegan for many reasons; faith, ethics, and ever increasingly, for the environment. But in the face of climate breakdown, could a plant-based diet for all, be the solution? And even if so, what are the key issues that must be addressed?
In terms of the environmental benefits, you can’t beat the vegan diet. A report by the Proceedings of the National Sciences of the USA predicts that global food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would fall by 70% by 2050 if the entire world went vegan (1). As an individual in the UK, a vegan diet reduces food-related carbon emissions by 40% compared to the average UK diet (1). With atmospheric CO2 now above 400ppm, worldwide veganism could be a fairly rapid solution for greatly reducing future emissions.
Also, the vegan diet is significantly more efficient than an animal diet, which uses 17 times more land, 14 times more water and 10 times more energy (2). In the UK, intensive animal agriculture uses 77% of agricultural land and produces only 18% of calories consumed (2). In terms of protein, beef requires 100 times more land to produce one unit of protein, in comparison to pulses, maize or rice (3). This represents a huge inefficiency and when the global population hits 10.5 billion in 2050, there will simply not be enough farmland. Research by Harvard University estimates that 40 million tonnes of food would be sufficient to feed every human annually, and yet the animals would need 760 million tonnes (19 times more) (4).
This presents a moral conundrum: meat for the few or food shortages for the many?
Globally enforced veganism could also bring huge economic savings. By 2050, it is estimated that the global economy would save £440 billion (1). This money could be funnelled into green innovation and technology. The World Health Organisation (2015) also reports potential annual savings of between $700-1000 billion, as a result of a projected decrease of 8.1 million deaths annually due to veganism (1). A healthy, balanced vegan diet can significantly reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
However, the question we should be asking is “can we all go vegan?”. In poor or isolated communities, a strict vegan diet may not actually be possible. For example, there may not be sufficient raw plant-based resources available to provide all the energy and nutrients people need. If transport or storage and preparation facilities are also lacking, this could lead to serious health issues. For example, what would happen to the Innuits, who survive predominantly on only meat and eggs? Even in more urban societies, cooking a balanced vegan diet with natural ingredients from scratch is time-consuming and requires access to fresh fruit and vegetables, which can be expensive. Ready-made vegan food is also relatively expensive and may not necessarily be that sustainable, as it comes packaged in plastic, for example.
If hypothetically, the entire planet is capable of sustaining a healthy vegan diet, is it actually fair to suggest universal veganism is the solution? Many non-Western nations already eat significantly less meat than most Western developed countries, for religious, cultural or economic reasons. For example, in 2013 the average person in the US and Australia consumed over 100kg of meat. This figure dwarfs the meat intake of the average Ethiopian who eats around 7kg of meat per year (5). This level of consumption has not led us to the climate crisis, it’s the excessive consumption by western countries driving unsustainable farming practices that is the issue. In my opinion, it would therefore be grossly unjust to suggest every nation should go vegan in order to compensate for the excesses of the West.
Even if intensive farming is avoided in favour of extensive farming (the opposite of intensive), it is no more sustainable as it requires much more land, so veganism still wins here. However, there is a new contender; ferming. This yields so-called farm-free protein flour, which is produced from bacteria and water through a process called precision fermentation. The Finnish company ‘Solar Foods’ has calculated the protein they can manufacture is 20,000 times more efficient in terms of land than meat and 10 times more efficient than actual photosynthesis (6). Vegan or not, this technology will be hugely significant.
Therefore, despite being vegan myself and wholly believing it is the best choice of diet for our environment in this day and age, I do not think ‘we should all go vegan’. It is neither globally feasible, nor fair. Big meat-eating Western countries have a responsibility to rapidly reduce and regulate their own animal product market. This will shoulder a bit of the well-deserved blame, set an example and provide monetary pressure on global food trends.
What is ultimately required is the top-down regulatory change of the intensive agriculture system and a restructuring of the Western economy and Western ideals surrounding meat. As unrealistic as this may seem however, there is hope. As lab cell-cultured meat and bacteria-cultured protein develops, a solution which doesn’t require ‘conventional’ veganism at all is perhaps on the horizon.
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