Veganism is becoming more and more popular. A vegan diet is one that does not include animals, animal products, and byproducts. It means a diet free from cheese, milk, eggs, honey, etc. A vegan diet primarily consists of the following foods:
1. Fruits and vegetables
2. Legumes (beans, peas, and lentils)
3. Seeds and nuts
4. Rice, bread, and pasta
5. Almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, and other dairy alternatives
6. Oils derived from vegetables
People commonly use the words ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ interchangeably. However, there are critical differences between the meanings of these two terms. Both of these are plant-based diets. However, vegetarians do not eat animals but consume their byproducts like cheese, butter, eggs, etc. On the other hand, vegans neither consume animals nor their byproducts. Additionally, there is only one type of vegan diet. But there are numerous different types of vegetarian diets that make exceptions for foods like fish or eggs.
Vegan and vegetarian diets steer clear of meat in favor of more plant and grain-based foods. Therefore, their environmental footprints are similar. Generally, any diet that promotes reduced meat consumption will have a smaller ecological footprint than a diet enriched in proteins derived from animals. Meat production has a substantial negative environmental impact, mainly due to ruminants that emit greenhouse gases like methane. Animals also consume more resources than plants of the same quantity and caloric value.
While plant-based meals like a vegan diet have a smaller impact on the environment and planet than a meat-rich diet, the agriculture practices and food systems that supply our fruits and vegetables aren’t sustainable. This leads us to our main question, should We Rethink Being Vegan?
A vegan diet itself does not pose a threat to the environment. The problem with a vegan diet is the way we produce food crops. There are numerous unsustainable practices associated with our current fruits, vegetables, and grains production. The primary issue of a vegan diet is industrial agriculture.
Raising animals for food requires vast quantities of water, energy, food, and land. But according to a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) study, veganism isn’t much greener. Farmers cannot grow fruits and vegetables in certain locations or during specific seasons. Therefore, to get food to that place, they must be transported from elsewhere. For example, Canada has a cold climate. Tropical food items like coconuts and spices will not thrive in Canada. However, they are abundant in India, a country with a humid, tropical climate. Therefore, if people in Canada want coconuts and spices, they must be transported hundreds of miles from India. Some foods travel thousands of miles to reach a consumer. This transport over huge distances, usually by an airplane, emits high levels of greenhouse gases. Many fruits and vegetables in transport often spoil due to their perishable nature. This is a waste of all the energy and resources that went into producing, transporting, and storing that food.
Industrial agriculture methods involve regularly plowing and tilling the soil. This constant churning of the soil releases all the carbon the ground has stored up until being tilled. Also, for nutrient-poor soils, farmers use chemical fertilizers and pesticides to obtain a good yield. Fertilizer usage has a huge environmental impact since runoff can contaminate soil and water and harm wildlife.
Another thing we need to consider is the amount of water vegetables plants, fruit trees, and crops require. Most fruit trees grow in warmer climates. Under these conditions, they need a lot of input from freshwater. Sometimes, this water isn’t locally available. Therefore, farmers arrange for it to be transported from somewhere else. Let’s take an avocado as an example. Avocado is a popular item in vegan meals as a protein substitute for meat and eggs. Although we praise avocadoes for their high protein value, these trees require high irrigation levels. Avocado trees have been blamed for causing water shortages. We can even look at strawberry farms in Florida as good examples. Locals have blamed the farms for depleting groundwater and the water in natural wells.
And finally, we destroy vast forest areas to make room for more farmlands. Let’s go back to the avocado example. Avocados are native to Mexico. Mexico is generating more revenue from avocado export than any other export. This is driving illegal deforestation in the country.
Even making meat substitutes or ‘mock meat’ has an environmental impact. Inefficiencies in the water and energy processes used to make these meat substitutes offset the ecological benefits they’re trying to achieve. Additionally, these mock meats need to undergo quite a bit of processing before we consume them. This high level of processing erases the difference between plant-based meats and animal meats in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land, energy, water use, etc.
How Animals Reared for Meat Benefit the Environment
Grasslands are a carbon sink. They store carbon. Grasslands sustain and improve soil health and are a natural measure for flood prevention. Grazing animals can benefit and enhance grasslands if we adequately monitor them to ensure that they browse the area sustainably.
Grazing animals cycle carbon and nutrients. They feed off vegetation and, through excretion, put back in the ground in a more biologically active form. This fuels further plant growth and improves soil life. Animals like deer, elk, sheep, and cattle trample on the grass with their hooves. Their hard hooves break open seeds that lay dormant in the grassland, promoting further plant growth. They also help grasslands thrive by eating tall, overgrown plants. Overgrown plants block sunlight from reaching the ground, disallowing smaller plant life to flourish. Therefore, animals allow sunlight to reach smaller plant growth by feeding off this overgrowth.
So, should you rethink being vegan? It would be wrong to assume that a plant-based diet is better than a meat-rich diet and vice versa. Both have negative environmental impacts. Large-scale animal breeding centers are a source of methane emissions, and the large-scale farming of crops and plants is destroying our forests. But, both diets can generate environmental benefits when produced and processed sustainably. Additionally, we must remember that too much of one thing is never good. Consuming solely plants or meat will impact our health and the environment. We need a balanced diet with food that is sourced locally and sustainably.