Philip Mansbridge from ProVeg UK tackles the subject of how veganism impacts climate change.
Debate around climate change and diet has never been so heated (pun intended). In recent years a wealth of data has been published from a variety of leading, credible sources, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the EAT-Lancet Commission, to corroborate the undeniable link between climate change and animal agriculture.
Despite this, the topic still seems to be the elephant in the room that people in positions of power simply don’t want to talk about.
A couple of recent examples of this include the fact that at the most recent UN Climate Change Conference, the COP25 in Madrid, there was just one vegan food truck, with most delegates choosing steak and jamon.
Former MP Claire Perry, when asked whether the Cabinet should set an example by eating less beef, responded with: “I think you’re describing the worst sort of Nanny State ever. Who would I be to sit there advising people in the country coming home after a hard day of work to not have steak and chips?… Please…” A year later she was given the position of President of the UN Climate Change Conference in 2020 (though she has since been removed on a technicality as she is no longer a serving Minister).
Decision maker denial
Fortunately, not everyone’s in denial – just the decision makers! At the moment, the entertainment and retail sectors appear to be showing the UN how it’s done, leading the charge with the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and the Oscars’ Luncheon all choosing completely or largely vegan catering. Plus Starbucks commissioned and published a new sustainability assessment, which showed dairy products as the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions across their operations and supply chain and pledged to take action.
There are so many things we do in everyday life that have an environmental impact, and many of these we have limited control over in real terms. The easiest one, one we have total control over, and one of the individual actions that can make the biggest positive environmental impact, is choosing to actively eliminate meat and dairy.
Know the answers
Whether you’re vegan, actively reducing your meat and dairy intake or simply thinking about it, you’re probably familiar with three very frequently asked questions! If you’re not, don’t worry… you will be! Fuelled by curiosity and real concern (but also by misinformation), the questions that those who are actively reducing or eliminating animal products from their diet hear the most need some major myth-busting.
As Earth Day approaches, what better time to sort fact from fiction so we can all make a truly informed choice and we can help debunk some long-standing and widely believed myths – check out the information below to get your answers ready.
Doesn’t all the soy milk that vegans drink cause deforestation?
Soybeans are indeed an issue. Nearly half of global deforestation is caused by the expansion of crops, and soy is indeed the number one culprit. But, we humans only consume around 6% of the global soy produced. And that includes soy beans used in soy milk. What so many people fail to realise is that the main global use of soy is to feed livestock!
Soybeans are grown using vast expanses of land and in many cases causing or contributing to large scale deforestation simply to be made into food for animals used in farming. We put calories in, perfectly edible calories, and we get less out. In fact, animal feed accounts for a staggering 70-75% of all soy produced. So, if you come across this question you can confidently explain it’s not a tiny proportion of soy milk chugging vegans and dairy avoiders where the blame lies!
All the demand from almond milk is causing large scale drought – isn’t cows’ milk much more sustainable?
According to UNESCO, a single glass of almond milk requires 10 gallons of water to produce. That’s a lot! But, believe it or not, this is still far less water than cows’ milk, a glass of which requires 64 gallons of water to produce. What’s more, cows’ milk also has about double the carbon footprint of almond milk (and soy for that matter).
Land-wise, producing a glass of dairy milk every day for a year requires land the size of two tennis courts, more than 10 times as much for the same amount of some plant milks, such as oat milk. So, even though plant milk is better than cow’s milk environmentally and ethically, if you are concerned about your plant milk footprint, data suggests that choosing delicious oat milk is the best all rounder to go for.
I’m doing my bit — I only buy organic, British and ‘high welfare’ meat. That’s ok, right?
Animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions after fossil fuels and is a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution and biodiversity loss. There is no way to deny this and eating meat of any kind is part of this issue. Yes, there are lower impact options environmentally, such as 100% pasture-fed beef, but issues around resources, land use and welfare all still remain.
The concept of ‘high welfare’ meat is hugely contentious, as killing an animal is inherently at odds with their welfare. Similarly, honest labelling campaigns often draw attention to the vagaries surrounding terms such as organic and free-range to highlight the false equivalence in suggesting these labels are synonymous with sustainable or even reflective of the reality of the rearing systems in some instances.
Choosing locally produced meat in order to reduce emissions will limit your food miles but, again, livestock emissions remain, and it’s worth knowing that animal agriculture, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is responsible for 14.5% of total human made GHG emissions. To put that in perspective, that’s more than all forms of transport combined… globally. So saving some miles on your steak is good, but you’ll still be feeding into a system that adds more GHGs than every single aeroplane, boat, car, lorry, moped, bus, tractor or helicopter combined!
More people are recognising that what we choose to consume is the biggest way to make a positive impact on our planet, embracing the concept of #DietChangeNotClimateChange, with health, animal rights and other issues contributing to the decision to reduce meat and dairy intake.
At ProVeg UK, we help create more sustainable menus by reducing the meat and dairy in a dish, with the aim of making food more climate-friendly, healthy and more ethically sound. Ask us for free advice on how to do this, whether you run a restaurant, chain of restaurants, school canteen, school catering company or retail outlet, or you simply want some meal suggestions, we’re here to help.
Philip Mansbridge is Executive Director of ProVeg UK, an international food awareness organisation. Philip has headed leading animal welfare and conservation charities, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Philip speaks regularly to the media on these issues and at animal and plant-based events up and down the country.