Veganism is a fast growing trend which has gained a huge following over the last few years, largely thanks to its popularisation through social media, and supermarket chains catering more and more to the tastes of those who consider themselves to be vegan. The reasons for becoming a vegan are many and varied, but the most quoted include ‘it’s healthy’ and ‘it’s good for the environment’. There’s no doubt that there are health benefits which come from living a vegan lifestyle, but it’s the second of the two arguments which is the central theme of this article, for the simple reason that being vegan may not be as environmentally friendly as one may think.
Let me clear something up at the offset: veganism is good for the environment. That is beyond question. However, as with most things, it’s not as simple as flicking a switch, becoming vegan and allowing a little green corner of the planet to breathe a sigh of relief. Eating a vegan diet comes with its own risks. Before getting into those, though, I’d like to clarify a few reasons why being a vegan is so eco friendly. The main reasons revolve around reducing the food industry’s dependence on animal farming. Mass livestock farming produces a huge amount of greenhouse gases and is responsible for the destruction of habitats and the resultant loss of animal species. The advantages are obvious, and that’s before we’ve even started on water use, acidification and all those other things you learned about in GCSE Geography. In short, it’s all about land; the less land taken up by farming animals, the better.
But here’s the snag: what replaces the meat and dairy products that vegans are no longer eating? Instagram will tell you that the diet is supplemented by what appears to be 90 per cent avocados. That seems like a good place to start. For all their advantages, eating avocados can be far more harmful to the world than they seem to be. Kenya banned the exporting of avocados earlier this year due to excessive demand, and the massive surge in the popularity of the fruit has driven the price up to almost unaffordable levels. This is also the case in Australia and Mexico, where the demand for avocados has reached crippling heights. Additionally, in order to meet this demand, avocados are being shipped from all over the world, and for every mile they travel, the environment suffers further due to the greenhouse gas emissions (the reduction of which was the point of eating avocados in the first place).
That case study of avocados may not seem to be too far reaching but the basic message is important: managing what you eat is not as effective as managing where what you eat comes from. It is no good eating exclusively vegetables if they have been shipped from across the world to get to you. That being said, it is particularly difficult in the UK to maintain constant production of vegan foods all year round, as most foods are seasonal. In order to keep up with the demand, the usage of pesticides and insecticides (back to GCSE Geography) must be increased, which introduces a brand-new problem: without grazing animals to help maintain the cyclical path of nutrients through the environment, the soil and associated plantlife suffers. To eliminate farming animals completely would put a great number of natural habitats in serious danger of being filled up with chemicals and damaged beyond repair.
Furthermore, not every area of the world where livestock is farmed is capable of converting to crop-growing (African drylands is a prime example; cattle provide an income as well as food, and are an essential part of many people’s survival). Therefore, a global conversion to the more environmentally friendly crop option is not only difficult, it’s actually not what we should be aiming for. Such a move would waste land which cannot be used for anything other than cattle and the results of such a drastic change would have widespread consequences, both environmentally and economically. Perhaps then a middle ground could be a more inclusive diet. A reduced consumption of meats and dairy products, certainly, but not a total elimination of those foodstuffs from the diet. Assuming the meat and dairy is locally sourced, there is no need to feel guilty about not turning vegan. Those of us who don’t feel that lifestyle suits our needs have another option, that of reduction rather than rejection. While veganism is the perfect path to a greener life for some, it does not have to be the only route to a better, more organic world.
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