Could veganism be the solution to the climate crisis?

Since 2014, Veganuary has inspired and supported more than half a million people in 178 countries to try veganism for a month. In this blog, Kelly Finnerty and Ruth Townend turn to the data to ask where veganism fits in to what we know about changing diets.

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  • Kelly Finnerty Public Affairs
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Changing eating habits

Veganuary is here and in full swing once again. Since 2014, Veganuary has inspired and supported more than half a million people in 178 countries to try veganism for a month. As social media feeds fill up with plant-based treats and even KFC comes aboard, we turn to the data to ask where veganism fits in to what we know about changing diets.

In the past few years, you may have noticed more and more people around you turning away from meat. At dinner parties or family barbecues, on your social media feed or in the news, vegetarianism and veganism are increasingly visible.

Research conducted by Ipsos in 2016 for the Vegan Society found that Britain’s vegan population had increased from 150,000 to 542,000 in the space of a decade. According to a more recent global Ipsos survey, however, an omnivorous diet is still the most common diet globally, with 73% identifying as omnivorous, whereas 14% are flexitarian, 5% vegetarian and 3% identify as either vegan or pescatarian.

Many vegetarians and vegans are still new to these diets, with 20% of vegans having followed the diet for about a year, and 46% for less than six months. People opt to go plant-based for three main reasons, namely: concern over the welfare of animals, the planet and personal health. Influential documentaries such as Game Changers and vegan bloggers such as Deliciously Ella have thrown a spotlight on the intensive meat and dairy industry, exposing the impacts on animal and human health and the wider environment. Meat reduction campaigns such as Meat-Free Mondays and Veganuary have also helped raise public awareness of the benefits of eating less meat.

One of the main attractions of a vegan diet is the positive impact it can have on the environment. According to researchers at Oxford Martin School, widespread adoption of a meat-free diet could see greenhouse gas emissions fall by 63%, or 70% for a vegan diets. Similarly, according to WWF’s Livewell report, switching to a vegan diet is one of the biggest ways you can cut your personal carbon emissions – with vegans having the lowest carbon emissions of all dietary types.

There are health benefits too – the World Cancer Research Fund recommends we “eat no more than moderate amounts of red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb and eat little, if any, processed meat.”

The climate impact of our food choices

What we eat and how it’s produced have consequences for the whole planet. The IPCC says the West’s high consumption of meat and dairy produce is fuelling global warming, through the methane gas the animals produce, and deforestation – which is also contributing to biodiversity loss. Greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are estimated to account for 14.5% of the global total, more than emissions from powering all the world’s roads, trains, ships and aeroplanes combined. Of all food emissions, three fifths (58%) come from animal products and of these, half (50%) come from red meat beef and lamb.

Further to this, climate change poses a threat to the security of our food supply. Rising temperatures, populations, increased rain and more extreme weather events will all have an impact on crops and livestock. As human population climbs, scientists are scrambling to devise a diet plan that can feed 10 billion people by 2050. Whilst new technologies and changes in livestock production practices can help reduce livestock emissions, these changes on their own are not enough. Research has shown that it is unlikely global temperature rise can be kept below two degrees Celsius without a reduction in global meat and dairy consumption.

Despite this emerging trend towards more vegetarian or vegan lifestyles, when it comes to food choices, concerns over sustainability are normally secondary to immediate considerations of taste, price, health and food safety. By emphasising co-benefits such as health, Veganuary and other sustainable diet initiatives stand the best chance of ensuring veganism has a place at the table.

The author(s)

  • Kelly Finnerty Public Affairs

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