Chewing the facts on sustainable diets

We’ll need 70 per cent more food by 2050 to feed the projected 9.7 billion population. At the same time, agricultural practices and the global food supply chain are increasingly contributing to climate change and ecosystem destruction. Changing the way our food is produced, distributed and wasted can seem out of reach, but what we choose to consume has a major impact on both people and the planet. What does it really mean to eat sustainably?

The complexity of our food system and its wide-ranging impacts mean we need to think beyond veganism if we want our eating choices to make a positive difference, argues Tom Lawson

In 2010, the UN called for “a global shift towards a vegan diet”. This was vital, the organisation said, to save the world from hunger and the worst impacts of climate change.

The UK listened. In May, an Ipsos Mori study revealed that more than half a million Brits are now vegan, a 350 per cent rise over the past decade.

Despite an overall global trend towards eating more animal-based foods, the survey suggests that, as well as being motivated by animal welfare and health reasons, a growing number of people are opting for more sustainable diets defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN as having a low environmental impact and contributing to food security.

But is eating sustainably really as simple as cutting out meat and dairy?

I was vegan for three years. Carrying out a carbon footprint assessment during my degree in environmental science, I found that cutting animal products from my diet was the single biggest thing I could do to cut my emissions.

It was challenging. I didn’t have the insatiable cravings for cheese many people expect, but even in our choice-ridden western society, finding vegan options often proved difficult. I celebrated whenever I discovered biscuits without milk powder or a menu option that wasn’t salad.

But as time went on, I started questioning my choices. Are plastic-packaged almonds grown with fossil fuel-based fertiliser, using as much as five litres of water per almond and flown halfway across the world really better for the environment than free-range, organic eggs from down the road?

1 (2)I’d thought about emissions, but started realising the contents of my shopping basket had many other environmental impacts: the average household consumes nine times more water through food than from the tap, there are around 5.25tn pieces of plastic debris in the ocean (much of it food packaging) and palm oil and soya (found in all sorts of foods) are both major drivers of deforestation.

When faced with all these factors, it’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to know for sure what the most sustainable option is. But trying to look at the food system as a whole, taking as much into consideration as our knowledge allows, perhaps has a better chance of success than prescribing to one particular diet.

It’s true that veganism cuts out the significant damage caused by large-scale animal agriculture, and often it’s the most sustainable option by default, but as a diet, it fails to tackle the many other destructive impacts of the food system.

The impact of livestock is not straightforward either. Choosing chicken over beef, for example, cuts the carbon footprint of a meal tenfold and if we fed livestock only on food for which humans don’t compete (such as grass, straw and crop waste), we could still produce half the world’s current meat supply. Animals can also be raised on land not suitable for crop cultivation, such as hillsides, and provide manure, an effective organic fertiliser, which helps retain soil structure and improve carbon storage. Not only this, but calling for global veganism – as the UN, and more recently the US science journal PNAS, have done – ignores some fundamental societal issues.

Eating to protect the planet is more complex than any one diet can take into account

Although meat and dairy consumption is rising quickly in parts of the developing world, much of the globe’s poor rely on locally sourced animal protein to meet nutritional requirements – if they meet them at all. Going vegan would most likely mean importing plant protein using fossil fuel-based transport.

The idea of a vegan world also ignores the cultural significance of food. In China, ending a family meal with fish is thought to bring prosperity and in the UK, the Christmas turkey is an important tradition. The western habit of daily meat consumption needs to end, but ignoring cultural values risks alienating people and putting them off the idea of eating sustainably altogether.

Almost half of all vegans in the UK are under 34, a sign that the trend is likely to continue. It’s a positive indication: we do need to shift (or stick) to more plant-based eating. But eating to protect the planet and help feed the human population is more complex than any one diet can take into account. We each need to make conscious choices about what we consume and take a whole-system approach if we truly want to eat sustainably.


Eating sustainably in numbers


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Infographic design by Studio Blackburn