Is veganism bad for the planet?
Why veganism isn’t as environmentally friendly as you might think | The Independent
Veganism is not the key to sustainable development – natural resources are vital | Jimmy Smith | Global development | The Guardian
Here is a piece from the Food Climate Research Network:
Are modern plant-based diets and foods actually sustainable?
The new-found popularity of vegan foods has been hailed as great news for the planet - but might these changes have unintended consequences? How much do we really know about the environmental and social sustainability of modern plant-based eating?
This paper was produced by Helen Breewood for the FCRN website:
Total diet impacts
Modern supermarkets offer fresh produce all year round and have an increasing variety of vegan
ranges. A few decades ago, vegans might have had more limited options: seasonal vegetables,
grains, lentils, tofu. Do studies looking at the environmental impacts of various dietary patterns
account for the far wider range of vegan choices that are available nowadays?
One study (Scarborough et al., 2014) calculated the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the selfreported
diets of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK, and concluded that
vegan diets have around half the emissions of omnivorous diets. However, while the database of food
emissions that the study used does include vegan protein sources such as soybeans and other
pulses, it doesn’t appear to include several alternatives such as some nuts and seeds, tempeh, tofu,
mycoprotein (used to make Quorn) and processed meat replacements. Perhaps more importantly, the
dietary data was collected in the 1990s and may not reflect the composition of current diets, vegan
and otherwise. Many products available now simply weren’t around then, such as Quorn’s vegan
range (regular Quorn contains egg white).
Another study using more recent consumption data from Italy (Rosi et al., 2017) found that, on
average, vegan diets in the study sample had lower carbon, water and ecological footprints than
omnivorous diets. However, there was a lot of variability between individuals. Some vegans had
higher dietary impacts than some omnivores. Two vegan participants had extremely high dietary
impacts, on par with the highest impact omnivorous diets - it turned out that they ate only fruit!
Veganism is clearly not an inherent guarantee of eco-friendliness. Personally, since environmental
concerns were the main reason I switched to a vegetarian diet 11 years ago and to a largely vegan
diet a couple of years ago, it’s worrying to think that I could inadvertently be choosing high-impact
foods. Here are a few issues that I would love to see more information on.
Nowadays, there are many plant-based replacements for dairy products such as butter, ice cream
and cheese - Tesco and Sainsbury’s have even developed their own vegan cheeses. But I’ve often
spent a long time puzzling over which brand to buy, if any. Besides having questionable nutritional
value - many dairy alternative brands are high in fat with little protein - it’s very difficult to avoid palm
Palm oil plantations cause deforestation and push species such as the orangutan further towards
extinction. So which causes more animal suffering and biodiversity loss - dairy farming or palm oil
Some brands do contain a “sustainable” certified version of palm oil. For example, Unilever, who
make the vegan ice cream Swedish Glace, claims to be taking steps towards responsible palm oil
sourcing, as does dairy-free spread manufacturer Pure Free From.
But does certification actually reduce overall rates of deforestation, or does it just shift the blame to
other, uncertified, producers? Might the availability of “sustainable” palm oil actually increase overall
market demand for palm oil, or encourage different crops to be grown on deforested
land? Greenpeace claims that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s standards still permit
deforestation and peatland destruction. Further complicating the issue, replacing palm oil with other
fats such as olive or sunflower oil wouldn’t necessarily be a sustainable solution, since these crops
use 5 to 8 times as much land as palm oil to produce a given quantity of oil or fat.
Coconut oil is another ingredient found in many dairy replacements. It’s also popular with the paleo
and clean eating movements (although it may now be losing ground to butter and ghee).
Could coconut oil cause deforestation in the same way as palm oil? Ethical Consumer says that
deforestation isn’t a serious issue with coconut farming, but that producers are often in extreme
poverty. While Fairtrade coconut products are available, a 2014 study by SOAS and the LSE
concluded that the benefits of Fairtrade are debatable, particularly for the poorest workers - although
the Fairtrade Foundation itself has contested the study’s findings.
Tofu has been around for a long time – possibly thousands of years – and now soy beans appear in
all sorts of products. However, soy production increased ten-fold between 1961 and 2009. Nowadays,
soy plantations wreak havoc upon the environment, causing deforestation and soil erosion. In
Argentina, the appearance of a new river has been blamed on soybean plantations.
75% of soy is actually used to feed animals. Since feeding an animal with soy gives you less food
value measured in calories or protein than eating the soy directly, is it reasonable to assume that
demand for soy would actually drop as the popularity of soy-based foodstuffs rises, because of
reduced demand for meat?
The FCRN-WWF report How Low Can We Go? notes that, at least for the UK, replacing beef, sheep,
pig and poultry meat in our diets with tofu, Quorn and pulses could actually increase the amount of
overseas land needed. This is partly because substitutes such as soy, chickpeas and lentils are
generally not grown in the UK. The substitution could, however, free up some arable land in the UK
previously used to grow feed crops. Perhaps the answer is to grow more pulses in the UK, such as
broad beans, dried peas or haricot beans. For more on this option, see the blog post that Tom
Kuehnel of The Vegan Society wrote for the FCRN.
Taking a global perspective might give a different answer, as other countries might rely on different
mixes of grass-fed, grain-fed or soy-fed livestock. There might also be differences in the growing
conditions of soy for animal feed and human food. For example, food-grade soybeans are higher in
protein than feed-grade and require more careful processing to ensure that weeds don’t contaminate
the harvest - does this change their environmental impact?
These are important questions. Are they adequately addressed by brands that use soy beans?
Alpro say they use soy beans that are certified by the ProTerra standard, which requires non-GMO
beans, good labour practices, protection of community rights and specific agricultural practices related
to soil fertility, water management and reduced inputs of fertilisers and pesticides. Alpro also source
some of their soy beans from European countries and are developing varieties suited to the climates
of France and Belgium.
Other brands, however, are less specific. Tofoo, for example, say they use organic beans and draw
attention to their “all-natural” ingredients, but haven’t replied to an email requesting their sustainability
policy at the time of writing this blog post. Meanwhile, Cauldron Foods say that their soy beans, grown
in Canada, China and Europe, are sourced from “strict sustainable areas where the beans must be
grown in ways that are organically, ecologically and ethically good”, but don’t explain exactly what this
means. Clearspring don’t mention sourcing policies at all in their environmental standards.
Processed meat replacements
Perhaps the best-documented brand is Quorn, which is based on mycoprotein. A simplified life cycle
assessment report from 2010 (the author of that study currently works at Quorn, but it’s not clear
whether this was an official Quorn publication) estimated that two vegetarian Quorn products (mince
and pieces) have a slightly higher carbon footprint than poultry but considerably less than beef.
Removing the egg in the formula (used to bind the ingredients) would halve Quorn’s emissions, but
data showing the impacts of Quorn’s more recently produced egg-free vegan range are not available.
However, Quorn’s official 2017 Sustainability Report claims that Quorn mince has a carbon footprint
90% lower than beef, and that Quorn pieces have a carbon footprint 70% lower than chicken. Since
the document cited for these figures is not publicly available, it’s not possible to check why they don’t
tally with the earlier study. I emailed Quorn to see if they could provide the reference for these figures
and an estimated carbon footprint for their vegan range. They said they would look into it but haven’t
been in touch since then.
Linda McCartney Foods and The Fry Family Food Co. who make meat replacements based on soy
and wheat protein, both told me by email that they don’t have environmental impact data for their
Estimating the impacts of other meat replacements is not as simple as just adding together the
impacts of the individual ingredients (often soya and wheat gluten), because of the importance of
processing to the overall environmental impact of a given product. For example, culturing mycoprotein
accounts for only 46% to 55% of emissions per tonne of Quorn, with the processing stages
accounting for the rest. Are processing impacts similar for other meat replacements, and how do they
compare to the impacts of processing meat?
The 2015 paper Meat alternatives: Life Cycle Assessment of most known meat substitutes finds that,
in general, lab-grown meat and mycoprotein-based substitutes have higher environmental impacts
than chicken, dairy and gluten-based substitutes, and that insect and soy-based substitutes have the
lowest impacts of all. Clearly not all of these are vegan, including the mycoprotein option (assumed to
contain egg). Variations between brands and future technological developments are likely to lead to
variations in impacts.
Mushrooms have been in the news lately: the World Resources Institute, a US NGO, estimates that
replacing 30% of the beef in beef burgers with mushrooms could reduce the water use, greenhouse
gas emissions and land use of a burger by 29-30%. The advantage of these blended burgers is that
they reduce impacts without requiring large lifestyle changes from consumers.
Mushrooms grow well on substrates that are byproducts of other processes, such as straw, sawdust,
manure and even used coffee grounds. How many commercial mushroom farms actually use
byproducts and how many use substrates produced specifically for mushroom growing? If demand for
mushrooms were to rise, how would supplies of substrates need to change? And how, in turn, would
that affect the environmental impacts of mushroom growing? I guess that many cafés still throw out
their coffee grounds, perhaps providing an opportunity for more companies such as GroCycle’s Urban
Mushroom Farm. However, there are logistical constraints: the coffee grounds need to be used very
quickly, or else they go mouldy. Besides, would it be efficient, from the point of view of energy, to
collect small amounts of coffee grounds from many cafés? GroCycle does collect coffee grounds by
bicycle, but would this be true of other producers?
Another issue is that some mushroom farms use peat. As you may know if you are a gardener, peat
extraction can damage peatlands, which are important wildlife habitats and stores of carbon.
Mushrooms don’t need light, so they can be grown in stacked layers without needing artificial lighting,
but farmers do carefully control the air temperature and humidity to influence the size of the
mushrooms. How much energy does this require?
Life Cycle Assessments are available for some commonly grown mushrooms, but do they cover all of
the different types of mushrooms now on the market, and all different growing conditions and
countries? For example, what about mushroom types that prefer to be grown on solid logs and take
longer to mature and fruit than those grown on sawdust? What are the impacts compared to the foods
that mushrooms might be replacing?
Fruit isn’t just for vegans, but could a rise in veganism stimulate an increase the amount of fruit being
consumed? What effects might that have?
Some fruits are now particularly popular with vegans and omnivores alike, or are finding new
popularity through vegan recipes.
Take the iconically Instagrammed avocado. Avocados have been associated with illegal deforestation
in Mexico, high water use in California and Mexico, questionable working conditions in many Latin
American countries and trade controlled by drug cartels in Mexico.
What about fruits that are only recently becoming well-known in this country, such as the jackfruit -
used to make mock “pulled pork”? A quick search for the environmental impacts of jackfruit doesn’t
yield much useful information. Could it be that jackfruit doesn’t cause any problems? Or are the
problems there, but hidden?
Bananas are practically a staple in supermarkets. They are also the basis of some delicious vegan
recipes, such as ice cream. While bananas are fairly low-carbon since they are grown in hot countries
(and therefore don’t need to be grown in heated greenhouses) and are transported by container ship,
there are serious questions over working conditions in the industry, as well as the vulnerability of
banana plantation monocultures to disease.
With fresh produce, it could be helpful for shoppers to know which fruits have been air-freighted (very
carbon intensive) or transported by container ship (relatively low carbon). Supermarket labels often
give country of origin but rarely give the transport method. Since local food is not necessarily more
sustainable, e.g. due to the energy used to heat greenhouses in the UK, transport information could
be crucial when trying to choose the lowest carbon option. Tesco and Marks & Spencer did actually
try this in the early 2000s, but found the labels had no effect on sales - but might similar schemes
succeed now that consumers are more aware of climate change? Furthermore, what would the
effects of such a scheme be on employment and economic development in low-income countries?
Avocados aren’t the only product to use a lot of water. Almond milk, for example, may have a carbon
footprint 10 times less than dairy milk, but it uses 17 times more water than dairy, according to one
study. And as a recent study showed, almond milk is not nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk. With
many almonds grown in California, which has only recently emerged from a drought, this could be a
problem. One potential alternative is pea milk, claimed by its US makers Ripple to use much less
water than almond milk. Ripple is not on sale in the UK, at the time of writing.
Dates are well suited to growing in dry regions, but in some areas there are politically charged issues
of access to water.
What about other widely used vegan ingredients? The World Resources Institute’s interactive map of
water stress shows that 50% of tree nuts, 38% of fruit and 32% of legumes are grown in areas of high
or extremely high water stress. Of course, this doesn’t mean that vegan diets are necessarily to blame
- these products are eaten by people following all sorts of diets, as well as sometimes being used as
animal feed. Nevertheless, it will be important to watch the overall environmental effects of increases
in the human consumption of these crops and corresponding declines in demand for animal products.
Demand for quinoa has driven up prices to the point where many poor Peruvians and Bolivians can't
afford it, although it was a staple food for many. What are they eating instead, and is it more or less
sustainable and healthy than quinoa? Do the economic benefits to the farmers outweigh the price
swings? What other crops have risen in price due to popularity, and how are the economic effects
changing global consumption patterns? How will changing markets drive investment and government
Potentially lower-impact foods
While the foods I’ve listed above may raise a few alarm bells or at least question marks, it’s not all
bad news. There are many trendy vegan foods that I think are likely to have low environmental
impacts. Kale, for example, is popular on Instagram, but unlike the avocado it can be grown in the UK
in winter. Aquafaba - the leftover liquid from a can of chickpeas - would normally go to waste, but has
lately found popularity as an egg replacement for baking, mayonnaise and even chocolate mousse.
One of my favourite recipes for cheesy pizza topping is based on potato, carrot, olive oil and
nutritional yeast: it doesn’t use as much oil as many store-bought vegan cheeses and uses
vegetables that are easy to grow in the UK. However, the environmental impacts of nutritional yeast
are not clear. Producers Marigold Health Foods told me by email that the yeast is fed on beet
molasses. Although they said that they expect that it has a low carbon footprint, they don’t have any
evidence to prove it.
Alan Spedding, 26 April 2018
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