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Is Veganism Sustainable?

I adopted a vegan lifestyle purely for environmental reasons.

But a careful inspection of the inside of my shopping tote - filled with imported vegetables wrapped individually in plastic - suggested that I was far from reducing my carbon footprint.

The idea of linking veganism with being good or green is simply because we merit growing greenery. There is no doubt that red meat farms – beef in particular, are the biggest polluters in the agriculture sector.

Literature suggests that,

"Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union, and Australia combined – and still feed the world."

So it is a fact that less red meat consumption would, therefore, reduce emissions. On the other hand, a hearty avocado on toast brunch does wonders for your health and is cruelty-free. Although, it is essential to be mindful of the carbon footprint and unethical process they took before they arrive at our table.

As big companies try to capitalise on our diet concerns, this article aims to explore the sustainability of the vegan food industry that has gained traction in recent years, which in some cases, is automatically labelled as green. This article does not intend to say that any lifestyle is better than another. But to provide an understanding based on facts for those who might have trouble making diet choices like myself when ethical shopping is more complicated than ever.

It is more than a carbon footprint

Growing meat substitutes seems like a perfect example of a meat farm replacement, considering that most cropland emits much less carbon.

However, tapping into the type and production of plant farming individually helps point out the hidden issues. This expert explained that it is helpful to assess an emission from more than one angle. We could look at how much carbon certain foods emit in comparison to others. To avoid a distraction from real problems, we could also take into account an embodied carbon or the emissions of a product throughout its life cycle. The question was raised, asking that in taking the meat farm away, would the landowner rather restore the lost forest in its place? This signifies a cost of lost opportunity in carbon reduction compared to the pre-farm state.

But carbon footprint should not be our only sustainability measurement. In other words, vegan food production remains problematic in its contributions to the broader ecosystem destruction. We need to act pre-cautiously when emphasising certain food products over how they were processed. The baseline has to be decided, a little better than the meat farm or almost as good as the naturalness baseline.

Modern factory-farms are decoupled with large-scale crop growing usually off-season, and involve intensive machinery or chemicals on large land used, and un-locally.

The avocado industry glamoured its way onto fine dining tables to home kitchens all around the world - a mainstay in the vegan diet as they also represent a healthy lifestyle. However, avocado farms put stress on avocado growers located in arid regions where geographical locations are suitable for growing conditions. The individual tree requires 406 gallons per day. Literature mentioned an incident of illegal water extraction from rivers.

Another example is a mushroom, a frequent ingredient to replace meat that emits less than the most sustainable type of livestock. However, it is farmed on a large scale taking up energy feeding the temperature-controlled room. And in most cases, use bog peat as a growing medium.

Popular plant-based alternatives such as vegan burgers are a gimmick from big companies in disguise for being environmentally conscious.

Like any other type of diet, plant-based industries are sometimes associated with unethical employment that disregards worker rights. Sugarcane, coffee, and cocoa are ranked alongside fishery by the US Department of State for subjecting migrant workers to forced labor in the supply chain and were found to be connected to human trafficking. Nuts and peanuts are not far behind on the rank.

Decolonizing diet

Classifying veganism as a superior diet can impact the marginalized communities. In its cradle to cradle, seasonally grown, featuring local plants and animals and comprehensive farming methods, the indigenous food system has a critical role in the sustainable diet while including meat consumption. And not to be subjected to methods that in many cases raise many eyebrows existing outside of Western cultural norms. In Arctic communities, it is not viable to grow vegetables due to the harsh climate making eating whale meat and seal meat more sustainable. The paradox of such a situation is the matter of food sovereignty which could be discussed in the future.

The point is that culture is one such local context we must consider, and eating meat is not essentially unsustainable. A comprehensive system that creates a mini-ecosystem on farmland to boost biodiversity such as Rewilding in Europe, landscape-based Satoyama and Satoumi method in Japan, rice-fish (and diverse life form) based agro-ecosystems in Southeast Asia.

These cases do not comply with the global trend, showing that considering sustainable food systems at a focused local level will reveal many complexities that a dietary focus alone will not capture.

The point of no return

I have to admit that I went as far as assigning myself a Wild foraging weekend. Taking advantage of my location at that time, at my careful disposal is an abundance of wild berries, leaves, chanterelles mushrooms, and a mixture of organically garden-grown plants.

But summer was short-lived with its place taken by snow. Plus, living with only a handful of food choices, I craved comfort food from home regardless of the 2,000 miles it has to cross overseas. Now living in a polluted city, growing my food has many limitations that will never suit a hunters and gatherers' lifestyle.

Changing the way we eat has been campaigned by the UK government to help the country reach the emission reduction target. An expert said that an individual effort is weak compared to what the government could do to change the food industry. It is much easier to incentivize the industry that could adopt a sustainable practice and put a price on carbon. Literature suggests that going vegan for two years has the same saving impact as one flight from Europe to the US would generate.

At the end of the day, the burden should not fall solely on the consumers to make sustainable and ethical choices, especially for those with economic limitations. It will require a direct change in the policy. In the absence of it, we try our best to make sustainable choices.


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