Ah, January. For some, it’s the ultimate chance to start fresh – a new year, a new you, as they say. Each year, nearly two thirds of the UK commit themselves to their New Year’s Resolutions. And with the rise in January challenges like Dry January, 31 days to zero waste and a whole host more, it appears there’s something out there for everyone. This year, it’s hard to ignore the challenge almost everyone is talking about: Veganuary.
5 ethical challenges you can try this #NewYear https://t.co/lGhYjtT38Y #newyearnewyou #ethical #sustainable #ethicalhour #NewYearsResolutions #ethicalresolutions #ethicalresolution #4WeeksToCrueltyFree #plasticfree #palmoil #BloomtownEcoChallenge #Project333 #ethicalchallenge pic.twitter.com/z9oZKQHAvz
— Evangeline Calder (@EvieCalder) January 2, 2018
Since its launch in 2014, Veganuary (adopting a Vegan diet for all of January) has seen record sign ups each year, with 135,000 people signing up for 2018 – a huge increase from nearly 60,00 last year.
But what impact does going vegan actually have on the environment?
According to Veganuary, opting for a vegan diet can have a more positive impact than giving up your car and can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. It’s estimated that after just one month, an individual can avoid adding 620 pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere, save the destruction of over 900 square feet of forest, and prevent the use of over 33,000 gallons of water for animal food production.
In fact, just by joining in once a week on #MeatFreeMonday, you’re already making a difference. According to Environmental Defence, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U.S. roads.
It’s clear that cutting down our meat and dairy intake does have a big impact on the environment. But is a vegan diet always the answer?
Is a vegan diet always better for the planet?
Cutting out meat (beef in particular) from your diet is a massively important first step in reducing carbon emissions. However, there’s more to being a conscious consumer than simply opting for a meat and dairy free diet.
Some vegan friendly products still have an impact on the environment and on farmers in particular. Quinoa, for instance, has become so popular that farmers in Peru and Bolivia can no longer afford not to export it, meaning that this crop staple to their diet for centuries is now too expensive to for them to eat themselves.
Other products also travel great distances to get to the UK, and can be environmentally harmful. Take the faithful avocado, for example, which travels over 6,000 miles from South Africa to reach the UK – and sucks up an estimated 272 litres of water per half a kilogram (around two or three medium-sized). This thirsty food is particularly an issue in drought-prone avocado growing regions like California, Peru and Chile. Plus – you might be surprised to find out that hiding behind our avocado obsession is a world of illegal deforestation, Mexican drug cartels and murders. Not so innocent after all.
Plus, it’s not just meat that increases greenhouse gases; rice (produced on 163m hectares, around 12% of the global arable area) has one of the greatest plant carbon footprints as it produces lots of methane.
These are just a few examples of vegan friendly products we might not ordinarily think twice about, but should be more conscious of. And although their impact doesn’t come close to meat or dairy in terms of its water intensity and emissions, it does raise the inevitable question of whether filling your diet with plastic packaged products with added social baggage from the other side of the world is more ethical than eating the eggs you get from the happy hens in your garden who eat your food scraps. As with any ethical issue, the answer to this question is entirely personal, but is important to consider.
Simply switching to a vegan diet isn’t a perfect solution, and there are so many other issues to consider when it comes to your food, like packaging, transportation type (rail vs truck vs air), water intensity, social issues and, of course, food waste.
But it doesn’t have to be one or the other; if you pick your products (and manage your waste) carefully, a vegan diet can be an incredibly effective way of benefitting the environment, reducing emissions and combatting climate change. But whatever diet you choose, always make sure you’re informed and consume consciously.
Would you like to reduce the impact of your diet, but are overwhelmed by the idea of going vegan? Then a good place to start would be to cut out beef and lamb and switch your milk to an alternative like almond, soya or rice milk, which also helps you avoid plastic containers. Cheese is also another big culprit when it comes to water use – but luckily there’s plenty of more environmentally friendly options available.
When it comes to fruit and veg, buy loose, locally grown, organic produce – and make sure it’s in season. Why not visit a farmers’ market, and support the local economy too? If you do buy food from overseas, make sure it’s Fairtrade (or equivalent), and doesn’t contain palm oil.
If you do fancy giving Veganuary a go, make sure you consider where your products come from, and avoid buying anything that comes wrapped in lots of plastic packaging. But if you can’t avoid the packaging, return it to the shop or leave it at the till – and make sure you call them out on social media.
You can also calculate the impact of your diet, here.