There are no miracle foods that can feed the world’s population without causing any impact, but we know that animal products are the worst offenders objectively on almost all measures.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last five years, you will have noticed that veganism has really taken off recently, with the number of vegan products available skyrocketing.
For anyone who has just emerged from their rocky abode, here are some facts which might surprise you: the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled over the last four years; Veganuary had over 250k new sign-ups this year, compared to 3k back in 2014; one in six products launched in the UK in 2018 carried a vegan claim; last year the UK became the nation with the highest number of new vegan products launched.
People are going vegan or choosing plant-based food for a variety of reasons, the main three being: health, animal rights and the environment.
There is a considerable body of evidence that shows a vegan diet - consisting entirely of plant-based food - to be the most environmentally-friendly off-the-shelf diet around.
This is fundamentally due to the fact that eating animal products is an inefficient way to obtain calories and nutrients. For every 100 calories fed to a farm animal, only 12 calories are retained in animal products such as meat, milk, cheese and eggs. This is because an animal uses the energy obtained through eating plants for warmth, movement and other bodily functions.
Plant-based diets cut out the middle animal and obtain energy and nutrients directly from the plants themselves. This means that entirely plant-based diets use 76 percent less land and up to half of the greenhouse gas emissions that a standard western diet generates.
However, the claim that ‘a vegan diet is the most environmentally friendly’ is often disputed due to the impact of individual ‘vegan’ products, like almonds or avocados. It is important to note that these foodstuffs are not consumed solely by vegans - they can be and are enjoyed by almost everybody. Despite them not being consumed or purchased exclusively by vegans, the damaging impact of these items is often wildly overstated, especially when compared to their animal equivalents.
Take almonds, for example. Almonds can be consumed raw or made into almond milk, as an alternative to cow’s milk. It is often claimed however, that almond milk should be avoided due to the large amount of water that is required to produce almonds. It is true that compared to other plant milks, almond milk uses considerably more water, with 74 litres going into making a single glass.
Rice milk is also comparatively thirsty, requiring 54 litres of water per glass, compared to the very low water requirements for increasingly popular options, like soya or oat milk. But even the relatively high water-consuming plant milks are dwarfed by the water footprint of a glass of dairy milk (approx. 120 litres), which consumes by far the most water of all the milk products on the market.
If we look at other metrics to compare the products, cow’s milk still emerges as the worst product for the environment. Producing a glass of dairy milk creates almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any of the non-dairy alternatives, with almond milk actually having the lowest comparative emissions associated with its production. When we consider land use, there is an even starker difference. Dairy milk requires more than 10 times as much land as the same amount of oat milk, with other plant milks needing even less land.
Avocados have become a millennial staple, often found smeared across toast, smashed into guacamole or strewn through salads. They have acquired a reputation within green circles and are often singled out as a reason why vegan diets are not sustainable. Again, water usage is a common culprit for this view.
Avocados have a total water footprint of 1981 mᶾ/ton, which can put pressure on water reserves. However, in comparison to animal products, this is still very low. The largest water footprint is from beef (at 15,400 mᶾ/ton), followed by sheep (10,400 mᶾ/ton), pig (6,000 mᶾ/ton), chicken (4,300 mᶾ/ton) and eggs (3,300 mᶾ/ton). As you can see, avocado’s water footprint is still less than the lowest animal product.
Every food product will have some impact on the environment, with coffee, palm oil, sugar and soy being some of the most impactful. There are no miracle foods that can feed the world’s population without causing any impact, but we know that animal products are the worst offenders objectively on almost all measures.
This is not to say that within a vegan or plant-based diet, individuals cannot make better choices for the environment, such as opting for locally-grown, seasonal, organic, plastic-free, or substituting more water intensive vegan products for less intensive options. But it is worth keeping a sense of perspective in all of this.
If you are eating a vegan diet that contains almond milk and avocados, you are still making a huge difference to the planet by boycotting animal agriculture. According to researchers at Oxford University, it is the single biggest thing you can do to reduce your impact on the environment, even more so than reducing the amount of flights you take each year or switching to an electric vehicle.
There is always more that you can do for the environment, but vegans are already doing so much. Environmentalists’ time would be best spent convincing non-vegans to go vegan first. From there, we can work on maximising the impact within that already positive choice.
Mark Banahan is campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society and a keen vegan and political activist. He tweets at @MarkBanahan. If you would like to learn more about veganism, sign up to the 7-day challenge here