The cow in the room

 Photo: Will Fisher via Flickr (CC BY-SA).

Environmentalists are frustrated by the lack of commitment and vision about dietary change displayed by global leaders at COP26.

Shifting to plant-based diets is one way to put pressure on government to rethink our broken food system.

Environmentalists are still taking stock in the aftermath of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

There are severe doubts about the efficacy of this climate conference, in which global leaders have failed to take responsibility for the effects of the climate crisis and what this means for our future.

Commitments to implement changes to avoid catastrophe have been lacking – with one neglected topic in particular being the ‘cow in the room’.

Dietary change – specifically moving away from animal farming – is a must if we are to keep to the aims of the Paris Agreement and limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Agriculture is responsible for up to one third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the majority of this comes from animal farming. It’s estimated that animal products account for 83 percent of the emissions caused by EU diets.

Clearly, the impact of animal agriculture on the planet is devastating, and we must implement strategies to transition towards a more plant-based food system as a matter of urgency. However, this critical conversation was largely left off the table by global leaders.


This is despite growing support, awareness and evidence for innovative plant-based solutions from climate experts, campaigners and activists.

The Vegan Society was present in Glasgow throughout the COP26 fortnight, delivering a range of activities and events to engage policymakers, businesses and the general public in joining the dots between animal agriculture and the climate emergency.

The Vegan Society brought three key policy asks to COP26, each evidenced by pioneering reports and studies which bring together experts across food and farming, agriculture, the health service and more.

These asks are: consistent leadership from the Global North in the shift towards sustainable, fair plant-based food systems; the enaction of Food Sustainability laws in all countries of the Global North in the next five years with binding steps to reduce animal farming; and greater investment in the research and development of crop protein production and plant-protein food supply chains.

As a long-time advocate of the environmental case for plant-based diets, The Vegan Society runs several campaigns and initiatives to bring public and political attention to the issue.

Shifting to plant-based diets is one way to put pressure on government to rethink our broken food system.

Our behaviour change campaign, Plate Up for the Planet, our systems change campaign Grow Green and our new food systems report Planting Value in the Food system all work towards achieving this outcome.


But the lack of commitment from global leaders to enact real change in the timeframe we require has clearly been disappointing.

This disappointment is tempered with the tireless and creative efforts of activists and campaigners. Amongst these voices it is heartening to hear from those who are so often locked out of high-level discussions – such as young protestors and Indigenous peoples – who bear far more of the brunt of the effects of climate change.

I was personally present in Glasgow for much of the climate conference, speaking to the general public in the city centre about The Vegan Society’s Plate Up for the Planet campaign, which encourages people to sign up for a seven-day plant-based challenge.

The response from the public was overwhelmingly positive, with most people aware of the environmental benefits of vegan diets and keen to make changes to their own lifestyles.

This is where the hope lies – in the engagement and open-mindedness of individuals. While we need to see change enacted at a systems level, that cannot take away from the power of individuals to make choices guided by compassion and sustainability.


If the UK’s shift towards plant-based diets continues, this will be one way in which we can put pressure on government to adapt to the needs of the public and rethink our broken food system.

Of course, The Vegan Society will continue to push for change at governmental level. We used COP to secure promising meetings with high-level decision makers and raise awareness amongst policymakers of our work.

But what can individuals do? Well, to begin with they can sign up to Plate Up for the Planet and receive seven days' worth of low-carbon, planet-saving recipes.

And if you’re vegan already? Please share the word and encourage your planet-conscious friends, family, colleagues and more to sign up. Why not suggest it as a fun challenge in your workplace, or for any athletic, social or political groups you are a part of?

This Author

Elena Orde is the senior communications and campaigns officer at The Vegan Society, and Editor of The Vegan magazine.

The Vegan Society can provide all the support you need to roll out its campaigns in your communities, and will calculate your collective carbon savings. Get in touch at to find out more, and sign up now at

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