Veganuary or Regenuary?
At the beginning of the year, debate was sparked on social media regarding a post that questioned the sustainability of the Veganuary movement. A record number of people took part in Veganuary this year, with 500,000 people pledging to live a vegan lifestyle by giving up all meat and dairy products for the month of January .
Veganuary.com claims that a vegan diet can protect the planet as well as human health, however @ethicalbutcher suggested in an Instagram post that Regenuary is the most sustainable lifestyle to be adopting in the new year . In the post, they discuss how eating ethically-sourced, local meat products is more eco-friendly than buying and eating vegan products with unknown origins that have been imported from overseas .
So with Veganuary now at an end, how can we assess the sustainability of our lifestyle choices? What evidence really exists to tell us which diets will be the best for us and our planet?
The discussions raised by the suggestion of Regenuary can be split into two topics: food transportation (local or imported debate), and food production (the meat or vegan debate).
Food transportation is regularly discussed for playing a major role in consumers’ carbon footprints [4-6]. However, there are conflicting reports of the contribution that transport makes to the carbon footprint of food products . It is often suggested that the greenhouse gas emissions released when transporting fruit and vegetables are higher than those associated with transporting meat products, however this is simply misinterpreted information. In reality, meat and animal products have a higher carbon footprint and so transportation is responsible for a smaller proportion of the greenhouse gases associated with them .
Food production makes up a greater proportion of greenhouse gas emissions than transportation, meaning that the environmental impact of a product is more dependent on its production method than its distribution method [4,6]. For example, an investigation into broccoli production found that in Sweden this relied heavily on the use of diesel, whereas broccoli produced in South and Central America were much less dependent on the use of fossil fuels . In this instance, the differences in production method were significant enough to make the carbon footprint of broccoli from South and Central America lower than that of broccoli from Sweden, despite it having travelled further distances to get to the customer.
‘Air miles’ refer to the distance travelled by products from their place of production and are regularly mentioned in the debate between local and imported food, however air freight makes up only 9% of food distribution . This method of transportation is most often used for ‘just in time’ deliveries, but interestingly the use of air transport is predicted to increase when more animal-based products are imported .
Not only can air miles give inaccurate estimates of our foods carbon footprint, but research demonstrates that greenhouse gas emissions are more affected by supply chain structure than by distance travelled . Local food is often marketed to consumers as more environmentally friendly as it may be in season, have a higher welfare standard or be using more organic methods of cultivation. However, fuel use in transportation is used more efficiently by supermarket supply chains than local ones . For example, driving to farmers’ markets has a much higher carbon footprint than receiving home deliveries from large supermarkets, due to the more streamlined transportation methods employed by big chain companies.
Production is responsible for approximately 50% of the overall carbon footprint of our food . The production of meat and dairy products is reported as less sustainable than plant products repeatedly in the academic literature, primarily due to land use and enteric fermentation [5,7].
Land use change to make way for farming of both plant and animal products is responsible for around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the demand for agricultural land has been labelled as the most dominant driver of deforestation . This is a clear indication that in order to lower our carbon footprints, we need to minimise the amount of land we use to produce our food products. Luckily for consumers, the data almost unanimously state that the production of animal products uses more land than the production of plants . This is because land is used to grow feed products which are subsequently fed to animals, resulting in livestock that are fed several times the amount of energy in feed than is returned in end products. For example, in Sweden 7kg of feed is needed to produce just 1kg of pig meat. The same is true for fish – as you begin to work your way up the food chain, animal production becomes less efficient and the consumer receives less end product relative to the energy that has been used to produce it.
Enteric fermentation is the name given to the process by which ruminant animals (e.g. cows and lambs) produce methane . This methane, that enters the atmosphere mainly by exhaled breath, is one of the largest contributors to the greenhouse effect due to the sheer scale of the livestock industry . As well as being produced by certain animal species, enteric fermentation also occurs in the flooded fields used to grow rice paddy crops . This means that the consumption of rice contributes methane to the atmosphere in a similar way to ruminant livestock, yet on a much smaller scale.
To complicate matters somewhat, strictly analysing carbon footprints does come with additional concerns. Meat and dairy products of a lower welfare standard have a lower carbon footprint, as animals are grown more quickly and given less space in which to live . Similarly, organic crops that use less pesticides have obvious benefits to wildlife, however they have a lower yield and therefore a higher carbon footprint [4-5].
Veganuary or Regenuary?
It is clear that there is no simple solution to the debates of sustainability surrounding our diet and lifestyle choices. Consumers need more information in order to make informed decisions that will benefit ourselves and our planet.
Despite the complexities involved with making more sustainable dietary choices, the academic literature appears to agree on a number of things:
· The method of food production generally has a greater impact on greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation method or distance [4-6].
· The production of animal products has a carbon footprint several times higher than the production of plant products [4-5,7-8].
With this evidence, we can now view @ethicalbutcher’s post more critically. The literature tells us that local, ethical animal products are not more sustainable than imported vegan products as the carbon emissions associated with food production outweigh those associated with food transportation. This research also demonstrates time and again that the diet with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions is that which is vegan and plant-based.
Seasonal food can have a lower carbon footprint, but again, this is dependent on the production method used [4,6]. A fact that is generally underreported in the mainstream media is the contribution that healthy diets make to lowering our carbon footprints. One of the most effective ways to live more sustainably is to simply not eat more than is necessary. Indeed, many of the ‘non-essential’ products such as coffee, alcohol and chocolate have some of the highest carbon footprints .
It is clear that our lifestyle choices have a major influence on the health and wellbeing of our planet. Yes, in many cases the lines are blurred and the data available are contradictory. However, spreading inaccuracies to the mainstream media is of detriment to each and every one of us, as we will all be negatively affected by the impacts we have on our planet. In order to make positive steps forward, we each need to take responsibility for the actions we choose to make.
We can be entirely selfish for choosing to put the needs of the planet above our own; we are living in an age with enough information to be fully aware of how living sustainably will benefit us. We do, however, need to remind ourselves that although they affect all of us both now and in future generations, these decisions are ours to make. Bringing knowledge and awareness to those that may be unaware is very different to criticising someone’s lifestyle choice with nothing but misinformation to support your argument.
1. Bawden, T., 2021. Record numbers of people go vegan for January. [online] inews.co.uk. Available at: <https://inews.co.uk/news/environment/veganuary-2021-record-numbers-go-animal-product-free-january-818085> [Accessed 31 January 2021].
2. Veganuary. 2021. Veganuary - the international movement inspiring people to try vegan!. [online] Available at: <https://veganuary.com/> [Accessed 31 January 2021].
3. The Ethical Butcher. ‘Last year, we wrote a simple Facebook post that swapped Veganuary for Regenuary.’ Instagram, 1 Jan. 2021, The Ethical Butcher (@ethicalbutcher) https://www.instagram.com/p/CJfrBDdAXqX/
4. Röös E. Analysing the carbon footprint of food. 2013.
5. Wakeland W, Cholette S, Venkat K. Food transportation issues and reducing carbon footprint. InGreen technologies in food production and processing 2012 (pp. 211-236). Springer, Boston, MA.
6. Avetisyan M, Hertel T, Sampson G. Is local food more environmentally friendly? The GHG emissions impacts of consuming imported versus domestically produced food. Environmental and Resource Economics. 2014 Jul 1;58(3):415-62.
7. Scarborough P, Appleby PN, Mizdrak A, Briggs AD, Travis RC, Bradbury KE, Key TJ. Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic change. 2014 Jul;125(2):179-92.
8. González-García S, Esteve-Llorens X, Moreira MT, Feijoo G. Carbon footprint and nutritional quality of different human dietary choices. Science of the total environment. 2018 Dec 10;644:77-94.