Veganism and the environment

Is veganism the most sustainable option?

  • 5 min to read
Veganism and environment

There are a variety of options for eating vegan.

We are constantly bombarded by the media telling us what we should or should not be doing in every aspect of our lives: to help the environment, how we should be dressing and even what we should be thinking. 

With so much information, it can be easy to get lost and overwhelmed.

Everybody claims to have the answer, listing numerous reasons why their diet, product or lifestyle will work while the others will not. This leads to more questions. 

For the sake of answers, I decided to research one of the most controversial and popular lifestyle choices: veganism.

What is veganism?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a vegan as someone who does not consume any animal products and who also abstains from using them.

People who choose veganism tend to do so for three main reasons: health, ethics and environmental concern. These reasons tend to end up intertwining. Health is a personal matter and decision, but things begin to get delicate when we start involving ethics and the environment because then one’s decisions start affecting someone besides themselves.

Gaining popularity

The vegan movement has been rising in popularity for the past few years. Sales of plant-based food in the U.S. went up by 20 percent  during 2018, according to the Plant-Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute. Plant-based milk sales grew 9 percent and cow milk’s declined 6 percent and is predicted to keep dropping. 

Our diets and the environment

According to the Journal of Animal Science, 52.8 gallons of water and 1,036 British Thermal Units are used for a quarter pound of beef. This amount of energy is enough to power a microwave for 18 minutes. All these effects on the environment are not taking into account the methane emissions that come from the animals’ digestion, which also adds significantly to greenhouse gases.

Is it worth it to spend so much of our resources just to create food when there is an alternative? 

Is vegan the only way?

When it comes to shaping our opinions, it is important to look at both sides. I wanted to explore the debate on whether going vegan is the only solution, or if you can continue to eat meat as long as it’s farmed properly.

I found an article written by George Monbiot, a journalist who wrote for The Guardian. Monbiot first wrote a piece supporting veganism and later on went to write another one arguing that eating meat is sustainable as long as it’s farmed properly after reading the book “Meat: A Benign Extravagance.”

One of the main arguments used for veganism is the amount of land, water and food used for raising livestock. However, Simon Fairlie, the author of the book mentioned, says that those are not valid arguments against eating meat, but against the current farming strategy. 

According to Fairlie, if we were to feed animals with waste, residues, and/or grass instead of edible grain, we would be able to still produce half the current meat supply without significant loss in human nutrition or resources. 

At first glance, this seems to be the answer. Feed our animals differently, reduce our food waste, and continue to eat meat, just a little bit less. However, I believe there is a flaw with this logic: it does not take into account the overpopulation factor enough, and it is not immediately applicable in today’s society.

When considering the environmental factor, it is important to note that the reason farming is not done this way is also because there are too many of us to feed. Moreover, the natural rate at which animals produce what we want to consume is not enough. 

Maybe in a world where you could convince the average American to reduce their 270.7 lbs of meat consumed per year overnight (according to the Earth Policy Institute), this would work. It would work in a world in which massive chains of fast food that thrive on animal products didn’t rely on mass production.

We live in a world of rushing, and even though we should work towards changing our farming habits, I also believe it is easier for most people to cut out animal products than it is to trace where every single thing you eat is coming from.

I believe the farming strategy should be changed. However, I also think it is more of a long-term solution.

Vegan as a student

I decided to do some research on how difficult it is to eat vegan as a student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. I interviewed Alysha Wissbroecker, a freshman, who has been a strict vegan for almost four years now. 

Wissbroecker went vegan to help reduce her carbon footprint. I asked her about the accessibility, money-wise and considering the on-campus options. 

“Veganism can be an expensive lifestyle, but it all depends on what someone decides to purchase,”  Wissbroecker said. “Of course, the imitation animal products are going to be pricey. However, purchasing fresh produce, root-vegetables and rice can be a cheap diet.” 

She also says that she thinks more options, such as imitation meats and cheeses, have become available during recent years. However, she believes there are not enough vegan options on campus. 

“I’d like to see more veggie oriented/based meals that don’t contain wheat/gluten products so that there’s an option for vegans who are also gluten-free,” she said.

I also interviewed another vegan student, Isabelle McCarthy, who has been vegan for about five years now. She is very active, and I was interested in knowing if her performance was affected by changing her diet.

“You feel better after eating healthier. It is quite easy to get enough protein and iron on a vegan diet as long as you eat healthy and are aware of what you eat,” McCarthy said.

As a student, going vegan does not have to be such a challenge as it is made out to be.

Even though I do believe the options on campus could be better, I also believe they will continue to expand if we continue to demand them and consume the ones currently available. 

What if I physically can’t?

It is important to consider that there could be physical limitations for someone to adopt a fully vegan lifestyle. 

A physical limitation could be an illness or health concern that would lead someone to have no other alternative but to eat some type of animal product. Does that mean that they can’t contribute to a significant reduction of carbon emissions? I don’t believe so.

I think this is where fighting to change the farming methods and sourcing your animal products from local and sustainable sources comes in. Another option is just going meatless a day of the week and striving to make most of your meals plant-based.

People in situations of poverty also represent a group with limitations, considering that most vegan foods do not tend to be calorie dense, and their main concern is eating something that will satiate them for longer. 

Grass-fed meat and more sustainable sourcing tend to be pricier, but if we use our privilege to make more sustainable farming the norm and to stop demanding as many animal products from the industry, it will eventually become more accessible.

We must not forget that as consumers, we have power, and as we continue to demand a certain product, they will give continue to provide it. 

Judging everybody for not following a certain lifestyle is wrong, and I believe that in order to spread veganism and awareness on the environment, we have to consider that some people are simply in situations in which it’s currently not an option, and show understanding for other people’s opinions and processes. 

In conclusion

Environmentally speaking, I don’t think there is one right way to do things. 

As we have learned, even if we were to farm properly, the amount of meat we would be generating would still be about half of what we generate now, so I think the message is clear. What is on our plate definitely impacts what goes on environmentally, and even if we do not decide to completely get rid of animal products, we should definitely reduce the amount that we consume and be mindful of how and where they are being sourced from.

Whether you choose to go vegan or just consume animal products more mindfully is completely up to you, your values, possibilities and ethics. What matters is that we start acting now. According to the United Nations, we only have 12 years left to reduce our fossil fuel emissions before the damage we do can’t be fixed.

Climate change is not something that someone will magically solve. It is a battle that we all constantly have to fight with our everyday choices. Every time you eat, every time you spend money, you are  casting a vote towards the kind of world you want. Only through using our power as individuals will we be able to create collective change.