‘Veganuary’ – could a plant-based lifestyle really save the planet?

As we leave behind the indulgences of the festive period, an increasing number of people are signing up to ‘Veganuary’, a campaign encouraging people to try vegan for the month of January and beyond. Already, the campaign has reached its target of 350,000 participants as it continues to grow in popularity; increasing its support every year since its launch in 2014.

Participants sign up for a number of reasons, with major drivers being health, animal welfare and the environment. It’s perhaps no surprise that health is a major driver, given the time of year, but increasingly people are turning away from animal products in a bid to help protect the planet.

Indeed, animal agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change and while it hasn’t received the same attention as others such as the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport, it is now receiving increasing media coverage.

Impact of animal agriculture

“The food industry is destroying the living world”. These were the words of environmental journalist George Monbiot, also a supporter of Veganuary, in the recent Channel 4 documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet.

With the increasing population, there has been much discussion in recent years of the effects of urban sprawl and how to tackle this, but Monbiot suggests that attention should be turned to ‘agricultural sprawl’, which he asserts is a much bigger cause of habitat destruction. While ambling through the indisputably scenic Lake District, he describes the landscape as a “sheep-wrecked desert”, which was once home to a rich mosaic of trees, shrubs, plants and animals.

It is also noted that while deforestation in the Amazon is a topic of much current discussion and concern, Britain is actually one of the most deforested landscapes in the world, with agriculture one of the biggest drivers.

The documentary highlights that 51% of land in the UK is currently used for livestock or growing food for livestock, while less than 20% is used for growing cereals, fruit and vegetables for human consumption, and just 10% is used for trees – the one thing that is “essential for both nourishing living systems and preventing climate breakdown”.

Agriculture is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK and 10-12% of emissions globally; the fourth highest GHG emitting sector in the world.

Monbiot makes a radical suggestion that all farming could be eradicated in the future as we look to other sources of food and more sustainable practices. This may be somewhat extreme and undoubtedly something with which the farming community would disagree.

Nevertheless, the extent of the current climate crisis warrants drastic measures and as one of the largest contributors, it would make sense for action to be taken to reduce the impact agriculture currently has.  And it has been argued that a change in diet is the easiest and fastest way to reduce our own personal emissions.

Impact of reduced meat consumption

According to calculations based on the current Veganuary participation figures, 31 days of a vegan diet for 350,000 people would equate to the following savings:

  • 41,200 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere – the same as 450,000 flights from London to Berlin;
  • 160 tonnes of PO43 equivalent (eutrophication) from waterways – the same as preventing 650 tonnes of sewage from entering waterways; and
  • 5 million litres of water, which is enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In addition, it is suggested that 1 million animals could be saved.

Analysis of the Veganuary 2019 campaign results by Kantar suggests that going vegan for January also leads to sustained meat reduction. Drawing on data from January to June 2019, it was found that there was a sustained reduction in consumption which is estimated to have saved approximately 3.6 million animals in Britain alone.

Still just 3% of the population identify as vegan according to Kantar. Nevertheless, those who participated in Veganuary but did not stay vegan beyond January, did maintain reduced consumption levels at least until July, suggesting a long-term impact on consumption habits.

With increasing numbers pledging their support to Veganuary each year and the resulting reductions in sales of red meat, it would seem that reducing meat consumption may well be a way forward.

Indeed, the United Nations (UN) has also emphasised the need for significant changes in global land use, agriculture and human diets. The UN-commissioned special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health”. By 2050, it suggests that dietary changes could free several million km2 of land and considerably reduce CO2 emissions.

Final thoughts

The ‘Veganuary effect’ has clearly been significant and one that sees no sign of dissipating any time soon.

Of course, changing diets isn’t the only way to reduce the environmental impact of food production. Reducing food waste and changing farming and land management practices can also help reduce emissions. The IPCC report also calls for an end to deforestation, the planting of new forests and support to small farmers. It does not call for an end to all farming.

So while we wait for the many governments to take meaningful action on climate change, perhaps picking up our knives and forks as the weapon of choice against the climate crisis is an effective way of making a difference now.


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Guest post: Some countries have introduced mandatory nutritional labelling on menus – here’s why the UK should follow suit

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Guest post by: Dolly Theis, University of Cambridge

Would you eat a burger if you knew it contained almost 6,000 calories? Some would gladly tuck in while others would recoil in horror. But if you have calories on the menu, at least you know what you’re biting into. And as our latest research shows, menu labelling, as it is called, may be a powerful way to change the nation’s eating habits.

Research shows that the British public is increasingly eating out and ordering takeaways, rather than preparing food at home. Our earlier research estimates that a quarter of UK adults and a fifth of children eat at a restaurant or order a takeaway at least once a week. Food that isn’t prepared at home tends to be less healthy, more calorific and higher in fat, sugar and salt than food prepared at home. While eating out is a triumph for a large and important commercial sector, it is also contributing to the obesity crisis and the increase in diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Still not mandatory

Unlike nutrition labelling on pre-packaged food, which has been around for years and mandated under EU law since 2016, menu labelling is still not mandated in the UK. The government included voluntary menu labelling in its Public Health Responsibility Deal in 2011, and several establishments have since introduced menu labelling.

Of the top 100 chain restaurants in the UK, we recently found that 42 publish nutritional information on their websites, and of these, 14 voluntarily provide menu labelling in their establishments. A proposal for mandated menu labelling was included in the UK government’s Childhood Obesity Plan, and a public consultation closed last December, but no announcement on a final policy has been made so far.

Mandatory menu labelling has been introduced in other countries, including the US in 2019 and parts of Australia.

Calories explained.

Labelled menus mean healthier food

We found that food and drink sold at the top largest UK chain restaurants whose menus display energy information are lower in fat and salt than those of their competitors.

Menu labelling has often been touted as a way to provide information that helps people choose healthier dishes, but several reviews, including a recent Cochrane review, found only modest, poor quality evidence of an effect of menu labelling on purchasing and consumption. Our evidence suggests that the benefit of menu labelling may not necessarily be in helping consumers make healthier choices, but in incentivising restaurants to serve healthier food and drink. Without nutritional information, it is difficult to know where improvements are needed.

Nutritional information is only helpful if it is accurate. A 2018 study on the views of Irish food-service businesses towards voluntary menu labelling found that key barriers to implementing it included concerns about potential inaccuracies in calorie information and the lack of training on how best to provide quality calorie information.

If food outlets are mandated to provide menu labelling, they will need greater support and training to do so. But it may also increase the demand for more accurate, efficient and accessible methods of data collection (typically laboratory or electronic database analysis), promising easier ways to account for the nutritional quality of what’s on restaurant menus.

Should nanny stay at home?

Mandatory labelling will not be popular in all corners. After all, who doesn’t enjoy blowing out at the occasional all-you-can-eat buffet? The challenge is that eating out is not occasional anymore. It is has become habitual.

Fortunately, as we increasingly ditch the kitchen for the restaurant and takeaway, government has found that there is strong public support for menu labelling. Through the Childhood Obesity Plan, the government is exploring many ways to help make it easier for us all to make healthier choices and menu labelling should be considered as one of many policies, not as a silver bullet.

The 6,000-calorie burger is an extreme example. But think about it, when you last ate out, did you know how many calories you were consuming?The Conversation

Dolly Theis, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


Read more: further reading on food from The Knowledge Exchange blog