‘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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Ugly veg: supermarkets aren’t the biggest food wasters – you are

Image via The Conversation, Amophoto_au/Shutterstock

This guest blog was written by Miriam C. Dobson, NPhD Researcher in Urban Agriculture, University of Sheffield and Jill L. Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.

“Ugly” or “wonky” veg were blamed for up to 40% of wasted fruit and vegetables in 2013, as produce was discarded for failing to meet retailer appearance standards. About 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted worldwide every year and, of this, fruit and vegetables have the highest wastage rates of any food type. But just how much of that is due to “ugly veg” being tossed by farms and supermarkets? The biggest culprit for food waste may be closer to home than we’d like to admit.

“Ugliness” is just one reason among many for why food is wasted at some point from farm to fork – there’s also overproduction, improper storage and disease. But the problem of “wonky veg” caught the public’s attention.

A report published in 2017 suggested that sales of “wonky veg” have risen in recent years as retailers have acknowledged the problem with wasting edible food, but it’s estimated that up to 25% of apples, 20% of onions and 13% of potatoes grown in the UK are still wasted on cosmetic grounds.

Morrisons reported that consumers had begun to buy more misshapen food, whereas Sainsbury’s and Tesco both report including “wonky veg” in their recipe boxes, juices, smoothies and soups.

Not all ugly veg is wasted at the retail point of the supply chain however. WRAP, a charity who have been working with governments on food waste since 2000, have investigated food waste on farms and their initial findings suggest a major cause of fruit waste is due to produce failing aesthetic standards. For example, strawberries are often discarded if they’re the wrong size for supermarkets.

The National Farmers Union also reported in 2014 that around 20% of Gala apples were being wasted prior to leaving the farm gate as they weren’t at least 50% red in colour.

Home is where the waste is

Attitudes seem to be changing on “ugly veg” at least. Morissons ran a campaign to promote its “ugly veg” produce aisle, and other supermarkets are stocking similar items. Despite this, household waste Love Food Hate Waste for food waste in the UK. Just under 5m tonnes of food wasted in the UK occurs in households – a staggering 70% of all post-farm gate food waste.

A further million tonnes is wasted in the hospitality sector, with the latest government report blaming overly generous portion sizes. This suggests that perhaps – despite the best effort of campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste – farms and retailers have been unfairly targeted by the “wonky veg” campaigns at the expense of focusing on where food waste really hits home. The 2013 Global Food Security Report put the figure for household and hospitality waste at 50% of total UK food waste.

There are some signs we’re getting better at least. WRAP’s 2015 research showed that, at the household level, people now waste 1m tonnes of food per year less than they did in 2007. This is a staggering £3.4 billion per year saved simply by throwing less edible produce away.

As climate change and its influence on extreme weather intensifies, reducing waste from precious food harvests will only become more important. Knowing exactly where the majority of waste occurs, rather than focusing too much on “wonky veg” in farms and supermarkets, is an important step towards making sure everyone has enough affordable and nutritious food to live on.

During the UK’s “Dig for Victory” campaign in World War II, a large proportion of the population had to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Now the majority of people live in cities and towns – typically detached from primary food production. In the UK, the MYHarvest project has started to uncover how much “own-growing” contributes to the national diet and it seems demand for land to grow-your-own is increasing.

Research in Italy and Germany found that people who grow their own food waste the least. One way to fight food waste at home then – whether for “wonky” fruit and vegetables or otherwise – may be to replace the farm-to-fork supply chain with a garden-to-plate approach.


Guest blog written by Miriam C. Dobson, NPhD Researcher in Urban Agriculture, University of Sheffield and Jill L. Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.

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

How urban farmers are learning to grow food without soil or natural light

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

This guest blog was written by Silvio Caputo, Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

Growing food in cities became popular in Europe and North America during and immediately after World War II. Urban farming provided citizens with food, at a time when resources were desperately scarce. In the decades that followed, parcels of land which had been given over to allotments and city farms were gradually taken up for urban development. But recently, there has been a renewed interest in urban farming – albeit for very different reasons than before.

As part of a recent research project investigating how urban farming is evolving across Europe, I found that in countries where growing food was embedded in the national culture, many people have started new food production projects. There was less uptake in countries such as Greece and Slovenia, where there was no tradition of urban farming. Yet a few community projects had recently been started in those places too.

Today’s urban farmers don’t just grow food to eat; they also see urban agriculture as a way of increasing the diversity of plants and animals in the city, bringing people from different backgrounds and age groups together, improving mental and physical health and regenerating derelict neighbourhoods.

Many new urban farming projects still struggle to find suitable green spaces. But people are finding inventive solutions; growing food in skips or on rooftops, on sites that are only temporarily free, or on raised beds in abandoned industrial yards. Growers are even using technologies such as hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics to make the most of unoccupied spaces.

Something fishy

Hydroponic systems were engineered as a highly space and resource efficient form of farming. Today, they represent a considerable source of industrially grown produce; one estimate suggests that, in 2016, the hydroponic vegetable market was worth about US$6.9 billion worldwide.

Hydroponics enable people to grow food without soil and natural light, using blocks of porous material where the plants’ roots grow, and artificial lighting such as low-energy LED. A study on lettuce production found that although hydroponic crops require significantly more energy than conventionally grown food, they also use less water and have considerably higher yields.

Growing hydroponic crops usually requires sophisticated technology, specialist skills and expensive equipment. But simplified versions can be affordable and easy to use.

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

Hemmaodlat is an organisation based in Malmö, in a neighbourhood primarily occupied by low-income groups and immigrants. The area is densely built, and there’s no green space available to grow food locally. Plus, the Swedish summer is short and not always ideal for growing crops. Instead, the organisation aims to promote hydroponic systems among local communities, as a way to grow fresh food using low-cost equipment.

The Bristol Fish Project is a community-supported aquaponics farm, which breeds fish and uses the organic waste they produce to fertilise plants grown hydroponically. GrowUp is another aquaponics venture located in an East London warehouse – they grow food and farm fish using only artificial light. Similarly, Growing Underground is an enterprise that produces crops in tunnels, which were originally built as air raid shelters during World War II in London.

The next big thing?

The potential to grow food in small spaces, under any environmental conditions, are certainly big advantages in an urban context. But these technologies also mean that the time spent outdoors, weathering the natural cycles of the seasons, is lost. Also, hydroponic systems require nutrients that are often synthesised chemically – although organic nutrients are now becoming available. Many urban farmers grow their food following organic principles, partly because the excessive use of chemical fertilisers is damaging soil fertility and polluting groundwater.

To see whether these drawbacks would put urban growers off using hydroponic systems, my colleagues and I conducted a pilot study in Portsmouth. We installed small hydroponic units in two local community gardens, and interviewed volunteers and visitors to the gardens. Many of the people we spoke to were well informed about hydroponic technology, and knew that some of the vegetables sold in supermarkets today are produced with this system.

Many were fascinated by the idea of growing food without soil within their community projects, but at the same time reluctant to consume the produce because of the chemical nutrients used. A few interviewees were also uncomfortable with the idea that the food was not grown naturally. We intend to repeat this experiment in the near future, to see how public opinion changes over time.

And while we don’t think hydroponic systems can replace the enjoyment that growing food in soil can offer, they can save water and produce safe food, either indoors or outdoors, in a world with increasingly scarce resources. Learning to use these new technologies, and integrating them into existing projects, can only help to grow even more sustainable food.

As with many technological advancements, it could be that a period of slow acceptance will be followed by rapid, widespread uptake. Perhaps the fact that IKEA is selling portable hydroponic units, while hydroponic cabinets are on the market as components of kitchen systems, is a sign that this technology is primed to enter mainstream use.


Silvio Caputo is Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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