Earth First

Don’t Eat Vegan, Eat Sustainably | Opinion

Being vegan is great for protecting the planet - but it's not for everyone. Perhaps we should all just be trying to eat sustainably instead?

First things first: I’m not vegan. I’m doing my best, but a quick audit of the kitchen reveals yoghurt in the fridge and eggs in the cupboard, so I guess the jig is up. But personally, I’m not too worried about whether or not my diet sticks to the (somewhat arbitrary) rule that everything must be plant-based. Instead, I’m doing my best to make choices that are sustainable for me, for the planet and for everyone and everything that lives on it. 

What is Sustainability?

‘Sustainability’ is a hotly debated concept. Many of us would define sustainability as the environmental impact something has, but I prefer the ‘three pillars of sustainability’, which defines  it as ‘giving equal consideration to the social, environmental and economic impacts of a choice or product, from a global level all the way down to the level of individuals.’1 The idea of such a definition is to capture the impact of a choice you make on “the possibility that human and other life will flourish on this planet forever.”2

At first glance, such a broad definition of sustainability only serves to highlight the obvious – that the huge climate emissions, water and land use, single-use packaging and even animal cruelty often associated with animal-derived food products make vegetarian diets overwhelmingly more sustainable than meat-based ones, and vegan diets even more sustainable still. But whilst that’s true in general, such broad-brush diets are not a perfect proxy for maximising the sustainability of the food we eat.  

Plant-based foods ≠ Sustainable Foods

At its simplest level, such an attitude can blind us to even more sustainable food options. For example, across all metrics, almond milk is a more sustainable choice than cow’s milk. But look a little deeper, and you’ll discover almonds mainly grow in hot, distant climates and require a huge amount of water, giving them an astronomical water footprint: just one litre of almond milk takes 317L of water to produce.3 Alternatively, oats are relatively easy to grow right here in Europe on a comparable amount of land, and oat milk contains more protein and carbohydrates than almond milk to boot.4 If you’re making the switch away from cows’ milk anyway, why not go a little further and choose the most sustainable option? 

A strict adherence to plant-based diets can also prevent us from taking opportunities to minimise waste. Supermarkets throw away a quarter of a million tonnes of food every year here in the UK alone.5 So I still buy meat and fish in supermarkets occasionally, but only when it’s on the yellow-label, “still fresh” discount counter – to me, that feels like the most sustainable decision at that point, as it avoids us wasting such an environmentally-costly product (and the death of an animal), without creating an increased demand that would encourage more such products onto our shelves. And what about offcuts and other less-desirable animal products that regularly go to waste – shouldn’t we be celebrating the people who eat tongue, trotters and snout rather than turning their noses up at it?

Eating Sustainably Isn’t Simple 

One of the biggest drawbacks to focusing on eating sustainably compared with eating a plant-based diet is balancing so many considerations at the same time. Do I choose the alternative milk that uses the least water or the one that comes in a fully-recyclable glass bottle rather than a plastic one? Here is where policymakers, producers and retailers need to step up and make our food chains more transparent. Traffic-light-style labels for nutritional content help us all make healthier food choices – couldn’t we have the same for sustainability so we can all make more informed decisions when we’re standing at the shelves?

Sustainability isn’t just about what we’re eating – where and how it was made, how it reached us and how it’s packaged all come into it. There’s a lot to consider when trying to make ethical food choices – find out how one vegan navigates the maze.

Scaling-up Sustainability Can Be a Problem 

To muddy the waters even further, the most sustainable choices we can make are not always the most sustainable choices for everyone else to make. Sometimes, the most ethical decisions simply don’t scale.

Take organic farming as an example: reduced use of fertilisers and pesticides on organic farms means less collateral damage done to the surrounding environment when growing our food. Therefore, for an individual looking to ‘eat sustainably’, buying organic makes sense. But organic farms are, on average, less productive than other modern farms. While the size of the so-called ‘yield gap’ between conventional and organic farms is hotly debated, if everyone only bought organic (and all farms switched to organic growing methods), total productivity would likely drop - meaning less food to go around and putting poorer communities at greater risk of famine.6

Thanks to our broad definition of sustainability covering social and economic factors, what’s most sustainable on a small scale (e.g. by reducing the environmental impact of farms) may actually be unsustainable on a large scale (e.g. by reducing food security for millions of people). Therefore, when lobbying for policy or industry-wide change, we need to bear in mind that the changes we’re asking for need to be sustainable when scaled up to a population-wide level. 

What’s Sustainable For Me?

We also need to consider people when we ask ourselves what’s most sustainable at the level of the individual. People need to make choices that are sustainable for them, as only long-term change can truly make a difference to the future of food. 

For some, a strict vegetarian or vegan diet may be a sustainable option, but others may have health conditions or other restrictions that make those diets impossible. Even then, 84% of people who go vegetarian or vegan in the U.S. end up abandoning their new diet - with over half of these claiming they found it too difficult to maintain such a “pure” diet and that they disliked that it made them stick out from the crowd.7 This issue of ‘purity’ is why diets based around sustainability (like flexitarianism or reducetarianism) rather than strict rules are often a better option – they allow everyone to progressively reduce the environmental impact of their diet in a way they will be able to keep up for decades rather than weeks.  

The issue is encapsulated nicely by “Veganuary”. Many people who try going vegetarian or vegan tend to transition to the diet quickly (over days or weeks), perhaps on the back of a trend. But those who make the change quickly are far more likely to lapse back to their previous diets than those who make the change slowly, over months and years.7 It’s better to make small, incremental changes to your diet and keep them up for years than to make a big-bang switch to being vegan, only to whack a steak on the grill on the first of February. 

Finally, money rears its ugly head once again. As plant-based diets have grown in popularity, alternative foods have become more accessible - I can now pick up a carton of oat milk in most supermarkets and even in my local grocery store - but not any less expensive. When oat milk costs twice that of cows’ milk and vegan cheese comes at a premium, how can we expect the less fortunate in society to put the planet before their own basic needs?

Luckily, there are plenty of affordable ways in which anyone can make their diet more sustainable. Do your best to avoid single-use packaging, and recycle everything you can. Or focus on buying local produce and using it all while wasting as little as possible. Or perhaps save money by eating meat less regularly and trying to buy it from low-impact meat producers rather than high-impact ones when you do. Letting people tackle sustainability in their own way rather than setting strict rules gives everyone a chance to make positive, long-term change – and leaves no one an excuse not to. 

There’s No Opt-out - Eat Sustainably

So, no - I’m not vegan. I’ve tried, but at this stage of my life, being strictly plant-based isn’t a sustainable choice for me. But I am actively trying to avoid animal products wherever possible, seeking out and making better use of plant-based alternatives, buying largely seasonal fruit and veg that isn’t wrapped in plastic, and recognising that with my financial privilege comes a responsibility to pay more for more sustainable products.

Being vegan might not be right for you right now either, but we can all aim to be as sustainable as possible within our own personal and financial constraints. If going vegan isn't an option, then try putting eating sustainably at the centre of your approach to food instead, and who knows – one day, you might just end up vegan by accident. 

Illustration: Cait Mack

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