Going vegan for the environment…is it worth it?

By Stephen Smit | @StephenSmit92

Illustration by Charlotte Franks

It’s one of the most pressing questions of our time, set to shape the very future of what we eat. How do we produce enough food for the world’s burgeoning population without causing irreversible damage to our environment?

Fortunately for us, there’s a simple way to achieve this. But there’s a catch. Research has indicated that it could be as simple as moderating our consumption of land and energy intensive agriculture, particularly red meat, and moving to a more plant based diet. Feeding the world’s predicted 9.6 billion people in 2050 with our current omnivore diet isn’t possible without sacrificing the health of our planet, as 70% more food will be required than what we currently produce.

But, theoretically, researchers from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food have solved this problem. They compared four different hypothetical situations where the world either changed or continued its current diet, and how each scenario would play out by the year 2050. The results were startling – it found that adopting diets in line with current global guidelines would cut food related emissions by 29%, vegetarian diets would cut them by 63%, and vegan diets by 70%.

While the results are promising, a sustainable agriculture specialist at the University of Melbourne, Professor Richard Eckard, favours a range of strategies as a more realistic solution. He believes a move to a more plant based diet is the ideal solution and good for the wellbeing of the planet, but lower methane livestock, clean energy generation from livestock waste and cutting down on waste overall should also be part of the discussion.

“If we cut out wastage, which is about 40% of the food chain, we can currently feed the 2050 population,” he says.

Another study focusing on land sustainability by scientific journal Nature Communications found that 100 per cent of the vegan scenarios would be successful in cutting food related emissions. Vegetarianism enabled success in 94 per cent, while the meat-based diet would work in only 15 per cent of the futures depicted. It concluded, in the unlikely situation that we all become vegan by the year 2050, we would require less cropland than was needed in the year 2000. An area around the size of the Amazon rainforest could be reforested.  

Professor Eckard asserted that more factors would have to be taken into account, though, before any discussion around reducing livestock numbers or increasing cropland could begin. He says that where possible, preference should be given to increasing cropland rather than giving more land to livestock, as the crops would simply be able to feed more people.

Complicating matters, most of the world’s population growth will happen in developing regions such as South America, Africa, and Asia with a growing middle class to fuel most of the future demand for intensive agriculture. While the developed world has recently seen an increase in the number of people adopting plant based diets, Professor Eckard was quick to put things in perspective – only “10% of the world’s population” has a choice over their diet, he says. He explains that 84% of the world’s population lives on $20 or less a day. For these people, “they don’t get a choice of food, they just eat what they can get.”

He points out that any sacrifices made by vegans and vegetarians in the developed world will have little effect upon emission reduction and deforestation. “I think the rise of vegetarians in the developed world is going to lead to a reduction in demand (for animal-based products), but that’s not where the problem lies,” he says.

“The world’s rising middle class wanting a western diet is the issue. The population in Australia is growing by such a small amount relative to the developing world. A decrease in meat consumption here will have only a small impact on global meat production”.

Although Professor Eckard thinks that the efforts from the vegan and vegetarian community may be fruitless from an environmental perspective, it is the responsibility of the developed world to set the right example and send a powerful message to the developing world on the importance of moderation.

“Symbolically, it actually means something. If you’re saying ‘I’m going to go vegetarian or reduce the amount of red meat consumption I have’, on the assumption that’s going to make a difference, then that will send a signal around saying ‘this is important, let’s have a look at other areas of our lifestyle’. If we can change the perception of the world’s rising middle class that the diet to aspire towards is a diet of moderation, then I think we can make effective change.”

As promising as all this research is, the reality is that cultural barriers, misconceptions about plant based diets and old fashioned resistance to change will need to be addressed to make all this research a reality and create more sustainable future. The message from researchers is clear – it is possible to create a sustainable food system in harmony with mother nature, but it will require sacrifice on the behalf of the whole world. The power to create change starts with us, in the everyday food choices we make.

As Professor Eckard says, “individually keeping all things in balance may not make a large footprint. But, like a domino effect, we can change the way we eat and thus create a more sustainable future.”

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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