Less vegetarian, more vegan?

Recently it was my ten year vegi-versary. Becoming vegetarian was the first lifestyle decision that I consciously made myself to reduce my environmental impact (as an idealistic teenager still living at home I was less concerned with how it might impact my mother, who very obligingly catered for my decision…thanks mum!).

Especially in the early days I got pretty over-excited about telling people why they should become vegetarian too, but over the years I have become a bit more chill about it. The evidence is now pretty irrefutable that a plant-based diet has the least impact on the planet. With all the publicity that recent studies have had, it seems more and more people around me have been either consciously trying to limit the amount of meat they consume or cutting it out altogether (yay!).

But while all my peers are excitedly becoming vegetarian (some for a second or third time), I have recently been reconsidering whether it is best for me. Here are some thoughts on why a plant-based diet is pretty great, why it might be less great, and where to from here.

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Photo by FOODISM360 on Unsplash

Why a plant-based diet is pretty great

The evidence is pretty clear that a plant-based diet has the least impact on the planet. I was planning to link to a bunch of sources that show this, but very conveniently a massive meta-analysis of 570 food-related life cycle assessments was published this month in Science.

​(You have to pay to access the actual journal article, but if you have the means it is well worth a look! Articles published in Science are really short and accessible compared to other academic journals. If you want to nerd out over their dataset, you can access it here. It is worth a download just to see the amount of time, effort and rigour that goes into such a study.)

The whole article is full of fascinating insights that the authors have drawn from the data, but my main take-aways were:

  1. There is high variation in the impacts of different products. You can see this in the figure below which shows the range of impacts for each food type – the wider the bar, the greater the variability in the impact from that food. The authors note that this presents an opportunity for producers to improve practices to reduce their impacts, as others in the industry are able to do it. As a consumer however, it is really hard to know whether the 100 grams of cheese you are eating has resulted in 15 kg CO2eq of emissions, or a third of that.
  2. Nonetheless, the impacts of plant-based foods are generally lower than animal-based foods. Although in some cases animal products at the low-impact end of the spectrum overlap with high-impact plant products, on average the plant-based foods have lower impacts across the indicators of the study. One of the (abridged) conclusions in the article is:

Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential, reducing food’s land use by 3.1 billion ha (a 76% reduction); food’s GHG emissions by 6.6 billion tons of CO2eq (a 49% reduction); acidification by 50%; eutrophication by 49%; and scarcity-weighted freshwater withdrawals by 19%

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These graphs show the range of environmental impacts from different foods. (Definitely not my image, from the Oxford media release with credit to J. Poore and T. Nemecek.)
(My next post is a follow up that discusses in a bit more detail what these indicators mean. Check it out here.)

Why just ‘being vegetarian’ is less great for me

For the last ten years, I have used being vegetarian as a bit of an excuse be lazy and not to look further into what the most sustainable and ethical food choices actually are. My one absolute criterion for deciding whether or not to eat something has been “Did an animal die? No. Ok good!” But as you can see in the charts above, the impacts of different individual foods can vary a lot depending on how they are grown, processed, transported and consumed.

I eat a reasonable amount of dairy, because halloumi (and also greek yogurt, and goats cheese, and blue cheese). But there are still impacts from keeping livestock to produce dairy. If you look at the charts above, while not as high as beef and other meats, the impacts of diary and eggs are still higher than most plant-based sources (and fish, which I don’t eat). The arbitrary lines that I have drawn around my diet do not necessarily align with the impacts of the foods.

In recent years I have mentally given myself a free pass to eat meat while travelling because (a) I’m no longer a ratty teenager and don’t want to put people out, and (b) there are lots of cultural experiences tied up with food and I don’t want to miss out on those because of a self-imposed restriction. But! While there have been a couple of times that I have consumed foods with some meat in them for the first reason, I’m yet to really take myself up on the free pass.

This means that there have been times when it really would have made sense to eat meat and I haven’t. For example:

  • While travelling in Ecuador we stopped off at a fishing spot on the side of the road, where people catch fish and have them cooked up in the kitchen for lunch. This is about a sustainable as it gets really – completely local, zero food miles, zero waste, no energy or resources used to grow, process or package the food. (Similarly, but a less cool story, there is a trout farm just down the road from my parents’ house in regional Victoria. My brother and brother-in-law often go fishing there, and it would be a super fresh, sustainable protein option but I am still yet to eat anything they catch.)
  • Back in March, we went along to a Wasteless Supper hosted here in Cardiff by Green City Events and Lia’s Kitchen. The entire delicious menu was based around ingredients that would otherwise have gone to waste. In this situation, opting for the omnivorous option might have made more sense as it was eating meat that would otherwise go to waste. (I find it very sad any time I see food going to waste, particularly meat).
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Fishing in Ecuador
In the back of my mind, I am conscious that I should probably do some more thinking about food, sustainability and whether I am really making the best choices. Meat is not the only problematic food source. Last year New Scientist published a list of ‘7 foods you should avoid to help feed the world’, which hits a bunch of my other dietary staples (chocolate!). And since living in the UK, even my adored avocado toast seems like it will be causing issues (although perhaps that is not so tragic, avocados here taste pretty lacklustre compared to in Australia).

However, what has really prompted me to reconsider what I choose to eat was a recent failed attempt to donate blood. For those that haven’t done so before, when you go to donate blood they do a quick test to make sure you have enough haemoglobin. (In Wales the test is super cool – they look at whether a drop of blood floats or not in an iodine solution. In Melbourne the test is a much more boring digital reader.) I was so sure when I went along this time that my iron levels would be fine, because I’m pretty diligent these days at eating a variety of pretty iron rich foods. Since trying to donate a couple of years ago in Australia, I have made much more of an effort to get enough iron by eating lots of leafy greens and even taking supplements for a while. Fast forward a few years later and turns out I’m still iron deficient…boo!

Where to from here?

Well, the first step is going to a doctor and working out the whole iron-deficiency situation. But I have also been talking to lots of people recently about the balance between individual health and well-being, and choosing sustainable options that are better for the planet.

So going forward I am considering becoming less vegetarian but more vegan. That seems a bit odd, what does it mean?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Try to eat less dairy. Getting our milk delivered in glass bottles has really helped with this, since it costs about four times as much. To supplement it I have started making oat milk, which is about as delicious as it sounds. (As in, how delicious you find it will depend on how much you want to like it. Sort of like matcha lattes, or using a bamboo toothbrush.)
  • Look for sustainably sourced meat and try to psych myself up to eat it. This is going to be a hard one! I have been vegetarian for so long that the ‘ick’ factor is real. If I was still in Australia, I would probably find some kangaroo as it is a pretty sustainable option (easy to say when I can’t actually buy it now). I don’t really know what the equivalent would be so this is going to take some research.
  • Make a real effort to consider all the other factors that influence the sustainability of the particular item I am looking to eat – including how local and seasonal it is. The Science article above suggests environmental labels as a way to communciate impacts, I would love to see something like a nutrition label that transparently shows the source and impacts of a product (on the bulk bin of whatever you are buying, of course). But until that exists, being conscious of origin and seasonality is probably a good first step.
  • Be really glad that the message of plant-based eating is finally catching on. Hopefully the knowledge that a bunch of my friends have recently turned vegetarian will help assuage any guilt I feel if I do end up eating meat.
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Photo by FOODISM360 on Unsplash
Related reading and resources:

  • The World Resources Institute published a fascinating report on Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future a few years ago. It comes to a similar conclusion as other studies – switching to a more plant-based diet could reduce the pressure from agriculture on the environment – but also includes behaviour change strategies to facilitate this switch on a global scale.
  • The most recent podcast in the Guardian’s We Need to Talk About… series is on veganism. It is an interesting listen.
  • Fake meat (as in lab grown alternatives that are seriously similar to meat from dead animals) might help the situation. It can already be produced with a much lower environmental footprint than meat from animals, bringing down the cost is the next challenge. These articles from Matters Journal and Future Crunch have some interesting perspectives.
  • If you are looking for recipe ideas for a plant-based diet, Green Kitchen Stories is one of my absolute favourite blogs (and their books are lovely too)! Also check out My New Roots, Oh She Glows and Deliciously Ella for more inspiration.
  • If you are thinking of eating less meat but are not sure how to make sure you are getting all the right nutrients, I would recommend checking out Simple Happy Kitchen‘s adorable information sheets. Check these iron-rich guys out…
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Adorable infographic by Simple Happy Kitchen
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