What Veganism Could Help Us Achieve

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the on-going collaboration between S&S and GreenBuzz to promote increased dialogue between sustainability practitioners, academic experts, and the general public. GreenBuzz chapters in different cities coordinate on-the-ground events for a word-of-mouth driven community of professionals engaged in sustainability, bringing sustainability leaders together to connect with each other and to discuss specific sustainability topics. S&S will publish excerpts, summaries, and discussions generated by these events in order to facilitate on-going debate and make the information presented at these events available to a world-wide audience.

Vegan is becoming more popular — the number of videos, articles, opinions available on what it means to be vegan is rapidly increasing, as well as the number of vegan products and ease of finding such products in shops and restaurants.

Living a life without consuming of animal products is reportedly good for animals, good for the health and good for the environment. As a result, many people, including several Hollywood stars, have begun to experiment with a vegan lifestyle. While many studies show the advantages of shifting to a plant-based diet in terms of lower carbon footprint there are other factors to consider when assessing the benefits of a diet. Compared to an omnivorous diet, data support the environmental and health related benefits of a vegan diet but a more in-depth look shows that a vegan diet is still not the golden solution.

For example, having out of season fruits and vegetables shipped from far away countries can generate substantial carbon emissions. Growing these same out of season products in greenhouses powered by coal might be worse. What about the processed meat-replacement options? Is soy a healthy alternative? These were among the questions raised at the latest GreenBuzz Berlin event “Will veganism save the world?”. The environmental impacts of global food production are more complicated than the refrain that vegetables are good. Where food comes from, how it is grown and when it is grown are all important considerations in determining the environmental impacts of a food system.

Consider quinoa. An ancient protein and nutrient-rich grain for which demand has skyrocketed in recent years. This increased demand has had mixed effects on the populations of the Latin American countries that traditionally grow quinoa. Farmers who produce quinoa have benefited from higher prices but as more global players begin to produce quinoa the increased supply may result in lower prices that harm traditional producers. Similar questions can be asked about soy, whose health and environmental benefits have been long questioned. Soy is connected to deforestation and ecosystems loss. At the same time soy is a protein-rich staple of plant-based diets and is most efficient from a calorie perspective when eaten directly by humans rather than fed to livestock.

Dietary changes are only one of the factors that can mitigate the environmental impacts of agriculture and farming.  Productivity improvements and technical mitigation measures are other important factors. While  diets with higher percentages of plants can be better for the environment and the health benefits are widely supported by scientific research, veganism brings the discussion beyond environmental impacts. Whether you are omnivorous or a vegetarian and regardless of your diet within these categories, being vegan is much more than just what you put on your plate. A core focus of veganism is animal welfare and it is driven by concern for our shared ecology. The focus on animal welfare is based on both the belief that non-human animals are sentient and that animals should not be regarded as property.

The second point, that animals may be sentient, connects directly with deep ecology principles, which recognize the inherent value of all being. In The Ecology of Wisdom, Arne Naess, father of the “deep ecology” term writes:

 fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions and ways of living. We must realize that when basic needs have been met human development is about being more, not having more.

A core part of Naess’ philosophy is the importance of understanding and valuing the interconnections between human well-being and the limits of an ecologically functional and diverse planet.

Reducing or eliminating consumption and use of animal products could be seen as an act of humility, recognizing human participation in ecosystems rather than the domination.  How? By acknowledging that meat and dairies are not essential from a dietary perspective in developed societies, where nutrients are available from other sources. However, there may still be important cultural reasons for consuming meat and dairy products.

Making clear-cut recommendations on diets is challenging as it encompasses personal values, cultural identity, body image, marketing, memories, always evolving science and pleasure. Food is part of how we as humans interact with our environment and limiting our consumption is ultimately not just a personal life choice, but it reflects on how we value other living beings and our shared ecology.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on September 29, 2016.


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