Veganism is a lifestyle that has gained great prominence in recent years, with the number of vegans increasing from “an estimated half a million people in 2016 to more than 3.5 million” (Tree, 2018) today in the UK. Whether based on ethical considerations, environmental protection, or simply to follow a trend, the impact of veganism is certainly beneficial, particularly in regards to reducing carbon emissions. However, despite the glory we may afford it, little consideration is given to appropriately assess whether veganism is as sustainable as it is presented in mainstream media.
Much like any popular good or service in today’s economy, veganism has fallen subject to the claws of consumerism and, based on the mechanisms of the market, demand drives prices. It therefore follows that as the western demand for products, such as avocadoes and quinoa, forces an increase in their price, they resultantly “become unaffordable for those who depend on them in their country of origin” (Henderson, 2018). It has been stated by the Agriculture and Food Authority that the “average price of a 90kg-bag of avocados has reached 2,560 Kenyan shillings” (Henderson, 2018) – their highest recorded price since 2014. Similarly, Mexico has considered importing avocados, a staple food for the country, despite the fact that it supplies approximately 45% of the global stock. Further still, in 2013, in Andean regions such as Peru and Bolivia, prices of quinoa have reportedly trebled since 2006, causing the essential grain to simply become too expensive for local people to buy (Henderson, 2018).
This is not to say that such foods are reserved only for vegans. Non-vegan diets will also contribute to the demand. However, as more people depart from meat and dairy products, they will invariably seek alternatives such as those aforementioned, and, in turn, prevent producing countries from having access to staple foods.
More consideration needs to be given to how food is produced and distributed, not just what food is being produced. How sustainable is vegan food production if it’s found to be exploitative, predominantly imported and in need of “high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides” (Tree, 2018)? In this vein, the distance travelled by these food items in terms of food miles, also bears negative environmental implications. One may even go as far as to argue, in face of such facts, that it could be considered more environmentally friendly to consume locally produced meat.
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An important declaration to make is that this is not an attempt to discourage people from veganism, but rather to consider feasible solutions in which we can improve current food systems to minimise its disadvantages. There is no use in criticism if it is not constructive. One way in which this can be achieved is through the localisation of food sourcing as this could potentially solve the problems posed by food miles. If the Western world, to a degree, can become more self-sufficient, it would prevent global demand for these goods causing prices to rise to a point at which they become unaffordable. Additionally, this could serve to force the responsibility of sustainable farming as the produce then sits within immediate vicinity of the consumer. External production breeds an ‘out-of-sight out-of-mind’ mentality. Localising food production, on the other hand, can bring about more accountability for the producers to employ sustainable and environmentally- friendly measures.
The other entity that I have identified as a hindrance to sustainable veganism is its accessibility. Many of the existing statistics used to promote a vegan lifestyle deal with absolutes. Statements such as “if every American went vegan, we’d reduce our annual agricultural carbon emissions from 623 million to 446 million tons” (Chodosh, 2017) or “If the world went vegan it could save 8 million human lives by 2050” (Piasecka, 2018). The universality of such statements encompasses everyone in its wording, but the fact still remains that not everyone will be a vegan. Irrespective of health or environment, some people may not wish to entertain veganism simply because of the way it is marketed within the media.
Most media campaigns, particularly those on social media, tend to target a more middle class audience. #CleanEating is one that is especially prominent and usually accompanied by aesthetically pleasing images that cater to a specific, young, privileged crowd. In doing this, however, those that do not fit with the proposed conditions for advertisement often feel excluded from the vegan narrative. People from low income backgrounds and dissimilar cultures are not able to connect with the lifestyle as they may not feel as though they are part of the intended audience.
Any attempt to make veganism more universally accessible should ensure that advertisements and the way that veganism is presented bear the same message. Rather than catering to a specific sector, campaigns and adverts should aim to make it feel as accessible as possible. Possible solutions for this may be using universally relatable language or alternately creating different sectors within them so people can find their niche, i.e. Tips for Vegan Eating on A Budget. This would allow people to see better how veganism relates directly to themselves, rather than viewing it as yet another internet trend.
If you wish to find out whether Warwick’s ‘Meatless Month’ was the sustainable success many hoped for, click here.
In conclusion, in a multitude of ways, veganism is indisputably an environmentally considerate option. However, it is inherently naïve to be disillusioned and not consider the hidden costs that are felt as a result of veganism socially, environmentally and economically. Analysing such can help to minimise the perpetuation of misinformation and allow consumers to make more informed choices, enabling us to move one step further a truly sustainable society. It’s time to start making veganism more sustainable through localised food production, increasing its accessibility and availability and changing the mindsets often held towards the lifestyle.
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Chodosh, S. (2017). Stop pretending that all Americans could ever go vegan. [online] Popsci.com. Available at: https://www.popsci.com/united-states-vegan [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].
Henderson, E. (2018). Why being vegan isn’t as environmentally friendly as you might think. [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/veganism-environment-veganuary-friendly-food-diet-damage-hodmedods-protein-crops-jack-monroe-a8177541.html [Accessed 6 Feb. 2019].
Jarrett, D. (2016). Veganism is a Privilege, not a Cure.. [online] Elephant Journal. Available at: https://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/09/veganism-is-a-privilege-not-a-cure/ [Accessed 8 Feb. 2019].
Owens, H. (2018). The Problems with the UK’s New ‘Big Vegan’ Industry. [online] Vice. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/qvwxzv/the-problems-with-the-uks-new-big-vegan-industry [Accessed 14 Feb. 2019].
Piasecka, D. (2018). The hard facts: How going vegan impacts the environment and our health. [online] Vegan Food & Living. Available at: https://www.veganfoodandliving.com/the-hard-facts-how-going-vegan-impacts-the-environment-and-our-health/ [Accessed 10 Feb. 2019].
Tree, I. (2018). If you want to save the world, veganism isn’t the answer | Isabella Tree. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/veganism-intensively-farmed-meat-dairy-soya-maize [Accessed 9 Feb. 2019].
Young, N. (2017). Not Everyone Can Afford to Go Vegan (Updated 9/17). [online] Veganzinga. Available at: http://veganzinga.com/not-everyone-can-afford-to-go-vegan/ [Accessed 10 Feb. 2019].
A very important call for reflective consideration of how we eat here on campus and more widely in our lives. This is part of these questions that we explore in the year 2 GSD module on Food Security, Sovereignty and Sustainability, and I’d like to share a reflection from this learning about the localisation of food as a way to promote great sustainability.
Conceptually, the distance travelled by a food might appear important. “Food miles” have generated great currency, but also considerable debate (1). Indeed, critical interrogation using the more holistic tool of life-cycle analysis – so from all inputs of production through the consumption and waste disposal – often identifies that the overwhelming majority of food’s environmental impact is created during production, not transportation (2).
The mode of transport is a very important variable in this analysis, and this applies to the supply to retail, as well as the consumer to the point of purchase: as everyone driving in their carbon inefficient cars to a farmers market, versus taking an electric bus to centralised food hub, itself fed by efficient, mass logistics (3). However, it’s often the case that food grow in other countries under more eco-agricultural conditions and imported by boat, has less overall impact in key areas than if the product is grown locally, where ecological conditions need significant enhancement – fertilizer, heat etc – for economically sustainable production. Classic case studies are comparisons of organic sun grown tomatoes vs those from intensive, heated greenhouses (4).
In this sense, its likely equally important for relatively high capacity individuals to consider eating A) less meat particularly red meat (even if that is from a meat heavy diet to having one vegetarian or vegan meal per week, per day etc (5), B) produce seasonal to its production context and C) that which uses organic methods. More collectively there are larger conversations to be had: about if food should be reduced to just another global commodity, provided to those with the highest ability to pay, or if other concepts and institutions might best alleviate the moral concerns over ordering a smash avocado sandwich for my sunday brunch (6).