Vegan – for life or just for January?

This is a guest post by Tilly Potter

Almost everyone seems to have heard of Veganuary nowdays – a remarkable fact considering Veganuary started as a charitable start-up just 6 years ago with only 3,300 sign-ups. This January, a reported 350,000 people have signed up. 62% of Veganuary participants from 2018 claimed they would stick with veganism after January. But is veganism really the answer for the planet – or is it just a fad?

According to a report released by the EAT-Lancet commission in 2019, their recommendations for a sustainable diet essentially boil down to (no pun intended) eating as many plants and as few animal products as possible – but giving them up entirely isn’t necessary. According to their statistics, a daily diet would involve just 14g of red meats, 29g of poultry, and 13g of eggs. A slightly higher intake of milk is permissible (250g) – though this may equate to only a few grams of cheese. But do we really need to make this degree of change, which may seem ‘extreme’ or unfeasible for some?


Unfortunately, animal agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The exact figure is unclear, ranging from 9% for all animal agriculture to cattle alone being responsible for 14.5% of carbon dioxide equivalents. What is not disputed is that beef production is the highest emitter, as methane from cattle has approximately 30 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide (again, exact figures vary). Animal agriculture also requires a large amount of natural resources, including the land needed to farm crops fed to the animals. This doesn’t even take into consideration the waste the animals produce (which can leach into rivers and harm aquatic life), and significantly long supply chains often involved in processing and transporting the animals and the food products they are turned into. If our growing population continues to demand a highly animal-based diet, it is easy to see that this is not sustainable for the planet.

Vegan diets have provoked much criticism, including (understandably) from the farming sector. Some argue that purchasing organic animal products produced in the UK can be more sustainable than some intensively-produced plant products from abroad. This can be difficult to resolve as you may be comparing apples to… cows? However, the evidence does support vegan diets being the most environmentally friendly – although findings regarding other diets may be surprising. Dairy production is the most damaging component of a vegetarian diet, and vegetarians are likely to have the highest intakes of dairy to compensate for a lack of meat. As dairy is a key part of many European diets, limiting its consumption can be one of the best ways to reduce our climate impact. This means that a pescatarian or 2/3 flexitarian vegan diet (including meat) can actually be more sustainable than a vegetarian one.

Nutritionists and medical professionals often make the argument that nutritionally-balanced vegan diets can require significant effort and supplementation, of which people may have limited knowledge or skills. This is typically stated without examining whether omnivorous diets are actually more nutritionally replete. As is often the case with science, there is no clear answer to some of these concerns. As the evidence stands, a completely vegan diet may not be optimal for health or essential for a sustainable diet, but a reduction in animal products (particularly red meat and dairy) and increase in fruit and veg consumption is certainly beneficial for both. If you’re worried about your nutrient intake, the Vegan Society website has some excellent information on nutrition for vegans.

It is also important to remember that veganism is a lifestyle change that extends far beyond diet. Ethical vegans are motivated primarily for animal welfare reasons rather than health or the environment. Ethical vegans try not to use animal products in any aspect of their life, which means they will not use cosmetics, cleaning products or even wear clothes with animal-derived components. This includes common substances such as beeswax and wool. Some vegans would argue that the process should go further, by not purchasing items with any unsustainable components such as palm oil, eschewing plastics and only supporting companies which champion fair pay and transparent supply chains. If you decide to take veganism beyond your diet, the Vegan Society and PETA websites have information on lifestyle tips.

Veganism may be difficult to achieve every day for some, particularly if one faces financial or time constraints, or has to cater for others. Yet just as we don’t necessarily have to rule out all animal products altogether to be carbon friendly, we can also aim to make our living as sustainable as we can within our means. You can check out how to be more sustainable in Aberdeen by visiting the sustainable Aberdeen website. If everyone were to make concerted efforts to live more sustainably, carbon emissions, waste and resource use from our daily lives would be much depleted. This would go a long way towards limiting global heating and provide hope for a greener future – whether you are a vegan or not.

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