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January 10, 2018

Vegan diets may not be as environmentally-friendly as some suggest

By Jack Rear

Considering we’re in the middle of Veganuary, there’s a lot of talk about the relative merits of veganism at the moment.

One of the main arguments in favour of veganism is its environmental impact. Or, to be specific, the lack thereof. However, all that may be hogwash according to a study of ten different diets and their impact on the landscape.

The ‘veganism is better for the environment’ argument is based on a variety of factors. In short, one of the most prevalent issues with a meat-eating diet is cow flatulence. Cows naturally excrete methane which is one of the most harmful greenhouse gases. These gases get trapped in the atmosphere between Earth and the ozone layer and trap sunlight. This causes the planet to heat up and contributes to global warming.

The other issue, which is often linked to cow flatulence, is the destruction of rainforests to make room for farmland. Ordinarily, rainforests act as carbon sinks. That is to say the trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. However, with more and more trees being cleared, their ability to do so effectively is becoming more and more limited. Even when they’re not being cleared for pastoral farming, huge sections of rainforests are cleared to produce food for livestock.

The argument is that a vegan diet requires less crops to feed people. Therefore a vegan population takes up less farmland.

It’s a sound idea in theory. Unfortunately for vegans though, this new study shows that it isn’t quite so simple.

Why veganism isn’t always better for the environment:

The problem is that not all land is equal. In some areas of fertile soil, more people could be fed on a vegan than on an omnivorous one. On the other hand, in other parts of the world, where soil is less fertile, it is more efficient to use that land for grazing animals.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a fantastic case in point. Many of the peoples who live in that part Earth adopt a predominantly meat-based diet because the land simply can’t support growing enough crops to feed the entire population.

In order to support all the people in the USA while only using the available farmland is according to this study, a dairy-friendly vegetarian diet. This diet would make optimal use of all the available farmland without having to clear any new land for farming.

The study found that, using the available farmland, veganism is actually the fifth most environmentally friendly diet. Dairy-friendly vegetarian is the best, then egg-and-dairy-friendly vegetarianism. Next are omnivorous diets. The optimal way to eat omnivorously is to eat a diet of 20% meat, 80% vegetable matter. Eating a diet consisting of 40% animal products is also better than veganism.

It’s also worth noting that previous research has found that medium levels of livestock grazing are better for the health, productivity and biodiversity of the land than cutting out this farming out altogether.

Veganism is still better than many other diets:

And while omnivores might be celebrating this study for providing a rebuff to the more sanctimonious vegans in the world, there is not too much cause for celebration there either. The study found that by far the least environmentally friendly diet is that of the current average American.

A vegan diet is more environmentally friendly than a 60% meat diet, an 80% meat diet, and a 100% meat diet. It’s also better than a reduced sugar and fat diet.

Rather than celebrating the findings of this study as a way to end arguments, meat-eaters would do well to learn from the results. Used as point of reflection on society’s current modes of consumption, these results could be very powerful indeed.

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