Students VS climate change: Should you go vegan?

It has been reported that there are currently between 750,000 and one million ‘dietary vegans’ in the UK. This is a rough estimate, but it gives us an idea of how widespread veganism is. In a recent survey, it was found that concern for the environment was the second-most popular reason given for turning vegan, with just under a fifth of respondents stating this as their motivation for adopting this type of diet. But how much does a refusal to consume animal-based products actually help the environment? Can it cause more harm than good?  

One of the main reasons attributed to climate change is the emission of greenhouse gases (including CO2, methane and nitrous oxide). These build up in our atmosphere, trapping heat at the surface of the Earth and thus warming the planet. It has been suggested that particular vegan foodstuffs actually end up contributing more CO2 emissions to the planet than certain meat products. For example, Joseph Poore, a researcher from the University of Oxford, explained that air-transported fruit and vegetables produce more CO2 than poultry meat, and certain common vegan substitutes like mushrooms can generate a huge amount of toxic gas. Generally speaking, a vegan diet does result in considerably less greenhouse gas emission than its omnivorous counterpart – but it may be worth considering exactly where these common vegan products are coming from.  

Water use is another major environmental issue that we are currently facing. Overuse of water can result in damage to biodiversity, wildlife, and wetlands, the effects of which can trickle down into human lives. Particular heavily-touted vegan products tend to punch above their weight when it comes to water use, such as almonds and avocados – over 5 litres of water is required to produce a single almond (so imagine how much water is used in a full carton of almond milk!). Therefore, when considering a vegan diet it may be beneficial to think about exactly what type of products are being consumed.

Not everyone has the ability to adopt a vegan lifestyle. Despite meat-free products becoming more mainstream, it can still be a relatively inaccessible diet in some respects, and supplements (e.g. vitamin B12) are often needed to ‘fill in the gaps’ to make veganism a sustainable way of life. Vitamin tablets and meat substitutes can be far more expensive than animal-derived products, and so veganism may not be economically accessible for everyone. For example, a pot of Greek yoghurt costs just 85p at Tesco, whilst its vegan counterpart costs 45% more. Careful planning and shopping around for deals can reduce these prices somewhat, but this can be difficult to do in our high-paced, constantly busy world.  

Another of the common reasons given for adopting a vegan diet are the health benefits. Replacing meat and dairy with lower-calorie alternatives must be good for everyone, right? Wrong. Our world has become obsessed with weight loss and cutting calories – but we often forget that some people are attempting to maintain, or even gain, weight. A vegan diet is naturally lower in calories than an omnivorous diet, and so without careful supervision it can be easy to lose unnecessary weight. This is what makes veganism so dangerous in the world of eating disorders – a concern for the environment can be hiding an overwhelming fear of high-calorie foods.  Planned and executed in the right ways, a vegan diet can be sustainable and effective for some people. But we need to stop treating it as a panacea, and realise that there are downsides and exceptions, just as there are for other diets. The environment cannot, and will not, be saved by veganism – it is just one part of the puzzle in our fight against climate change. Simply trying to incorporate locally-sourced, plant-based foods into our diet more often may be the way forward. Forcing a vegan diet on everyone is not the answer.    

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