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Veganism, Vegetarianism: For or Against Climate Change?

With the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference coming up in Glasgow, now more than ever, planet Earth is on our minds. The damages done to our planet is very visible. Heatwaves are getting worse summer after summer, sea levels are rising drastically, and there have been numerous floods all over the world. While Greta Thunberg protests global warming and world leaders discuss diplomatic resolutions, what can we, as students, do to help this escalating crisis? 

According to a 2019 survey by the Vegan Society, around 25 per cent of the vegans in the UK were aged between 15-24, the age group that makes up most of the UK’s undergraduate population. On the PETA UK website, they even provide a list of the most vegan-friendly universities (unfortunately, Edinburgh University doesn’t make the cut). While the surveyed university students must have their respective reasons for going vegan, it is well known that one of the biggest benefits of veganism is due to its positive effect on the environment. So, to what extent does veganism help, or doesn’t help our planet? Should we all be quickly cancelling that Maccies Double Big Mac we’ve just ordered from Uber Eats? 

In 2018, research from the University of Oxford revealed that cutting meat and dairy products from someone’s diet could reduce their carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent. Theoretically, if everyone stopped eating meat and dairy, farmland equivalent to the size of US, China, Australia, and the EU combined, could be freed up for different uses. Studies showed that meat and dairy were inefficient, as they took 60 per cent of global agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, while only providing 18 per cent of calories and 37 per cent of protein levels globally. Lead author of the report, Joseph Poore, said, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.” 

On the other hand, figures related to veganism seem to differ from every researcher. Some report says that vegetarians only reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 3 per cent, while other reports claim that just by having half the amount of meat you usually eat, your greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 20 to 30 per cent. Joseph Poole points out himself that, “it’s essential to be mindful about everything we consume: air-transported fruit and veg can create more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram than poultry meat, for example.” In a vegan diet, we often see that there is much more fruit incorporated. But the blueberries and strawberries that are used in the aesthetically pleasing vegan breakfast smoothies are often imported by air. Angelina Frankowska, a researcher at the University of Manchester, discovered that every kilogram of asparagus produces 5.3kgs of carbon dioxide as it is imported by air from Peru. 

In retrospect, it’s difficult to say for sure whether going vegan or veggie is truly going to help the planet. Some studies downright shame us for going to that barbeque social at the Meadows, while others call out the big businesses accountable and say that even if we went veggie for the rest of our lives, we would only reduce our carbon emissions by about 2 per cent. At the end of the day, this becomes the first thing we can do as students to help: do your research! Every statistic is different and takes into consideration different variables. Although not all of us may study environmental sciences, with all these different facts and numbers swirling around us, the most important thing becomes to constantly remain interested and make judgements for ourselves. What data seems credible? What do we choose to believe?

Once we’re educated on the subject, then we can act depending on what we believe. Perhaps you’re sceptical about the impacts of veganism or vegetarianism and would rather join the Extinction Rebellion to protest the COP 26 climate conference. Maybe you have watched documentaries such as Cowspiracy or What the Health and feel strongly about climate change, animal brutality, and improving your own diet. Because all of us are faced with climate change for the first time, no one has a clear answer of what the best course of action is to save our planet. At the end of the day, as long as you continue to be interested and take some form of action to help planet Earth, that’s one step forward towards a better future.  

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