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HEALTH| 23.06.2022

Veganism: a trend or a planet-saving solution?

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We are living through a time of historic change. We find ourselves in a Decade of Action characterized by a sense of urgency and a unique opportunity to work together to tackle social and environmental challenges. At MAPFRE, we know that our response can only be collective.

We want to continue to reflect on how to do things differently and overcome the resistance to change.  We are convinced that change is possible, and we want to be part of it. Today, we reflect on one of the oft-repeated debates on sustainability: how our diet affects the planet. Do you care to join us in reflection?

Is veganism key to saving the planet?

Meat consumption and the environmental impact of animal husbandry have been topics of debate for years. In previous articles, we spoke about the consequences of current food production systems for the planet, since a large part of these systems have an enormous environmental impact caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere, which are largely responsible for the infamous climate change.

In today’s article, we will look into a common debate: is veganism the solution to the planet’s problems? Although at first glance it may seem like an easy question to answer, there are many points of view on the table, and all should be considered before attempting to reach a conclusion.

It is important to emphasize that “veganism” refers to a much broader concept, where all our activities respect the right to health and life of other beings. In other words, it is not just about food. Nevertheless, we will focus on food in this article, as it has the greatest impact on environmental concerns.

What is the view of institutional bodies?

In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on “Climate Change and Land.” The study recalled that total net GHG emissions from agriculture, forestry, and other land use amount to 12.0 ± 2.9 GtCO2 eq. per year, averaged over the period 2007-2016. This represents 23% of total GHG emissions.

This analysis of the current situation warned of the need to implement agricultural, livestock, silviculture, and forest management systems that would lead to a decrease in current GHG emissions. Elsewhere in the report, the authors gave practical options for implementation, such as a shift towards more plant-based diets and a decrease in the production and consumption of meat and meat products.

Following the publication of the report and other recent studies, many see veganism or vegetarianism as an effective formula to combat the climate crisis. Nevertheless, the discussion is ongoing, and each sector has its own point of view, which leads to the debate we mentioned earlier.

Water, another resource to be considered

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), it is estimated that 70% of the world’s water consumption is related to what we eat. Large quantities of water are required to produce the food we consume on a daily basis. For example, it takes 15,400 liters of water to produce one kilo of beef or 8,700 liters for 1 kg of lamb.

According to the same organization, it takes about 3,000 liters of water to produce enough food to meet a person’s daily needs. Freshwater is a renewable resource, but it is finite.  With more than seven billion people to feed around the world today, and a projected nine billion by 2050, we must look for alternatives that can meet our needs without compromising the planet’s resources.

Other recent studies

If we look at more recent citations, in February 2022, a study was published by experts from the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University which analyzed the impact of raising animals for food on the climate, concluding that phasing out all animal agriculture could substantially alter the trajectory of global warming.

Michael Eisen and Patrick Brown, co-authors of the study, concluded that a 15-year phase-out would immediately eliminate about one-third of all global methane emissions and two-thirds of all nitrous oxide emissions, thus bringing the atmosphere into a new equilibrium with lower levels of both.

For the study, Eisen and Brown used a simple climate model to look at the combined impact of removing greenhouse gas emissions linked to animal husbandry and biomass recovery as a result of a hypothetical global shift to a plant-based diet. They used FAOSTAT in their analysis, which provides free access to food and agriculture statistics. In Brown’s words, “eliminating animal husbandry would have a major impact in the next 20 to 50 years—the critical window to avoid a climate catastrophe—and should therefore be at the top of the list of possible solutions.”


Other perspectives we should also take into account

We have outlined the arguments in support of switching to veganism as an alternative and a less polluting food system, and while this option will always be better for the planet when compared to animal-based diets, just because it is “plant-based” does not mean that it is 100% environmentally friendly.

On the one hand, we have to be realistic: the environmental impact of producing animal-based foods dwarfs that of producing plant-based foods. On the other, we cannot ignore the fact that being vegan, in itself, is not the only course of action that will help the environment. For example, overexploitation to obtain certain products or bringing products from other parts of the world results in excessive use of resources. Even if we shop at a supermarket selling organic and vegan products, if they come from the other side of the world, we will be doing little to reduce GHG emissions. Experts point to the fact that transporting imported fruit and vegetables, which often come in air freight, has a huge impact on the carbon footprint.

Because some land is not suitable for growing crops, vegetarian and vegan diets are not feasible in all parts of the world, which results in additional consumption to maintain and heat greenhouses. If we add to this the fact that vegetable products are often packaged in plastic and non-reusable packaging, suddenly we are talking about tons of trash. This is not sustainable. The same is true for meat substitutes such as veggie burgers or tofu, which are often individually wrapped in plastic.

Moreover, animal products have more nutrients per calorie than the quintessential plant products, such as rice and cereals. According to experts, if everyone went vegan overnight, we could provoke a health crisis in developing countries.

If we are looking for a way to overcome these obstacles, the solution is simpler than it seems. The key is to base our diet on local and seasonal products. This way, we will not only be improving the health of the planet thanks to a smaller carbon footprint, but we will also be benefiting our health by consuming products at their optimum ripeness. By choosing products that do not need to be imported, we save on transportation costs. It is also a good idea to choose sustainable products and, as we have seen in this article, to reduce our consumption of meat and fish in favor of vegetables.

We can conclude that it would be a mistake to see veganism as the only way to save the planet; the current crisis is much larger in scope and is linked to how we eat, produce, transport, and consume. Many decisions that we make have an impact on the environment, and to reduce it solely to our food or consumption choices is to oversimplify it.