By Nicole Leslie Charria
Boris Johnson’s obesity-tackling plans for the UK have been met with cries of outrage. His ignorance towards the contributing factors to obesity and poor diets fuels unhealthy conversations and attitudes surrounding calorie-counting and healthy living.
But the ever-looming threat of the climate crisis is forcing people to change their behaviours and diets. More people than ever are turning to vegan and vegetarian diets for health, environmental or ethical reasons. But are they really better?
The emergence of a Planetary Diet, or a place-based diet, is now spurring us on to think more about the consequences of our consumption in terms of environmental degradation, and human and animal rights.
The roots of non-meat diets lie in animal rights
Vegetarian and vegan diets are characterised by the avoidance of consuming the products, or by-products of animals. For vegetarians, this includes fish and meat, as well as gelatine and stock. Whilst the original roots of vegetarianism lie in respect for other sentient beings (from religious reasoning to animal rights advocacy), there has been a boom in environmental vegetarianism for those who wish to consume without the associated emissions created from food production, processing and transportation.
Vegans go further and exclude eggs, dairy and honey from their diets. There are now more than 3.5 million British people who identify as vegan, with a major spike in numbers increasing after 2016. Many of these will be environmentally friendly decisions. Going vegan or vegetarian has proven to be a cheaper option if going completely meat and dairy free – with legumes, vegetables and pulses making up the majority of diets. But when choosing meat replacement mycoproteins, such as Quorn, there begins to be criticisms for these lifestyle choices.
Both movements have been stigmatised in recent years, mostly due to the greenwashing that has side-tracked the original aim of these movements – sustainable consumption and ethical treatment of animals. What were once eco-friendly nature advocacy movements have become whitewashed and commercialised, and used as moral high grounds in performative social justice campaigns.
Not so green after all
Many, but not all, vegan replacements end up being more expensive than the meat itself, as well as being not entirely green. The human rights abuses, environmental degradation and importation and transportation pollution often match meat counterparts.
Mycoproteins, a fungus used in making cellular-based meat replacements like Quorn, use a fraction of the land needed compared to meats like chicken, pork and beef. However, its carbon footprint rockets up due to the processing needed to turn it into food through the use of fertiliser, the energy needed to power machinery, and transportation.
Popular replacement, tofu, is a highly processed bean curd, which has a lower amount of protein than meat, requires more consumption to get similar levels of protein. Again, the processing involved in making tofu drives up its carbon footprint and contributes to mass deforestation, particularly in South America. This has human rights issues attached to them, as Indigenous people are driven out of their homes by illegal logging and habitat destruction.
Linking to both vegan and vegetarian issues, there are numerous animal rights abuses associated with both meat, and meat replacements. It puts the consumer in a difficult position, choosing between ethical consumption for animal welfare, human welfare, or environmental degradation. Whether vegan, vegetarian or omnivorous, a truly sustainable diet is somewhat inaccessible for a consumer, regardless of budget.
It is even less attainable for those on a budget or without access to plentiful meat replacement solutions, as protein levels decrease without the presence of meat, or meat substitutes, in a diet. Poverty in all forms remains a barrier to ethical eating – from having a fridge to store food in, to getting the best calorie to price ratio, not the healthiest.
Scientists say planetary for the environment
As the panic of a climate crisis gets ever-closer, it is time to start changing our behaviours and diets. The Planetary Diet has been suggested as a solution to feed a projected population of 10 billion.
While not ruling out meat and dairy completely, this guidance suggests a plate half full of nuts, legumes, and vegetables. This cuts down red meat and sugar consumption, and suggests an increase in vegetable, fruit, pulse and nut production by double. This diet was developed to avoid unhealthy food causing premature deaths, as well as saving the planet from a consumption perspective.
Others are saying place-based over any replacements
Place-based diets combine the aspects of all three diet choices; while being primarily plant-based, it emphasises the importance of locality. This means, instead of using imported jackfruit as a pulled pork replacement, it suggests either going without or using a locally grown meat replacement instead. The emissions released from farming, producing and transporting the jackfruit match the energy needed to rear, butcher and serve beef, so it makes a very small environmental difference going for one over the other.
Ideally, the solution is to replace it with a locally grown vegetable or similar protein. The importance of locality is so that exotic fruits are lessened in consumption when out of season, and locally grown fruits can be eaten in greater quantity. It implies an element of self-sufficiency (think Dig for Victory), which the UK is currently not at yet.
My cheese eating isn’t comparable to pumping gallons of oil into the ocean
As consumers, we have the power to change the production habits through our consumption practices and habits. Global warming is not occurring solely because I, the individual continue to travel by air. The top 20 global polluters, who are contributing to carbon dioxide and methane emissions, mass deforestation and land degradation, oil and fossil fuel burning, are.
Of course, each of us has individual roles to play. However, there are certain elements of performative social justice occurring when companies like BP accost consumers with climate pledges and promises to cut emissions to zero, while their actions say otherwise – the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to harm wildlife over ten years after the spill occurred. It is unfair to blame consumers for not considering their carbon footprint while companies produce more Co2 than they could ever hope to offset.
All of the diet solutions have their issues with accessibility, cost and ease of consumption. We must remember it is a privilege to afford organic, locally grown food, that we can store and consume in healthy, nutritious meals that have a smaller impact on the environment than other choices.
“A bit of meat, a lot of veg” should be Boris’ new campaign for healthy eating, not calorie counts on menus. I think we’d all benefit from this.