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Can going vegan really cut the carbon emissions of the food you eat?

Vegan wraps
Vegan wraps   -   Copyright  Getty via Canva
By Euronews Green

Last year, more people took part in Veganuary than ever before. More than 582,000 individuals from 209 countries joined in - breaking all previous records.

Almost half said that animals were their number one motivation, with personal health the second most popular reason. The environment came in third with 21 per cent of participants surveyed saying they decided to try going vegan for the sake of the planet.

This year, the organisers of this 31-day vegan pledge are urging people to "take climate action into your own hands" after COP26's "address animal agriculture’s contribution to the climate crisis."

As thousands of people attempt to navigate this dietary change, some will opt for direct alternatives to their favourite foods. The more adventurous might attempt to create their meals from scratch, perhaps substituting mince for lentils, creating alternatives to cream from cashews, or building burgers from chickpeas.

But where do the ingredients for these alternative options come from?

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A plant-based vegan burgerGetty via CanvaTwenty Ten

Is vegan food any more sustainable than locally sourced meat?

Researchers, farmers, dieticians and nutritionists are divided on the issue.

“A 2018 Oxford University study found that a vegan diet is the single most effective way to reduce our environmental footprint,” says Dominika Piasecka, a spokesperson for The Vegan Society.

“Even the researcher himself went vegan as he could not find a sustainable way of farming animals."

According to the UN, industrialised animal farming accounts for at least 14.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. Beef and soy, a majority of which is used to feed animals, are the biggest contributors to habitat loss and deforestation, says WWF.

"Shopping locally and seasonally is important, but it pales in comparison to the impact you can have by changing the types of food you eat,” Piasecka adds.

Unsurprisingly, farmers disagree. In the UK, where Veganuary started, theNational Farmers Union (NFU), has is in the past objected to the campaign saying it is working to reduce emissions.

British farmers are quick to point out that their practices are among the most sustainable on Earth. Agriculture makes up around 10 per cent of the UK's total emissions, according to a 2019 report from DEFRA.

The NFU has also pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 - a target it says is more ambitious than the UK governments own 2050 goal.

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The UK's red meat industry is one of the most sustainable in the worldGetty via Canva

“We aspire to be producing the most climate-friendly food in the world,” said NFU President Minette Batters.

“As countries around the world are still making plans on how to deal with the climate crisis, the NFU is already working with farmers, the government and other stakeholders to help British agriculture become net zero by 2040.”

Often, farmers point to the locality of their produce as one of the primary reasons it should be considered a sustainable option. And for consumers in Europe and North America, it may be true that common alternatives to meat, fish, eggs and dairy can accumulate miles quickly.

Can a vegan diet actually have more food miles?

“Many of the most popular plant-based proteins, including chickpeas, lentils and chia seeds, have to make gas-guzzling journeys to reach our plates,” nutritional therapist and wellness writer Eva Killeen tells Euronews Living.

Jackfruit, for example, has become a popular substitute for pulled pork. But while much of the pork consumed in the EU comes from the EU, jackfruit is often grown in eastern regions of Asia.

Lentils commonly sit in for mince, but require sunny climes and a warm summer to grow efficiently so are often imported from regions like northern Africa or the Middle East.

It’s a similar story with the storm of vegan alternatives to cheese making their way onto supermarket shelves over the past year. There were 23 million dairy cows in the EU in 2018, and a plethora of nearby plants for processing into dairy products.

But many of the cow-free alternatives are made with coconut oil, which requires a warm tropical climate to grow and is often imported from Pacific regions.

Even the wildly popular Beyond Burger – made primarily from yellow pea protein – has only just begun to manufacture its products in Europe.

“This does not need to be the case, as we can very easily obtain the protein we need from locally grown plant-based sources," adds Killeen.

"For example, a simple plate of wholegrain pasta made with spelt provides 7g of protein. By adding some green peas as a side dish offers an additional 9g per cup, which is more protein than you’ll find in a cup of milk.”

Plant-based, but local

The most pervasive concern around veganism is where to find sources of veggie-based protein. Getting the full recommended 55.5g per day for men and 45g for women can already be a struggle for some, as evidenced by an influx of protein-enriched food items appearing in supermarkets.

But there are plenty of other home-grown sources, although it could mean changing up the kinds of things we usually eat.

“We have a surplus of fava beans here in the UK, and they’re usually exported to north and east Africa where they’re a popular breakfast choice in fūl medames,” says vice president of Pulses UK, James Maguire. Fūl medames is a savoury stew, packed with vegetables and spices.

"Fava beans are very green to grow as you put no fertiliser on them and they put nitrogen back into the soil. They're water efficient too and pulses in general typically contain at least twice the amount protein of wholegrain cereals."

The UK also has a surplus of large blue peas, which we could try to use more in cooking. They work well in curries, soups and stews, according to Hodmedod – one of the UK’s few growers of lentils, chickpeas and quinoa.

Simply increasing our intake of vegetables could go a long way to cutting down on food miles too.

Planet health versus your health

If you aren't trying Veganuary for the planet or the animals, chances are you tried it for your health.

While there are plenty of passionate plant-based people who are happy to share their tips for maintaining a well-balanced diet, some of the specialists we spoke to didn't feel the same way.

"The heavy impact of intensive meat production on the environment has become clear in the last few years," says food and nutrition consultant Joy Skipper.

"But expecting everyone to change to a vegan diet seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to a problem, with an outcome that may be just as bad – highly processed, highly packaged vegan products, low nutrient status foods, nutrient-deficient diets leading to long-term chronic disease."

"The heavy impact of intensive meat production on the environment has become clear in the last few years, but expecting all to change to a vegan diet seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to a problem."
Joy Skipper
Food and nutrition consultant

"What all of the studies used in the review seem to assume, is that all vegans will be eating a diet rich in local, fresh ingredients, based on pulses, fresh vegetables and fruits, and cooking these ingredients from scratch," she adds.

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Vegan diets aren't necessarily full of locally sourced ingredients, research showsGetty via Canva

"When the reality, as can be seen by the increase in vegan products over the past decade, is that a huge amount of people turning to a vegan diet do not cook their own food, but instead will be buying highly processed foods."

She says that these foods may have been produced overseas, made from crops grown on land that was previously forested and then flown across the world to arrive on our supermarket shelves.

SpecialistdieticianNichola Ludham-Raine agrees.

"The iron found in meat, in particular red meat, is known as haem-iron, and is better absorbed than the iron found in plants such as beans and pulses," she says.

"In addition to protein, iron and vitamin B12, meat and fish also provide zinc, which contributes to the normal function of the immune system and helps with normal fertility and reproduction, and potassium, which contributes to normal muscle and nerve function and helps support normal blood pressure."

"Eating locally sourced meat and poultry is one thing that you can do to help the planet by reducing air miles," Ludham-Raine concludes.

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Plant-based or not, specialists agree we should eat less meatGetty via Canva

Whatever your point of view, what's not in doubt is that the average consumer should be eating less meat. Plant-based or not, it shouldn't be that hard to eat seasonally and get all the nutrition we need from sources not too far from our doorsteps.

"These are the kinds of options we must all start making use to tackle the escalating climate change nightmare," concludes plant-based champion Killeen.