Veganism and the environment may seem to go hand in hand, you might think. But Veganuary, in which people pledge to go plant-based for the entire month of January, isn’t necessarily the greener eating regime that many automatically assume it to be.
While reducing animal products is better for the planet (helping to reduce climate-damaging greenhouse gasses), it does not matter what you replace them. In plain terms, the air miles and production processes used to bring you your plant-based favorites—from your beloved avocados to nut butter— may still be doing the planet no favors.
We take a look at ways to ensure that your vegan recipes are not only green but also sustainable as more people than ever get ready to participate in Veganuary in 2022. This is a year when the need to protect the environment has never been more pressing. We asked experts what plant-based foods could still be driving climate change and how to make sustainable food choices.
Can veganism be good for the environment?
It is possible. Oxford University Study showed that a vegan diet is the “single biggest way” to reduce environmental impact—cutting carbon emissions by up to 73%—while the UN has stated that a plant-based diet can help fight climate change.
“We know that every additional plant-based day in your week reduces your total food carbon footprint by more than 10%,” says Ellie Harrison, sustainability lead at meal delivery platform Allplants. “Going completely plant-based would reduce the footprint by 85%.”
But why? “Studies have found that food production accounts for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions—and takes up half of the planet’s surface,” explains Harrison. “Meat and dairy specifically account for about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN, and scientists say a diet shift is necessary to meet the world’s climate targets.” Part of the environmental impact is down to farming livestock. Jo Hand, the co-founder of carbon footprint expert Giki, adds, “An estimated 70% of deforestation is for agriculture, with much of the land needed for producing animal feed.”
Which vegan foods are harmful to the planet?
“Veganuary is a great challenge for people to take on, but it is important to remember that the vegan diet isn’t necessarily the most sustainable,” says Ellie Bain, registered dietitian and senior nutritionist for meal delivery platform Gousto.
While removing meat, fish, and dairy from your diet could make a difference, it is also important to consider what you replace them with. That’s because farming processes, and the air miles required to transport certain items, can actually mean plant-based produce proves just as bad in the environmental stakes.
It’s frustrating that healthy foods are some of the most problematic when we try to lose weight. Out-of-season goods are another problem—blueberries and strawberries are often flown to Europe and the United States to meet our year-round demand while, elsewhere, there’s evidence that asparagus has one of the highest carbon footprints compared to other vegetables because it is transported by air from Peru. Then there are mushrooms; although they are certainly a greener, meat-like addition to our diets than the likes of beef and chicken, they require significant amounts of energy to keep them warm as they grow. A study funded by the US Department of Agriculture discovered that mushrooms emit 2.13-2.95kg of CO2 per kilogram (for comparison’s sake, it’s still better than the figure for the same amount of beef—around 36kg of CO2 per kilo).
How to make sustainable food choices
1. Eat according to the season
This is key. “Consuming food that is in season can help reduce carbon emissions,” says Clare Gray, registered dietitian at food delivery service Mindful Chef. “This is due to crops not requiring the high-energy input from artificial heating or lighting needed out of the natural growing season. In addition, some scientists argue that adopting a seasonality approach to food supplies may also help to decrease water stress in already water-scarce countries.”
It could be better for the environment and for you by preventing nutritional deficiency. “Evidence suggests that the nutrient density of fruit and vegetables is at the optimum immediately after harvest, and then declines over time,” explains Gray. Gray explains that the time between harvest and consumption has an impact on the nutrient quality.
So what fruits and vegetables are available in January? “These include beetroot, celery, cabbage, and kale,” says Rosie Millen, nutritionist at health brand KIN Nutrition. Hannah Shipton, managing Director at Abel & Cole, suggests that you stock up on leeks and parsnips. Gray also notes that apples, pears and Brussel sprouts are all in their prime this time of the year.
2. Buy local
Another thing to think about is the possibility of buying local produce or shopping locally. “Check the packaging of a product to see the country in which it has been produced,” says Christine Kenny, a registered dietitian (christinekennynutrition.com), of how to cut down on the air miles of your shopping basket.
Kenny notes that there are particular foods that are generally flown in, since production here is limited—but that’s not to say home-grown alternatives aren’t out there. “While eating nuts and seeds is important in a vegan diet, these tend to be produced abroad, so look extra closely at the origin,” she explains. “It’s the same for soya products, almond milk (and other milk alternatives), and olive oil, which are also all likely to have been imported.”
Kenny recommends going to nearby farmers’ markets, noting, “That’s one way to ensure that you’re definitely eating local—and it will often turn up in-season produce too.” She adds that you should make sure to look out for locally sourced cooking oils, such as rapeseed in the UK, and also local bread made from regional flour.
But how local should we go? Dr Federica Amati (chief nutrition scientist for Indi Supplements) suggests looking for produce from the UK or EU. She notes that cult fruit avocado—which often comes from Peru, Chile, and Mexico—is also grown in Sicily and Spain.
3. Mix it up
The bottom line is to not eat the same vegan-friendly foods every day. “A good place to start is to increase the variety of plants that you eat,” suggests Bain. “Not only can this improve gut health, but it is also a more sustainable approach as it increases general biodiversity through spreading out the demand for certain crops.”
If everyone is buying the same hip produce, it puts enormous pressure on the global supply chain. In Kenya, for example, avocado exports were banned in 2018, due to severe shortages. Meanwhile, in 2013, Bolivians and Peruvians couldn’t afford to buy quinoa, their local ancient grain.
4. Beware palm oil
It may be unfamiliar to you, but palm oil is probably already in your kitchen cupboards. “It’s in products such as peanut butter and chocolate, bread, biscuits, and bread,” Dr Hannah Peck, deputy director at climate charity Cool Earth, says. “But its production requires major deforestation, destroying the habitat of already endangered species such as the Orangutan.”
Some palm oil is now produced in a more sustainable manner. These oils will be labeled as certified sustainable palm oil on their packaging. If you’re unsure while you’re browsing the supermarket, the free Giki app lets you scan a product’s barcode to find out if it contains certified sustainable palm oil or is made by a company that’s committed to switching to it. You can also find information about the packaging and carbon footprint.
WWF believes there has been a decline of sustainable palm oil use in the last few years. Therefore, a better bet is to allocate your grocery spending to products that avoid it entirely—there are some well-known brands have cut ties with the controversial ingredient. A complete list can be found here Here.
5. Pick oat milk
There is now a dizzying array of alternative or plant-based milk on shelves—from soya and almond to oat, hazelnut, rice, coconut, hemp, and cashew. However, even among these options, there are clear environmental winners. “Drinking oat milk over almond milk is a good sustainability hack,” notes Bain. Indeed, according to the University of California San Francisco’s Office of Sustainability, Almond milk production requires lots of water and pesticide—which could impact the environment in drought-affected California, where 80% of the world’s almonds are grown.
Bain says that you can also check the eco-credentials on alternative milk packaging by looking out for the B Corp Certification stamp. This stamp is used to measure a company’s total social and environmental performance.
6. Make it your own
You don’t have to be a pure consumer—why not get outdoors and work your green-fingered instincts? “Grow your own fresh produce,” suggests wellness and nutrition expert Penny Weston (in fact, why not try to cultivate some of these healthy herbs in your garden). “Or in January you can forage for acorns that you can eat when ripe, beech nuts, blackberries, and chestnuts.”
It is also easier to make plant-based snacks at your home, such as this lemon and coriander dip with hummus. “There may be a wide range of vegan snack bars, protein balls, and smoothies available in shops,” says Weston. “But, to avoid the packaging, try making alternatives at home and storing them in the fridge.”
On the subject of packaging, Harrison notes that it typically represents less than 5% of the environmental impact of food—and does an important job of protecting produce in transit, reducing damage and waste. “Also, to add to the mind-boggling element of eating sustainably, even food unpackaged on shelves will have been packaged in transit,” she reveals. “So definitely prioritize plant-based, but if you can make some cuts to the number of plastic bags you use at the supermarket or opt for loose apples, then that’s an added bonus!”
7. Reduce waste
Although it may seem obvious, reducing the amount food that ends up in the trash can make a huge difference. Dr Amati recommends that you buy less fruit and vegetables and choose canned or frozen options. These will last for longer.
“Plan your week so you know exactly what you’ll need,” she says. “Also, remember to eat the whole plant—the green leaves on a cauliflower are polyphenol-rich and really tasty, and you can use tougher outer layers of leeks and onions to make soups. Additionally, don’t peel fruits—simply wash them thoroughly before eating—and if they go soft, make a crumble or stew them to make fruit spreads.” Sounds delicious.
8. Consume pulses
Eating sustainably needn’t always be about cutting out less-than-green items, but also adding in the ones that are great for the planet. For instance, filling up on pulses—which include lentils, chickpeas, and beans—is smart in multiple ways. “They’re a great source of protein and fiber as well as being one of the most sustainable foods,” points out Bain. “Their production uses minimal water to grow, improves soil fertility, and reduces dependence on energy-intensive fertilizers.”
Now that you have Veganuary covered, why not reduce climate impact in other areas of your life? You can now buy sustainable swimwear. You can also see our guide to sustainable clothing companies and when to be cautious of greenwashing.
w&h: Ellie Harrison, Sustainability lead at AllplantsJo Hand, cofounder of GikiEllie Bain (registered dietetician and nutritionist). GoustoClare Gray, a registered Dietitian at Mindful Chef, Rosie Millen, nutritionist at KIN Nutrition, Hannah Shipman, managing director at Abel & Cole, registered dietitian Christine Kenny, Dr Federica Amati, chief nutrition scientist for Indi SupplementsDr Hannah Peck is the deputy director of Cool EarthPenny Weston is a wellness and nutrition expert. welcometomade.comThank you for your time and expertise.