What if doctors told you that smoking caused cancer, but you’d probably be fine if you didn’t smoke more than one cigarette a day? Luckily, they don’t, because even small amounts of smoke are harmful. So why don’t climate scientists follow the same principle?
A study was published recently that - once again - showed that a vegan diet is best in terms of greenhouse gas emissions as well as land use.
Before I go any further, let me acknowledge: saying that something is best in some aspects is not the same as saying it is perfect. Vegan-friendly snacks can contain palm oil from non-sustainable sources. Almonds and coffee are water-intensive. Rice paddies (flooded rice fields) can be a significant source of methane, one of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.
Having said that, when comparing different diets (standard western diet, meat-reduced, vegetarian, vegan), the vegan one is always the one that emits the least greenhouse gases and requires the least amount of land.
Such was the case in said recent study. The researchers wanted to find out how EU climate targets (reducing emissions by at least 80 per cent by mid-century) could be met. On the current western diet, this reduction is virtually impossible.
This is perhaps not surprising in light of the fact that livestock products and fish are by far the most emissions-intensive products, accounting for three quarters of all food-related emissions. Case in point: emissions for legumes (beans, peas, etc.) are only about one per cent that of beef!
But guess what: vegans already meet the requirements. If Europe went vegan tomorrow, that 80 per cent reduction would be achieved - and then some! According to this study, a vegan diet is the only scenario where more carbon is stored than released.
So was the take-away message of the study that the we should strive towards a vegan diet, as it is clearly the most efficient? No. Instead, the authors point out that we need to cut beef and lamb consumption by at least 50 per cent. But if you can’t live without your daily dose of meat, fear not: as long as you replace beef with poultry and pork, we can still scrape by and meet the target.
Why aim so low?
Another similar study, which evaluated diets based on their sustainability, gives the answer. The conclusion there, too, was that the vegan diet is by far the most sustainable. However, the researchers recommended a meat and fish-inclusive diet as “a feasible compromise acceptable to the general public”, “a compromise between sustainability and palatability”.
What is feasible, acceptable, or palatable in terms of diet is not up to environmental scientists to decide. The reasons why people have a hard time giving up meat, eggs, and dairy are numerous and complex. A study on greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and other ecological aspects of food consumption should objectively report which diet is the most efficient in terms of mitigating environmental damage. That appears to be the vegan diet.
True, the world will not go vegan overnight. I did not go vegan overnight! However, given that many scientists are already saying that the 2 degree target the global community has set itself will be exceeded, it is perhaps not a bad idea for researchers to convey a sense of, if not urgency, then at least objectiveness.
As for palatability: just have a look at all the fabulous, mouthwatering vegan foods you can eat by checking out our Vegan Recipe Club!