I sometimes describe myself as a “sustainavore”. In other words, I always try to make sustainable choices about what I eat. This means that, for the most part, I enjoy a plant-based diet. But I’m not a vegan, or even a fully vegetarian. I eat eggs from my rescue chickens, local honey, and sometimes local meat or fish.
Many people believe that eating a vegan diet is the best choice for people and the planet. But in this article, I want to explore that idea and explain why growing and eating entirely vegan isn’t always the most sustainable choice, at least not for me.
Before I continue, let me add that this article does not deal with veganism in ethical terms. I fully understand that for some people there are ethical issues with eating animals, period. Animal welfare is very important to me. But I will eat meat occasionally as long as the animals lived well and were humanely treated and killed. It’s a personal choice.
Whatever diet we choose to eat, it’s important to look at it objectively, with a full understanding of the facts.
Reduce consumption of meat and dairy products
Reducing the consumption of meat and dairy products is often touted as one of the best ways for individuals to reduce their carbon footprint. And there is certainly a lot of merit in this argument. As it stands, the global meat and dairy industries have a huge impact on the environment. By avoiding factory-farmed products, we can all reduce our individual negative impact in very concrete ways.
The problem is that modern meat production has been decoupled from arable farming (i.e. crop production, like wheat or barley). Agriculture today relies on intensive production, without recourse to holistic systems that could enable more sustainable meat production and more efficient and productive use of land. As a result, modern animal husbandry has many responsibilities, from soil and water pollution to deforestation.
But not all breeding is necessarily entirely bad from an environmental point of view. Holistic systems that integrate livestock and other means of food production (such as sylvo-pastoral systems, for example) may be among the most efficient and sustainable uses of land. “Rewilding” programs that integrate livestock to replace ruminants within ecosystems can also be effective ways of boosting biodiversity and letting nature reign. Remember that the carbon footprint is not the only measure of sustainability. The type of meat you eat matters too. Switching from beef to chicken or pork can save significant amounts of carbon.
Reducing the sustainability arguments to a ‘vegan = good, meat eater = bad’ mindset oversimplifies some very complex issues. As it stands, reducing meat consumption in general is certainly an important part of the puzzle; However, completely eliminating meat from our diet means that we are leaving no room for successful sustainable meat production. Where meat raised ethically and raised with eco-friendly practices is available, such as in my area, and there is a shortage of other local proteins such as legumes and nuts, this may be a problem. more sustainable option than relying on other forms and types of food protein.
Problems With Plant-Based Diets
Shifting to a plant-based, or predominantly plant-based diet will help us withdraw our support from damaging industrial farming systems. But the sustainability of a plant-based diet depends on the food choices we choose to replace meat and dairy. Everything except B12 (easily supplemented) is provided by a fully vegan diet. But like meat and dairy, many foods included in such a diet can (and do) come at a cost.
For those who can grow all of their food on their own land organically, the sustainability and ecological credentials of this type of diet are easy to discuss. Low to zero food miles, sustainably managed land, and high yields per acre can be maintained in smaller-scale systems.
Most of us, however, don’t have the land available to grow all of our food at home. I am able to grow most of my own fruits, vegetables and herbs on my third acre, but I still have to source my grains and pulses elsewhere. This is where sustainability issues can creep in.
Eating common arable crops grown on plowed fields that are not organically managed is not without its problems. Arable agriculture also has a lot to answer and, in many cases, can be just as problematic for the environment as meat production. Eating fresh produce out of season, especially if it’s not organic and shipped from afar, comes at a cost. Maintaining the soil organically without integrating livestock raises a host of thorny issues.
Additionally, some common protein substitutes and vegan foods have high carbon costs. The durability of some foods can also vary widely depending on where we live and how the items are packaged and transported.
So, yes, we should all cut down on our meat consumption, but we also need to carefully consider what we are replacing it with. We must not get complacent, and we must remember that even fully vegan, plant-based diets come at a cost. Whatever type of diet we choose, we need to stay critical and informed. We have to make sure that we always try, in this one subject minefield, to make the most sustainable choices possible.