[Originally published in Felix, the Imperial College London student newspaper]
As January 2020 draws to a close, thousands of people will have resolved to spend the month without eating or using any animal products. The Veganuary charity, based in the UK, anticipates 350,000 people completing the challenge worldwide. But why would so many people want to do this? Before getting into the reasons, let me tell you a little of my own story.
For eight years I worked at my uncle’s butcher’s shop in my hometown in North West England. I started working part-time in my early teens, continuing throughout my secondary school and sixth form years. I fondly recall my colleagues, the work banter and delicious pork pies, and I feel that working there was a big contributor toward my development of a good work ethic.
I had been concerned about climate change for some years, but somehow this wasn’t at the forefront of my attention. I don’t envy teenagers today, who hear about catastrophic fires and global protests every single day. I, on the other hand, didn’t hear too much about climate change and could safely deny (in the passive, personal sense) that it was happening, as many people continue to do today (sometimes in a less passive manner).
I started an undergraduate degree in Manchester, close enough to my hometown that I could go back to work the odd Saturday shift at my uncle’s shop. I became involved in environmental activism. As I learned about the climate crisis, I became more and more aware of the environmental impact of the meat industry, at which point I started to question the consistency between my views and my part-time job.
My uncle’s shop is very much a family business, which has employed every one of my family members. We are all very proud of what he has achieved. But at some point the hypocrisy of promoting climate activism and working in the meat industry became too much for me. The day that I finally declared I was going vegetarian – and for what reasons – there was a lot of confusion. Whilst it is perfectly understandable that my uncle would be defensive about my reasons, I am of the belief that everyone is entitled to their own lifestyle choices and that this should be respected. I do not criticise others for eating meat, so I don’t expect to be criticised for making the opposite choice. I am happy to say that my uncle and I are able to talk quite openly about these topics. Once he even recommended a restaurant to me for its vegetarian options!
There is no one reason that people choose to be vegan, reducing animal suffering, health benefits and consciousness about the contribution to climate change are driving forces in differing proportions. Whilst I focus mainly on the latter aspect in this column, there is a lot to be said regarding how veganism can help both human and non-human animals alike.
The vast majority of the energy available to us on Planet Earth comes – directly or indirectly – from the sun. A proportion of this energy is taken on by plants as they photosynthesize, converting the solar energy into chemical energy. Herbivorous and omnivorous animals are able to tap into this chemical energy by eating plant matter, although the process is not perfect – plenty of the energy is wasted during the consumption process. The same can be said for when carnivorous and omnivorous animals consume other animals lower down the food chain. Ultimately, we observe that the total energy required to provide a carnivore with one calorie is generally greater than that required to provide one calorie to a herbivore.
The great advantage of human omnivory is that we get to choose!
By choosing a more herbivorous diet, we are able to reduce the amount of energy required to grow our food. That means fewer links in the food chain, smaller transportation networks and increased scope for ultra-efficient growing methods, such as vertical farming. Each of these aspects comes with a reduced carbon footprint, compared with conventional livestock farming. In addition, research suggests that cows emit a considerable amount of methane – a greenhouse gas which is shorter lived, but far more potent than carbon dioxide. Cutting down your beef consumption on its own can lead to a significant shrinking of your carbon footprint.
A 2014 study by Scarborough et al. surveyed over 50,000 Brits including a representative numbers of vegans, vegetarians, pescetarians and meat eaters. They compared the age-and-sex-adjusted mean greenhouse gas emissions associated with each of these diets and found that the equivalent number of kilograms of carbon dioxide per day was 7.19 for high volume meat eaters (more than 100 g per day), 5.63 for moderate meat eaters (50-99 g), 4.67 for low volume meat eaters (less than 50 g), 3.91 for pescetarians, 3.81 for vegetarians and 2.89 for vegans. This implies that even someone who eats a moderate amount of meat can almost half the carbon footprint associated with their diet by becoming vegan.
I am sure some readers will call me out for hypocrisy, but I didn’t admit that I still help my uncle out every Christmas (by far the busiest time of year) for a couple of days. Sometimes helping your family has to come above your lifestyle choices.
On a similar note, I am very much in support of flexible veganism, sometimes referred to as freeganism. If your flatmate is about to throw out some cheese they don’t want, why not eat it? If you visit a friend’s house and they cook you something non-vegan by accident, are you really going to be so rude as to reject it? Someone who is vegan for environmental reasons may be willing to ‘freegan’, as waste is more of a concern than philosophical considerations about whether animal products should ever be consumed. Someone who is vegan primarily to reduce animal suffering may well differ in opinion, of course.
In recent years, many people have brandished the environmental movement a failure, pointing out how, despite its existence, global emissions have continued to rise steadily for the past 30 years. I am of the opinion that a big contributor to this failure is how environmentalism has been linked most strongly to individual actions – a natural conclusion within our consumerist society. Within this paradigm, an environmentalist can be one of two things: (a) a hypocrite, or (b) a purist, zero-waste, vegan hippy who never travels anywhere using fossil fuels and may well be regarded as politically irrelevant. In such a paradigm, you can’t win!
Nobody is perfect, not even world leaders, celebrities or activists. Instead of calling each other out, we should be working together to build a better world. One group who propagates this philosophy is Extinction Rebellion (XR), whose occupations of central London grabbed headlines across the world in 2018 and 2019. One of the fundamental values of XR is that no one person is responsible for climate change. We all play a part in the problem. The implication of this? We should all play a part in the solution.
There is little doubt that 2019 was the year where climate change was forced into discussion as an existential threat to many species and to many communities. Let’s make 2020 the year where something significant is finally done about it. Reducing the proportion of animal products in your diet is one clear way of making a contribution towards this goal.