Should we all be vegan when we travel and at home to help sustain people and planet? A lot of vegans think so. The number of people eating a purely plant-based diet has increased by 360% in the last decade, according to The Sustainable Food Trust, and one of the many reasons people cite for turning to veganism is sustainability. But before hotel chefs start to tremble, is turning vegan inherently sustainable?
The impact of industrialised farming on the planet is well documented, for sure. The more meat we eat, the more water and land we need to graze the animals and grow the grain to feed them. The more land we use in this way, the less we have for other foods that humans could eat directly – the more the soil gets eroded – the more fertilisers we need to replace the loss of nutrients – and the higher the toll on the world’s remaining ecosystems.
Eating meat and dairy products have the biggest impact, which is why veganism, a purely plant-based diet, is cited by some as the way forward instead of just vegetarianism, where you eat mainly plants but also dairy products such as eggs and cheese. It’s also why hotels need to be offering travellers far more interesting alternatives to these foods. For the more cows we breed, the more methane they emit through belching and farting – a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide (CO2) whose negative effect on the climate is 23 times higher than the effect of CO2. Though figures vary hugely, experts tend to agree that the average dairy cow expels between 25 and 50 gallons of methane a day – an amount comparable to the pollution produced by a car in a day.
According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases worldwide, while sources such as the 2014/15 film Cowspiracy go much further and cite it as the main source of global warming, suggesting that mass veganism rather than renewable energy is the solution to the planet’s woes. But as Scientist Dough Boucher points out in his enlightening blog on The Union of Concerned Scientists, the film is based on inaccurate and misleading figures. The world’s best scientists agree that fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas are still the main sources of global warming, and that diverting attention away to campaign for veganism lets the fossil fuel industry off the hook – a dangerous move.
A vegan diet can be both inherently ethical and sustainable, but it can also be neither, and some would argue an omnivorous diet could also be both – that you can eat meat and still care about the environment and animal welfare. For instance, if a traveller in a hotel restaurant in England ordered a salad of Spanish tomatoes, Mexican avocados, Israeli olives and a sprinkling of Himalayan rock-salt on top, one could argue that despite being vegan, such a meal is both less ethical and less sustainable than a light meal of spinach and green beans grown in the hotel’s garden with some poached free-range eggs or grilled free-range chicken from a local farm where animals are grazed organically and well treated.
And that’s a traveller in a comfortable hotel in the West, who has an infinitely wide choice of foods available to them. If that traveller was instead a woman in Africa or Asia, one of the billion people whose livelihoods depended on agriculture, she would probably choose meat to be sustainable because she’d be relying on her few chickens, stall-fed dairy cows or pigs on her tiny plot to bring her regular household income or to sell in emergencies to pay for school or medical fees. She’d also choose meat to provide energy-packed, protein-rich food for herself and her children where if she lived only on grains and tubers she’d be risking malnutrition.
There is no doubt that industrial agriculture and farming is one of the most significant contributors towards climate change, but mass veganism isn’t going to fix the problem. Livestock is essential to many of the world’s poorest people, and where we source our nutrients from plants can be contentious. We only have to look at the soybean industry for proof of this, which is causing widespread deforestation and displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples around the globe – most notably in the United States, Brazil and Argentina, which together produce about 80% of the world’s soy.
In addition, land use isn’t interchangeable – if humans only ate the grain that animals might have eaten, we’d soon be mighty hungry and malnourished. Indeed, an investigation published in the US in 2016 compared 10 different eating patterns and concluded that diets incorporating some animal-source foods (especially milk and eggs) actually use less land than their vegan alternative, as Dr Jimmy Smith, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute, points out.
‘This is because more inclusive diets make optimal use of all existing land to feed people, including croplands and rangelands where grain and hay can be grown to feed livestock,’ says Dr Smith in The Guardian. ‘A lot of meat and milk that would remain unproductive in a vegan context is produced on these marginal rangelands. For example, 60% of sub-Saharan Africa is covered by drylands where raising livestock is the main, and often the only, land use option available’.
Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, says that while cutting back on the biggest pollutant (man-made fossil fuels) is hugely important, to actually reverse climate change – to take CO2 out of the atmosphere – we need to change the way we farm – and in particular, how we look after soil. ‘This is because organic matter in the soil is a store of carbon, which mitigates harmful emissions in the atmosphere’, says Holden. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, he adds, it is estimated that 89% of all agricultural emissions can be mitigated by improving carbon levels in the soil.
The arguments are intricate and complicated, the issues wide, but the human need to simplify makes us look for simple solutions. Whatever side of the vegan debate we might fall on, we won’t find easy answers to the complex sustainability challenges we face. If we want one thing to grasp, let it be this: we as travellers need to be mindful of what we eat, and hotels and restaurants need to be mindful of what they serve – whether that’s a vegan, vegetarian or meat-based meal.