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It’s Time to Stop Being Polite About Plants

Why Veganism Should Be Taken Seriously in a Warming World

Veganism is, by orders or magnitude, the most carbon efficient method of feeding the human animal, on par with switching to an electric vehicle or covering one’s roof with solar panels, except much, much cheaper.

If you are incredulous, I don’t blame you. Statements like this have been traded throughout the plant-based community for decades without serious criticism and have, in some cases, become dangerously exaggerated, but even sceptical dives into the literature paint a vindicating portrait for many a conscious eater. 

To begin, 83 per cent of all farmland on Earth has been dedicated solely to the feeding and raising of livestock, and is now this planet’s primary driver of habitat and biodiversity loss. Livestock accounts for 27 per cent of humanity’s freshwater use and produces 72-78 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, which, depending on how you measure it, is up to 30 per cent of humanity’s total. In terms of sheer biomass, livestock (primarily cattle and pigs) account for 60 per cent of all mammals on Earth, with humanity coming in at 36 per cent and all other species – everything from whales to squirrels – making up the remaining 4 per cent. Chickens outweigh all species of wild bird more than twice over.

Any reasonable person examining these figures might agree that our hunger for animals – their meats, their milks and their eggs – abetted by the modern divide between producers and consumers, has gotten out of hand. If, theoretically, everyone were to abstain from these products tomorrow, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions could drop by 80 per cent, freshwater pollution and scarcity would decline sharply, and we’d be able to return 76 per cent of all farmland – roughly 3.1 billion hectares – back to natural conditions while still producing the same amount of food. Take Canada, multiply it by three, then add another Ontario – that’s what 3.1 billion hectares looks like.

I’m not so naïve as to think this global veganism scenario is likely. Animal products are ubiquitous, cheap, and in some important instances they’re consumed culturally rather than recreationally, but in exchange for their outsized impact they provide only 18 per cent of the world’s calories and 37 per cent of its protein. A liveable climate simply cannot coexist with such gross inefficiencies. We need to eat significantly less meat, dairy and eggs, and wherever possible, consume none at all.

I went vegan in segments, beginning in the summer of 2017 with the removal first of meat, then milk, then cheese, then eggs from my kitchen. In time these exclusions expanded to my favourite restaurants, and are now absolute. No dietary shift is simple, regardless of the change, because it necessitates the reinvention of recipes and palates, but I have been consistently amazed by the wealth of flavour and nutrition waiting for me in the plant-based pantry, and consistently appalled by the blatant falsehoods shrouding this diet in the Canadian consciousness. The fruits, vegetables, grains, mushrooms, nuts, seeds and especially legumes of my diet have never left me short of protein, calcium or iron, and have transformed my health for the better in ways I will not discuss here, because health lies outside my expertise.

I don’t mean to suggest that plant foods are innocent in the calculus of climate change. As with all foods there are good and bad growing practices, but as a rule, even the most carbon intensive plant foods are better than the most carbon conscious animal foods, even when you incorporate compounding factors like international shipping. To quote one study published in the journal Science, “we find that the impacts of the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins across [greenhouse gas] emissions, eutrophication, acidification and, frequently, land use.”

Another study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, put it more starkly – “To produce 1kg of protein from kidney beans required approximately eighteen times less land, ten times less water, nine times less fuel, twelve times less fertilizer and ten times less pesticide in comparison to producing 1kg of protein from beef.”

Consider legumes – beans, peas and lentils – many of which have comparable nutritional profiles to beef. Process them into the Beyond Meat or Impossible Burger and their carbon footprint will be about 89 per cent lower than a comparable beef burger. Eat the legumes directly, in a homemade black bean burger, humus, or vegan shepherd’s pie (lentils instead of beef), and they will have a 99 per cent smaller carbon footprint.

Veganism occupies a curious place in modern culture. When mentioned in casual company it invokes a flurry of questions, some productive, others less so. In movies or on television the vegan is routinely played by a tragically scrawny creature, often bemoaning some absurd nutritional deficiency. In politics, the mere suggestion of reduced meat consumption is countered by sermons on personal freedom and/or laughed off by radio hosts, television personalities and social media influencers who thereafter pledge undying devotion to bacon.

None of these perceptions reflect our present understanding of the costs and consequences of animal foods, and every effort must be made to accept the new reality. Vegans, whatever else they might be, have discarded a significant portion of their carbon and biodiversity footprint just by eating consciously. Precious little power is in the hands of consumers these days, as the energy, infrastructure and manufacturing decisions of our nation are routinely beyond our direct control, and investments in low carbon technologies are prohibitively expensive for many, but for most, diet can be the exception.

Abstention from meat, dairy and eggs needs to become socially acceptable, societally common, and be taken seriously by all a considerate soul, in whole or in part, as quickly as possible. Access to fruits, vegetables, grains, mushrooms, nuts, seeds and legumes must improve where it is lacking, and we must move ahead with measures to reduce the carbon cost even of plant foods, such as tackling food waste and embracing sustainable growing practices. There is no solution to the climate crisis without the redemption of food.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author based in the Maritimes.