Mark Banahan is a Campaigns and Policy Officer at The Vegan Society. He tweets at @MarkBanahan. In this article Mark sets out how embracing a plant-based diet can help us tackle the climate and environment emergency and makes the case for a more sustainable food policy.
There are deep cracks in our food system. It generates an inequitable distribution of resources, with many in rural communities struggling to derive sufficient income from their work. It does not enable healthy diets, leaving us with many diet-related public health crises. And global livestock populations are at historic highs, whilst still rising. Its potential in contributing to ending the climate emergency remains untapped.
There are many potential improvements to our food system but one of the key ways that cannot be ignored is an increase in plant-based food production and consumption.
Plant-based food, i.e. food that does not contain any animal products, is far better for the environment on any sustainability metric. If we take greenhouse gas emissions - one of the most important metrics we use to measure our environmental impact - a fully plant-based diet can have up to 50% less emissions compared to an average meat-eating diet. This is a massive reduction, which over time makes a huge cumulative difference to your carbon footprint, especially when you are lucky enough to be able to eat three times a day, every day.
Single biggest way
One of the reasons for plant-based food faring so much better on this metric, is the inherent inefficiency in producing animal products. On average, only 12% of the calories in crops grown and fed to animals are retained in the animal products when eaten. This is because living animals need calories for warmth, respiration, movement and everything else biologically required for survival. If all the current crops fed to farm animals were repurposed for human consumption, we could feed an additional 3 billion humans globally.
If we look at other environmental metrics, like the amount of agricultural land and water required to produce food, plant-based produce is also far more sustainable. Oxford University researchers concluded that switching to a plant-based diet is the single biggest way that an individual can reduce their environmental impact on the planet, even bigger than switching to an electric vehicle or reducing the amounts of flights taken each year. This is in part because there are so many other environmental factors that food production affects, such as soil erosion and water pollution.
Dr Helen Harwatt, an academic at Harvard University, has modelled a couple of scenarios for UK land use in order to help us meet our Paris Agreement commitments to limit global heating. The first scenario models widespread reforesting of current pasture land with the new trees helping to sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. This is essential, as CO2 has an atmospheric lifespan of approximately 100 years. Methane, by contrast, has a far shorter lifespan of approximately 25 years.
Reductions in methane-producing cattle and other ruminant livestock will result in a reduction of methane released into our atmosphere. As existing methane in the atmosphere breaks down in a shorter amount of time than CO2, this gives us potential for a global cooling impact in the timescales we need to be reducing greenhouse gases. The research finds that if all UK pastureland were reforested this would enable the UK to meet its emissions obligations.
Part of the solution
The second piece of modelling looks at our ability to meet all of our nutritional requirements here in the UK, if we repurposed cropland currently growing animal feed to growing crops for human consumption instead. The research shows that this is possible – we could grow a diverse array of different crops, ensuring that we have enough varied foods to meet all our nutritional targets. We could be food secure, in the sense that we wouldn’t need to be so reliant on imported food post-Brexit.
If we are to take meaningful action to tackle the multiple environmental crises facing us, plant-based food must be part of the solution. But what can we do to ensure this happens?
On an individual level, the single biggest thing you can do is to go vegan and eat a fully plant-based diet. Our Plate Up for the Planet campaign can help you take the first step by supporting you through the first week. We provide lots of new recipes and tips to make it as easy as possible, whilst reminding you of the positive impact on the environment you are having. If you are already vegan or eating a plant-based diet, you can encourage your friends, family and colleagues to do the same, by sharing our resources and having positive conversations with them. You can sign up or access the resources here: www.vegansociety.com/plateup.
Tools to protect
At institutional level, there are simple policies for the Labour Party to adopt and Labour Party members to support that would help to shift diets and agricultural practices.
Firstly, we need the government to support farm transitions away from animal farming. We can hand farmers the tools to protect the planet themselves by properly aligning the financial support system with public goods, to tackle the steep economic barriers in the way of sustainable land use. One policy to help achieve this involves offering a package of support for farmers who are interested in transitioning away from livestock farming towards pulse production or reforesting. The specific support on offer can be decided upon by consulting with farmers, but the initial start-up capital costs should be included at a minimum.
Rising livestock numbers are contributing to the climate emergency, resource inefficiency, anti-microbial resistance, and animal protection issues. In contrast, pulses are among the most environmentally friendly crops, fixing nitrogen, improving soil health, and providing healthy, accessible food.
The package of support should also be available for farmers interested in reforesting their land. Our uplands provide a real opportunity here; a national reforestation programme could lock up 9 years’ worth of UK greenhouse gas emissions, Dr Harwatt’s Harvard study found.
Secondly, a simple, complementary policy, which connects changes in production to consumption, is to legislate for a guaranteed plant-based meal on every public sector canteen menu. This would mean that plant-based meals are available to all without making a special request. This ensures that everyone, including the most vulnerable (e.g. schoolchildren, hospital patients and prisoners), has access to nutritious, sustainable food.
This policy already has public backing from around a dozen Labour parliamentarians and the Committee on Climate Change recently stated that ‘the public sector should take a strong lead by offering more plant-based food’.
Plant-based food is typically high in fruit and vegetables, meaning less saturated fat and plenty of fibre. Building familiarity with plant-based food could help to address the many diet-related public health crises putting strain on the NHS. Plant-based food is inclusive and can be enjoyed by almost everyone. It is also straightforward to make these dishes suitable for people with religious dietary requirements.
In the UK, poor diet has an estimated cost of £6 billion a year on NHS budgets due to preventable ill-health. This can be addressed through the promotion of healthier, plant-based foods. However, healthy food remains inaccessible for many, particularly those on low incomes.
The right to food should instead be a right to sustainable, nutritious food. This puts food sovereignty at the heart of the creation of a sustainable food policy. Just improving access to healthy foods is not enough; we must also tackle factors such as poverty and inequality, which contribute to negative health outcomes. Studies have shown that even just a 10% fruit and vegetable subsidy would enable citizens to make healthier choices, helping to uphold the state’s duty to provide food that supports the wellbeing of its citizens.
Together, these policies would begin to heal the cracks in our food system. They would move us towards being a carbon neutral country, whilst protecting vulnerable groups, animals, and all our citizens.
Mark Banahan, Campaigns and Policy Officer, The Vegan Society