Envirobytes 7: Vitriolic Veganism

This week on Envirobytes: is veganism as “green” as it seems? While I am no advocate for the industrial slaughterhouses that produce meat in the United States, it is important to verify the validity of veganism’s environmental claims. In an age of rapid communication, widespread misinformation, and green washing, trusting blindly in a new sustainability trend can be extremely detrimental to the environmental action movement.

What’s the hype about?

Veganism, most simply, is the practice of abstaining from eating food derived from animals. This means that meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal-based products are off the table. When livestock account for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, abstaining from consuming livestock products in a significant quantity may shift the market and reduce the amount of livestock raised, killed, and processed which would reduce emissions. Along with emissions, raising livestock often encourages deforestation, environmental degradation, animal cruelty, labor rights violations, and the reduction of diverse ecosystems.

Veganism’s systemic issues

Veganism seems like a great alternative but its use of pre-existing agricultural practices and traditions, in part built by the livestock industry, means that veganism still is not as green as it could be. Though veganism does reduce your carbon footprint compared to the average meat-eating diet in the United States, veganism is not applicable in every part of the world. An article from Quartz outlines the issue, describing three uses for land in food production:

  1. Grazing land often does not support crop growth but can be utilized by cattle who can digest the cellulose rich plant material found here
  2. Perennial cropland supports crops that live year-round and can be harvested multiple times before their end of life. Examples include berry plants, fruit trees, mint, chives, oregano, kale, and many grains used to feed livestock.
  3. Cultivated cropland grows most vegetables, fruits, and nuts.

Diets that incorporate meat made the most use of available crop and grazing land whereas the vegan diet notably makes the least use of perennial cropland, wasting the opportunity to produce more food. In the worst possible outcome, natural ecosystems may be decimated in favor of creating cultivated croplands to grow vegan friendly foods. 

As a result of the different use cases for land, transportation is another issue that vegans can’t account for in their diet. In a Bloomberg article, it is estimated that transportation in the international trade of fruits and vegetables generate nearly twice as much carbon as is used to grow them. In that sense, vegans living far away from where their food is produced are still complicit in the emissions generated from transportation.

Also, food deserts, prohibitive pricing, and cultural traditions are other factors to be considered in the vegan conversation. For Indigenous peoples who continue to face systemic cultural genocide, using animal products in ways central to their culture is a means of rebellion against the colonial state. For immigrants who left their country to pursue a better life for the next generation, food is a connection to history and home. And for the impoverished and marginalized who live in food deserts, what other options are there for their survival? Rarely have I seen vegans engage with these topics with the respect, curiosity, and compassion necessary to bring diverse groups together to enact change under one movement. 

The future of sustainable eating

While there are many systemic issues in the way food production in the United States operates, you can still do your part to eat more sustainably. The easiest solution is to eat where you live by sourcing produce from farmer’s markets whenever possible. Not only does this strengthen your local economy and take away money from agrocorporations, but it ensures you get fresh food that has traveled minimally and is in season. 

The second change you may make is to reduce your consumption of transported or otherwise environmentally taxing foods. If you live in Arkansas and have a hankering for Pacific farmed salmon, maybe you could do without it. Farmed salmon in the Pacific are less nutritious, often more diseased, and contain more toxic chemicals due to pollutants. Not only is that salmon going to be less enjoyable to consume, but it has also traveled across the continent to get to your supermarket. Though it may be cheaper, remember that what you eat supports systems of power across the world and what may benefit you immediately can have intense impacts elsewhere.

Finally, be aware of the power of food. In a time potentially more divided than ever, food opens conversations and can be a mechanism for change. Food is more than what you eat, it is how you live, it is how you engage with the land, and it is how you see the world.

A warning

The political polarization of the vegan agenda is a clear display of the context and awareness lost when environmental action movements move into the mainstream. The lack of media literacy around veganism’s complex relationship with the environment is a warning to change makers in the climate action space. Criticizing social and environmental movements does not exclude or diminish the tangible benefits they can offer but often uplifts important issues that must be addressed to minimize harms. In any case, doing your own research and deciding based on your own resources, environment, and local politics will yield better results than blindly hopping onto the latest sustainability trends.

Up Next

Next week, I will share my personal connection with British Columbia’s old-growth, temperate rainforests and why we need to embrace our environmental grief to become better activists. Thanks for reading and stay hungry for more Envirobytes.

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