Veganism: an ally to preserve the environment

[Milena Ferrari is a marketing specialist in the food and beverage industry. She was a student on the City, University of London Writing for Business short course in October-December 2019. Milena wrote this blog as part of a homework/in-class exercise on that course.]

The consumer’s growing concern with the environment is leading to widespread changes in food and lifestyle. Vegan diets are becoming more relevant. This is not only due to animal welfare issues but also for health or environmental reasons. Some consumers are choosing to become flexitarians – occasionally consuming meat – or vegetarians or vegans.

On the face of it veganism is a more extreme approach, given that vegans do not eat any food originating from animals, including eggs and milk. But it is becoming more popular. There is now an annual Veganuary Campaign, to which both omnivores (who eat both plant and animal origin food) and vegetarians subscribe, in an attempt to try veganism for a month. In the last year the campaign gathered 168,000 attendees.

Veganuary

In the Veganuary website, plenty of information is available regarding animal and environment maltreatment in meat production. For example the UK alone is responsible for slaughtering over 2.5 million land animals daily. Other facts are cited by Veganuary below:

  • Cows and sheep are responsible for 37% of the total methane generated by human activity.
  • Carbon dioxide is emitted when forests are cleared for grazing or for growing grain to feed animals. Fossil fuels are used to transport animals and to power the production of their feed.
  • 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are killed every year as ‘by-catch’ of the fishing industries.
  • Livestock production is responsible for 70% of the Amazon deforestation in Latin America, where the rainforest has been cleared to create new pastures.
  • A farmer can feed up to 30 people throughout the year with vegetables, fruits, cereals and vegetable fats on one hectare of land. If the same area is used for the production of eggs, milk or meat the number of people fed varies from 5-10.

Damian Carrington, environment editor for the Guardian, puts it like this:

Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world.

The Guardian, 2018

Carrington reveals more data, originally cited in Science journal, which analyses the environmental issues associated with meat and dairy production:

Figure 1: Farmland used x food produced for meat and dairy. Source: Carrington, 2018.

Emission scenarios

An earlier Guardian blog by Alex Renton (2010) states that “livestock agriculture produces more greenhouse gas emissions than every train, truck, car and aeroplane put together”. Looking at the forecasts for 2050, some possibilities can be estimated for all production of meat, dairy and vegetables. Eat For The Earth (2018) has published a graph showing various scenarios. From these it can be seen that ruminant meat is in fact the worst process in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). But this can be reduced by productivity improvements, or with changes in food habits:

Figure 2: Global Emissions in 2050. Source: Eat For The Earth (2018).

  • The first column (REF) is a baseline scenario, showing what will happen on the basis of current trends.
  • The second column (IP) shows what is expected to happen based on current productivity improvements.
  • The third column (TM) takes into account other measures to mitigate gas emission, including changing the diet of ruminants such as cattle to reduce their emissions.
  • The fourth column (CC) assumes that 75% of ruminant meat and dairy products worldwide were replaced by other animal products, including poultry.
  • The last column (FL) represents the Flexitarian approach, assuming that the same 75% of ruminant meat were replaced by plant-based products.

So it appears emissions production can be controlled over the next few years. However a change needs to happen on both sides – producers and consumers.

Changes are under way

There is one more point to take into consideration regarding food habits. Consumer behaviour has a different pattern for developing and developed countries. The latter group has a firmer position on healthier lifestyle and a no-meat culture, and is witnessing strong trends towards veganism. As the wealthy population grows, the trend towards veganism increases proportionally. Also, more opportunities for these new plant food sources become visible. Looking on the bright side of the change in consumer behaviour can help companies to find different alternatives for feeding the growing population in the next few years, using more abundant resources. This includes searching for new vegan protein sources.

What’s more, the biggest food manufacturers are starting to move on and embrace the vegan movement:

  • According to Forbes (2018), “Danone set to triple plant-based business by 2025…from €1.7 billion $($1.9 billion) to around €5 billion ($5.7 billion).”
  • As described by Food Ingredients First (2018), “Vegan cheese and yogurt company Kite Hill has secured US$40 million in funding led by 301 Inc, the new business development and venturing unit at General Mills.”
  • Based on a report published by Plant Based News (Chiorando, 2018), a “$2.4 trillion group of investors urges companies to make plant-based products”. In an analysis of 16 multinationals, Nestlé and Tesco seemed to be in the best position to succeed in this area. This analysis is based on their levels of investment in R&D and new plant-based launches. M&S, Nestlé and Unilever, meanwhile, are all reported to have set themselves goals for finding alternative proteins.

Individual choices matter

Taking all these aspects into consideration, although there is a promising outlook for the vegan market, the food industry still faces many challenges. Consumers are getting more interested in reading about the facts of their nutrition. And in knowing the origin of the products they are consuming.

Furthermore, turning to a vegan lifestyle does not only involve replacing the food you eat and cutting out animal-derived ingredients. It also involves changing the clothes you wear. And the cosmetics or supplements you use, among other things. Action needs to be concerted. Consumers need to be kept constantly aware, if the necessary drastic changes are to happen. Each individual is important in this whole picture, and each one makes a difference.