Creative Commons: Unisouth

Throughout 2018 it seemed awareness around environmental impacts of food rose to unprecedented levels. Though the year is young, 2019 does not seem to be reversing this trend at all. “Veganuary” is seemingly more popular than ever. And an increasing number of companies have announced vegan food choices. But is the mass adoption of vegan and vegetarian diets sufficient to actually have a positive environmental impact?

The environmental impact of animal agriculture

It is clear that the impacts of industrial agriculture on our environment are huge. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions are a result of cattle farming.

And the impact is not limited to climate change. Animal agriculture also contributes to deforestation and biodiversity loss through clearing land for grazing. Not only this, but the amount of food needed to raise cattle represents a massive waste of land and grain. 97% of world soymeal is used to feed animals at one stage.

Why veganism?

The response some have taken to this environmental crisis is refusing to eat or purchase animal products. Many, myself included, hope that by not putting money towards animal agriculture the practice will become so financially unviable that meat and dairy production will cease.

As a result, the vegan diet can be seen as a form of boycott, with individuals refusing to put money into harmful industries, and thus putting pressure on the damaging practices occurring. Veganism, if it wishes to be environmentally useful, should hold these companies to account, by undermining their profits, and encouraging the development of entirely new sustainable food systems.

Vegan paradise or corporate co-option?

Yet, as the number of vegan consumers has skyrocketed many international companies are responding by creating new foods tailored to the diet. Just this year, MacDonald’s has developed a vegetarian “happy meal”, TGI Fridays have announced a “bleeding” burger, and Gregg released its controversial vegan sausage roll. Irrespective of whether these options are tasty or popular, it’s clear that this diet is no longer the lifestyle choice of eco-militants but is entering the mainstream.

With this rise in popularity, there must come concerns about whether attempts to make food more sustainable are being co-opted and used for commercial purposes. By purchasing a vegan meal from a large food chain, you throw your income towards a business which may also be facilitating further environmental destruction from animal products. Rather than forcing a company to adopt sustainable food sources, the purchasing of the vegan option may in fact be increasing the money a company has available to spend on new environmentally damaging meals. For example, by picking MacDonald’s veggie option, you’re also giving money to a company which has sold beef through tens of thousands of restaurants and once took two Greenpeace London activists through court for libel, unrepresented and juryless.

Advertising and culture

An insight should be taken from the feminist movement – in particular from those who campaign against harmful “detox” diets encouraged through body shaming and misogynistic messaging. Activists point out that the diet industry uses advertising and cultural tropes to create bodily discomfort which is then commercialised through the sale of dietary fixes for these perceived problems.

This shows that diets are not purely our own choice but pushed onto us by industries pursuing maximum profit and the pushing of meat, dairy, and other animal products has been widespread. Fast food chains use mascots to encourage young children to eat regularly with them and spend upwards of $190 million a year just in the US on advertising their food.

But this is not limited to advertising, as Carol J Adams argues in her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, the consumption of animal products is culturally linked to concepts of toxic masculinity, with men encouraged to eat red meat as the “manly thing” to do. Unsustainable food companies have contributed and encouraged this culture to drive increasing sales and loyalty from consumers. So, if one purchases into vegan food from traditionally unsustainable businesses, not only may your money be facilitating the use of environmentally damaging food, but it may in fact be used to push those diets onto wider consumers, causing even more damage.

Where do we go from here?

Going vegan is one tool which can be used to undermine the huge impact commercial animal agriculture has on our planet’s health. But the simple eating of vegan food alone isn’t necessarily going to undermine these practices. What we eat, how it is produced, and the amount we consume all are questions that need to be answered as we transform food production in the face of runaway climate change and biodiversity loss.

These questions are not answered when our dietary choices boil down to choosing the latest cool vegan option whenever they are released. The environmental movement needs to be wary about how the switch to plant-based diets can be easily incorporated into existing unsustainable food systems, otherwise its impact may be slighted. More pressure needs to be placed on international agriculture to meet the needs of the planet.

This pressure isn’t going to come from vegan sausage rolls.