It’s not that easy being green

The number of people switching to a plant-based diet is increasing. It is widely regarded as being better for the planet to consume less meat, but how valid are these claims? Is it just a trend?  

It is well known that the mass production of meat, particularly beef, has a massive impact on the planet’s resources. This food group produces a huge amount of greenhouse gases and takes up a large volume of land; contributing to a great deal of environmental damage, but how much better is plant-based food for the environment?  

“Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track”, says Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies the environmental impacts of food. “It’s essential to be mindful about everything we consume: air-transported fruit and veg can create more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram than poultry meat, for example.” 

Our love for exotic fruits and vegetables may be causing more of a problem than we thought. This is due to the import of out of season products like strawberries and blueberries. Even asparagus, a traditionally British vegetable, has a huge carbon footprint of 5.3 kg per kilo. This was found to be the largest, of the 56 vegetables studied by Angelina Frankowska, who studies sustainability at the University of Manchester. Therefore, when we consider our diet, we need to think about where our food has come from: has it flown miles by air? What resources are needed to grow it? For example, to grow a single avocado, it has been estimated to take anything from 140 litres to 272 litres of water. These figures are alarming and suggest crops can have a considerable effect on the environment. 

Another reason to be vegan is the health benefits of plant-based protein sources, which come packaged with vitamins and fibre alongside healthy fats. Previously, before veganism had made it into popular culture, meat alternatives were something that had to be homemade or cooked at home after purchase. Recently, many restaurants and fast food outlets have taken advantage of the rise in people choosing vegan options. Now it is possible to go to most eateries and choose between multiple vegan dishes on offer. But are they really healthier than meat? Experts, such as Dr Andrew Freeman, believe that these vegan friendly meat alternatives are high in fat and very processed. In reality, we should not be consuming them on a regular basis if we want to look after our long-term health.   
So with this new information about the vegan diet, how can we make sure we remain healthy and still have minimal effect on the environment? Should we return to meat consumption? No, not necessarily. When making any food choices we need to consider the whole picture. Think, is it local? If not, what carbon footprint does it have? Perhaps, consider buying fresh, in-season produce locally that isn’t packaged in plastic. Also, think about eliminating products which are known to be unfriendly to the environment, like palm oil, for example. A great example of a shop in Norwich which is leading the way in planet-kind purchasing, is Ernie’s Zero Waste Shop on Magdalen Street. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or eat meat, always shop planet friendly and limit your unhealthy processed food intake.

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Lucy Burrows

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November 2021
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