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Political activism through your diet

My last few blogs have focused on examining Green Criminology and introducing you to zemiology and anthropocentrism, the latter as a result of the Covid lockdown. This blog will introduce how going vegan to tackle climate change can really be a powerful tool, demonstrating how your diet can become part of your political activism. It also briefly examines some of the common misconceptions of the vegan diet. There are some great resources out there providing greater detail but this blog provides a very quick introduction to some of the key issues.

I thought I’d start off with a common retort of many non-vegans. This refers to how much land and deforestation can be laid at the door of the vegan diet. Yes, vegans do eat soy products, mea culpa. However, the huge devastation suffered in parts of South America and in particular the Amazon rainforest must be laid at the door of the meat and diary industry. The sheer amount of animal feed required to meet the demands of these diets means that 90% of Amazon deforestation is caused by cattle ranching and clearing space to grow animal feed[1]. This is in order to grow soybean crops, with 77% going to feed animals and livestock. This isn’t just for the meat industry such as beef and chicken but also for egg and diary production[2]. Approximately 16% then goes towards biofuels, industry and oils, meaning that just 7% of the soybean crop goes directly into the human food chain including for tofu. As sources state, ‘the idea that foods often promoted as substitutes for meat and dairy – such as tofu and soy milk – are driving deforestation is a common misconception[3].

The sheer amount of devastation caused by animal farming can also be seen in how wasteful it is; instead of providing feed for livestock, the same amount of crop could feed ten-times the number of humans if grown for human consumption[4]. Put another way, livestock farming provides for ‘18% of calories but takes up 83% of farmland[5]’. However, there is also the very fact that forests are being stripped away to provide animal feed that also damages the environment. Rainforests, savannahs and grasslands are being destroyed which damages ‘valuable habitats and species whilst putting at risk traditional, local livelihoods’[6]. Whilst the damage caused to the Amazon and South America is well documented, it is also harming ‘African Savannahs and Central-Asian natural grasslands’[7].

Another issue raised more recently is the amount of water used to supply non-dairy milk demands, particularly almond milk. Firstly, it is important to point out how much water is used to support meat, 1000 litres of water producing a beef burger and 167 litres the tofu equivalent[8]. It is important when comparing non-diary milk to also compare to dairy milk because it is still the most environmentally damaging. Using data from a 2018 Oxford University study that examines their environmental impact beginning with carbon emissions, cow’s milk tops the chart emitting 3.2 kg CO2eq, compared to rice milk (1.2 CO2eq), soy milk (1.0 kg CO2eq) oat milk (0.9 kg CO2eq) and finally almond milk (0.7 kg CO2 eq). Moving on to land use, cow’s milk still tops it with 9.0 (m2), rice milk (0.3 m2), soy milk (0.7 (m2), oat milk (0.8 m2) and almond milk (0.5 m2). Almond milk gets a bad rap with the amount of water it uses, unsurprising given it uses 371 litres when compared to rice milk (270 L), soy milk (28 L) and oat milk (48 L). However, cow’s milk still has a greater environmental impact using 628 litres of water in comparison[9]. Added to this is the cow’s production of methane, so any non-diary milk is better whilst soya and oat are clearly the most environmentally friendly of them all.

Perhaps a better way of focusing on these issues comes from George Monbiot, who says that scientists often focus on the impact of particular diets and the carbon released (carbon current account). Instead, why not focus on what the land could be used for if not diverted to food production (carbon capital account). “If you are producing meat, for example, what might land be used for if you took meat away? If you are growing forests there instead or peat bog there[10]”. When you do that, it broadens out the debate and really demonstrates the impact that a vegan diet can have, allowing lands to be sources of valuable biodiversity that sustain all animal life, non-human as well. This to me is the most positive way of looking at a vegan diet. Although this level of change cannot be achieved individually, by becoming vegan you can at least put greater consumer pressure on the food industry and hope that a government comes along that recognises its responsibility, enforced through your part in a growing collective process.

George Monbiot says that changing your diet can have a ‘major impact’. The New Scientist states that ‘if those eating more than 100 grams of meat a day went vegan, their food related carbon footprint would shrink by 60 percent[11]’. Meanwhile, Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford, lead author of the 2018 study that provides the most ‘comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does’[12]states that, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.” It really is the case that a vegan diet can be part of political activism, all from action taken inside your kitchen

Recommended reading

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

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