In recent years conscious consumerism has extended into all parts of our lives, from ethical clothing to green travel, home products, and upcycling goods. But many people aren’t aware that the single biggest way to reduce your carbon footprint is not by travelling less or by choosing sustainable produce - but in fact, by making one lifestyle change: turning to a vegan diet.
That’s because food is one of the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint. With growing awareness of a meat-free diet and the overall benefits it brings, it’s no surprise that veganism is on the rise.
In America alone, the latest statistics reveal over 9.7 million vegans in the country – a massive increase from around 290,000 just 15 years ago. More than just a ‘fad’, veganism is very much here to stay, and is set to increase in line with consumer lifestyle changes and a growing wealth of information.
So then, how should food manufacturers respond to this change, what are the individual and global plant-based diet benefits, and what role does the vegan food manufacturing supply chain play in all of this? In this feature, we examine this topic in greater detail.
What is veganism?
With so many different food trends in these modern times, from flexitarian lifestyles through to ovo-vegetarian and plant-based diets, it’s important to first understand the term.
The Vegan Society defines veganism as a philosophy and way of living, which actively excludes “all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose” and encourages the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment.
Unlike vegetarians, who do consume dairy products, the vegan diet strictly excludes all animal-derived produce.
Plant-based diet benefits for the consumer
It’s well documented that there are many benefits to a vegan diet – for both individuals and the environment.
Studies show that a planned vegan diet can be healthy, nutritiously adequate, and may assist with preventing some diseases.
Here are just a few of the benefits to the individual:
- Reducing animal-based foods invariably leads to an increase in other foods, such as whole grains, nuts and so forth, which have many nutritional benefits
- This may also result in an increase in fruit and vegetable intake, which has been shown to help reduce the risk of some cancers
- A vegan diet may help lower blood sugar levels as well as improve kidney function
- Vegan diets may assist with weight loss and a lower BMI
But the exhaustive list doesn’t end there. There are also a number of benefits for the larger world when you look at vegan environmental statistics.
The impact of veganism on the climate
A comprehensive study published in Science magazine, which took data from 40,000 farms across 119 countries, found that meat and dairy production is responsible for 60%of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. It found that meat and dairy products account for 18%of our calories but use up 83% of our farmland in the process.
The credible report also suggests that without meat and dairy, global farmland could be reduced by more than 75%and still feed the world - despite the impact this might have on farming communities that rely on it for their livelihood.
But the carbon footprint goes beyond just greenhouse gasses. It has other environmental impacts too. According to UNESCO’s Institute for Water Education, every kilogram of beef produced takes around 15,400 litres of water in the process. Alarmingly, nearly a third of the world’s freshwater is ploughed into animal production, notably crops that are cultivated to feed the animals.
The vegan environmental statistics speak for themselves (Source: PETA):
- Raising animals for consumption causes 65%of all nitrous-oxide emissions, which heavily contribute to global warming
- Meat consumption is attributed to the extinction of a number of species
- Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane every day
- Three-quarters of the world’s fisheries are “exploited” or depleted.
Additionally, animal agriculture is a major contributor to global deforestation too.
Veganism and climate change have become such a hot topic that it has even been supported by the United Nations (UN). The organisation reported that our ‘high’ consumption of meat and dairy is fuelling global warming and that more people could be fed using less land if we switched to a plant-based diet.
The importance of these matters has been highlighted in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, consisting of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It offers an “urgent call for action by all countries - developed and developing - in a global partnership”.
Quite notably, two of these SDGs are:
- End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
- Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
With all of the above in mind, it can be said that veganism can certainly help reduce one’s carbon footprint on the planet. But… before you reach for the vegan carbon footprint calculator, it’s important to acknowledge the important role trade and agriculture play in society.
The importance of agriculture
Agriculture is a vital component of the food chain, ensuring that produce is safely sourced and distributed to the mass market. It accounts for over 10% of employment in the US, supporting a number of homes with a steady livelihood.
To provide some context of how vital agriculture is, Americans spend 13%of their household budget on food and, overall, the US agriculture and the food industry contributes $1.109 trillion to US GDP (in 2019) according to the USDA.
While livestock production remains the single largest contributor of emissions around the globe, moving to ‘sustainable’ meat may not be the answer. For instance, while measures such as grass-feeding cattle (beef and lamb have the largest carbon footprint), may seem more sustainable, they can use up to 15-20 times more land in the process, which in turn produces more greenhouse gasses than those mass-farmed in feedlots. So, if sustainable produce isn’t the answer, what can the agriculture industry do?
How can the agriculture industry respond to this change?
From introducing blockchain traceability to switching to plant-based products, here are just a few ways that the industry is responding to the growth in veganism.
- Food traceability
Never has it been more critical for manufacturers to be transparent and show the sustainability and care that goes into the process, from farm to table. Manufacturers can fast-track traceability with the latest blockchain tools and technology, allowing data to be stored and shared instantaneously.
This can support efficiency and safety when it comes to accurate record-keeping that is accessible and up to date. And, as such, it has become the go-to option for record-keeping and sharing.
- Switching to meat-free produce
Veganism and the environment is making its impact on the food industry, with a range of new, innovative and alternative foods entering the marketplace. This growing market is estimated to be worth $6.5 billion by 2026. From meat-free burgers to plant-based confectionery, there’s a great opportunity for manufacturers to expand into new territory. There are even certain products on the market that contain less meat, for those easing into the transition.
- The millennial factor
While it may be harder to convert those accustomed to a meat-based diet, the millennial market is proving to be highly responsive, amongst the leading consumers in adopting a sustainable diet for the planet. Their noted ‘broad minded’ approach is just one reason why manufacturers may choose to focus on this audience.
- Review current practices
The agriculture industry must review its current practices to see where efficiencies can be made and improved. From consuming natural resources to water consumption and livestock upkeep, these are all areas that should be reviewed in the continual fight against climate change.
- Educating consumers
The industry as a whole has a job to educate consumers on plant-based diet benefits. At the same time, it must also strive towards sustainable change – be it through initiatives like ‘meat-free Monday’ or lower-impact flexitarian diets, which support a lower consumption of animal products. It is believed that even just skipping one serving of beef a week for a year saves the equivalent emissions to driving 348 miles by car. Such is the impact of a vegan diet on the planet.
Unless you’re Donald Trump, it’s clear to see that climate change and global warming have had a knock-on effect on our world’s resources! If you’re looking to do your bit to help the planet, then a vegan diet is widely considered to be the best way to reduce your global footprint.
As more people get their ‘teeth’ into a plant-based diet, manufacturers have a huge opportunity here to respond to the changing consumer demands. The agricultural community can come together to educate, inform and inspire consumers, providing a healthy, sustainable, and ethical alternative to animal products, as we are already seeing.
Artos is a leading global business platform, that enables greater access for small, speciality producers of premium sustainable goods. If you need support with trade negotiations around food manufacturing, get in touch to see how we can help at: artos.io