Veganism is more than an individual diet – it’s an ethical and ecological choice in a global context. But what does it actually mean — and what would a plant-based planet look like? Our new book, 'Should We All Be Vegan?' explores the ins and outs of a vegan future.
Food trends come and go, but veganism – eating and living without animal products – is a lot more than a passing fad. It’s a choice that has steadily been gaining adherents for decades, before exploding in popularity inthe last few years. As concerns for personal health, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability coalesce, more and more people are turning to plant-based living.
In the U.K., 7% of people now define themselves as vegan. Sign-ups for the one-month vegan campaign “Veganuary” almost doubled in 2019, while orders of meat-free food have nearly quadrupled. In the United States, there was a 600% increase in people identifying as vegan between 2014 and 2017, while in India, which has a long history of religious and cultural norms that avoid meat, more than a quarter of the population now have a vegan diet.
Even in China, known for its meat-based cuisine, new government guidelines have encouraged the country’s 1.3 billion people to reduce their meat consumption by at least 50%. In Hong Kong, 22% of the population already practices some form of plant-based lifestyle.
So is veganism the future? Is a plant-based planet the path to personal and environmental health? Certainly, veganism is much more than an individual diet. Though people practice and define it differently, plant-based living exists in a global ethical and ecological framework, which is as much about planetary sustainability as it is about avoiding animal cruelty or exploitation for human gain.
The environmental arguments for veganism are substantial: with industrial or “factory” farming now the norm, the raising and rearing of animals contributes at least 14% of human-made greenhouse gases. On top of these emissions, industrial farming also goes hand in hand with deforestation to create new agriculture and grazing land, particularly in South America, where the worldwide demand for beef has made the clearing of rainforests to raise cattle profitable. By removing trees that transform carbon into oxygen, deforestation further contributes to global warming.
In terms of calorie input and output, animals are also highly inefficient as a food source. Beef from feedlots, for example, takes up to 5.5 kilograms of grain (more than 18,000 calories) and almost 70,000 litres of water – plus energy and human labour – to produce just half a kilogram of beef, which offers just 1,137 calories for humans to eat.
A move towards widespread veganism would radically reshape our planetary landscape, and with it our sustainability: In 2016, an Oxford study estimated that the adoption of a vegan diet planet wide would cut emissions connected to food production by 70%. Since food production are second only to the energy sector, this would likely have a significant positive effect on global warming and climate change. Researchers on the future of food have found that the economic benefit from a dietary shift away animal products could be as high as $570 billion.
But these changes would require a major economic revolution for countries, such as New Zealand, which rely primarily on animal exports – including wool, beef, dairy, lamb, and fish. Entire industries would collapse, taking jobs down with them. In the United States, the livestock industry employs 1.6 million people. In the United Kingdom, it’s 315,000.
There’d be another economic loser in a vegan world: the pharmaceutical industry. Today, more than 80% of global antibiotics production is used on livestock. If there were no more animals to treat, it would be a disaster for pharmaceutical profits — but a potential savior to our global health. As vegan advocates and medical experts alike warn: the widespread overuse of antibiotics in the food chain means more and more bacteria are becoming resistant to the drugs — which means more and more people are suffering – and dying – from diseases we can no longer treat.
And with plant-based living also reducing cases of heart disease and diabetes, some research suggests that global veganism could result in 8.1 million fewer avoidable deaths per year, with savings of up to $1000 billion in health care costs and lost work days.
But beyond these ecological and economic arguments, veganism also poses cultural questions. Food is not only a source of nutrition but also of communal activity, celebration, and symbolism. Many religious and cultural festivals centre around specific food, and in particular meat, such as turkey at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and a lamb shank on a Seder plate for Passover.
Such traditions might well evolve, and perhaps even quicker than we might imagine — just look at the rapid changes in smoking and drinking habits over just one generation in the U.K. But what about cultures around the globe where animal-intense diets are a climate necessity, and an essential part of community practice over centuries, or even millennia? Cultures such as the Inuit in Arctic and sub-Arctic Inuit, which eat seals, walrus, birds, eggs, and a wide variety of fish. Or the Maasai in Eastern Africa, whose traditional diet consists of the milk, blood, and meat of the cattle they raise.
Just as veganism has wider ramifications on society, the hunting, raising, and eating of animals has an integral role for these cultures and their communities. What happens, not only economically but also culturally if the Maasai and Inuit need to import other food, or if their practices cease to exist? Will they or can they be replaced? Is it possible to maintain an identity if such a fundamental shift occurs?
All things considered, an all vegan planet holds much promise. Scaled up, plant-centric living would almost certainly be more sustainable and healthy at both a human and a planetary level. But humans are not only physical creatures. We are social and cultural and psychological and culinary, and in imagining a vegan planet, we must not underestimate the frameworks of identity and belonging that surround what we eat. A plant-based planet would likely do wonders for our climate and our collective health, but it may be in incremental – rather than absolute – changes that we are able to retain the diversity that is also who we are.
Words by Eliza Apperly
Find out more in Should We All Be Vegan?, an essential primer on all things plant-based, now available as part of our ‘Big Ideas’ series.