Can veganism really save us? Illustration: Simon Golob/Rex Shutterstock/Prospect composite

Green new meal: the unpalatable truth about veganism and climate change

Climate change has made "plant-based" eating all the rage. But the reality is that every choice to consume that we make has drawbacks
December 10, 2019

In November 1944, more than five years into a devastating war whose tall shadow had long breached the nation’s pantries thanks to rationing, half a dozen men and women gathered in Leicester, united by their belief that it was morally imperative to abstain from much of the food their countryfolk craved: not just meat but dairy products, too. As their group’s first secretary—a 34-year-old pacifist woodwork teacher named Donald Watson—wrote soon after, they were “not easily scared by criticism, and filled with the spirit of pioneers.” In the years to come, their self-denying diet became the butt of jokes, the bane of foodies and then abruptly, in the second decade of a new millennium, a juggernaut trend that has multinationals competing for market share.

Back then, though, the six didn’t know what to call themselves. Having split from their milk-moustached comrades in the Vegetarian Society, they needed something catchier than “non-dairy vegetarians.” They could have become “vitans,” “benevores” or the distinctly Atwood-ian sounding “dairybans,” all of which were suggested at that inaugural meeting; instead they settled on “vegans,” no more than a pointed shortening of vegetarians, but a placeholder moniker that stuck. Or at least, stuck until very recently, with the emergence of a rival descriptor for their diet: plant-based.

The two terms are not interchangeable. While the older term denotes a way of living, in which compassion towards animals dictates not only what is eaten, but what is worn and used—leather, silk, even pearls are forbidden—the newer term is about ingredients alone. Nevertheless, “plant-based” rebranding has helped veganism conquer social media, woo supermarkets and carve in-roads into the fast-food business.

The old vegan movement always had a joyless, hair-shirt vibe, and was perceived as being powered by dogmatists ever ready to go on the attack. As the old joke runs, “How do you know if someone’s vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” Traditionally, most people’s perception of vegan cuisine extends to lentil burgers, lentil pie, lentil bolognese…

But now, suddenly, vegan food has managed to restyle itself as being at once indulgent and healthy, becoming positively aspirational in the process. It’s “proper banging” thanks to the likes of the BBC’s “dirty vegan” skateboarder and celebrity chef Matt Pritchard and yet also “clean.” To combat the reality of its limitations, veganism now stresses the options it offers: a BBQ Jack ‘n’ Ch**se in Pizza Hut one day (made from vegan cheese and jackfruit), and roasted cauliflower with za’atar and tahini the next. As an advert for ice cream from the Finnish oat milk manufacturer, Oatly, recently enjoined: “Go ahead, eat like a vegan.”

Instagram is glutted with images that will leave all but the most committed carnivore salivating; these platefuls of vibrant excess evoke a greediness that just a few years earlier would have seemed alien to the cause. From the cornucopia of vegan replacement products by the likes of Magnum and Guinness, to own-brand ranges available in supermarkets from Asda to M&S and in high street eateries from KFC to Yo Sushi!, the surge from fringe movement to mega-fad has stunned none more so than lifelong vegans.

In 2016, an estimated half a million Britons identified as vegans. By 2018, the figure had shot up to more than 3.5m, which would be roughly 5 per cent of the population. There are quibbles about the survey this is based on (the question would have caught past as well as present vegans) but no vegan, nor anyone who walks down any fashionable high street, can doubt that the number has recently rocketed. There is a self-fulfilling cycle at work here. More vegans mean that more shops stock the plant-based foods, and more manufacturers make them better—vegan “cheeses,” vile only a short time ago, now include coconut-based products that some meat-eaters actively choose. Increased availability means that more people will find veganism a viable option. And as veganism has become radically easier, at the same time there is a new rationale. Whereas once it was all about animal welfare, veganism now posits itself as being key to saving the world from catastrophic climate change. Whether or not it is the solution, this has been a big part of its transformation from crank ideology to trendy virtue-signalling lifestyle creed.

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Watson and his friends were far from being the first vegans. Over the centuries, saints, seers and dreamers have been attracted to a diet that they have experienced as being simultaneously more grounded and natural, and more ascetic. With differing degrees of persuasiveness, vegans have claimed as their brethren the Indian philosopher Mahavira, Ovid, and the Arab poet al-Ma’arri. Some of the finer dietary distinctions are lost in the mists of time: in other ages and places, attitudes to eggs, dairy and fish in relation to red meat will have varied in all sorts of ways. There were sometimes extra restrictions too—Pythagoras, who lent his name to ancient Greece’s vegetarian movement, is thought to have banned his followers from eating beans. Shelley, whose favourite staples were bread and raisins, wrote a couple of pro-vegetarian pamphlets so persuasive that George Bernard Shaw, himself meatless from the age of 25, later sought to rename the cause “Shelleyism.” To Shaw’s mind, meat-eating was “cannibalism with the heroic dish omitted.”

There was an often otherworldly bent. In 1841, Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, came up with the idea for Fruitlands, America’s first vegan commune. No animal substances were consumed, and residents also refused animal labour. Because the commune was transcendentalist in its beliefs, root vegetables were scorned on account of their growing downwards (thereby demonstrating a “lower nature”) meaning they survived on what we would now call a “fruitarian” diet of fruit and water—or they did so for seven months, whereupon the commune unsurprisingly dissolved.

Those early vegans were sometimes described as “strict” or “moral” vegetarians, and the deeper you delve, the harder it seems to be to justify anyone stopping at conventional egg-and-dairy inclusive vegetarianism. Take, for instance, the vegan argument against eggs: producing them economically necessitates killing male chicks. That is why vegans abstain, but surely a vegetarian—or at least, a vegetarian motivated by animal welfare concerns—should do the same?

The subject of eggs came up in 1944’s inaugural issue of the Vegan Society newsletter, in which Watson chirped that they “can readily be dispensed with for good without any sense of loss if one dwells on the fact that they are for the most part nothing more than reconstituted grubs and beetles!” The publication’s tone was principled and yet modest. Its members, who would exceed 600 by 1950, were simply choosing to put their conscience above their appetites. If there were health benefits—and Watson claimed to be able to cycle 230 miles in a day and dig for 10-hour stretches in his allotment—these were presented more in self-defence, as proof that veganism wasn’t physically damaging, than as proselytisation.

By contrast, the plant-based revolution is at once less rigorous and yet more ambitious, maximising the rewards while minimising sacrifice. It’s vegan-lite—you can disdain dairy and perhaps mass-produced meat, but still indulge occasionally in the more artisan stuff; indeed, in November, a new study conducted by American market research firm the NPD Group, found that 90 per cent of plant-based consumers are not vegan or even vegetarian. Watson’s devotion to the cause, by contrast, was such that when he was digging, he used a fork rather than a spade in order to avoid killing worms.

Meanwhile, the promised gains of veganism 2.0 extend to lengthened lifespans, increased energy, improved mental wellbeing, and a decreased risk of diseases including diabetes. A new Netflix documentary, The Game Changers, which showed how elite athletes benefited from embracing a vegan diet, was persuasive enough to convert Greggs boss (and vegan sausage roll pioneer) Roger Whiteside. And with the likes of Simon Cowell claiming that a vegan diet has made him a better father, it’s no wonder that the Wall Street Journal was recently to be found posing the pressing question: “Should your cat be vegan?”

[su_pullquote align="right"]The new language helps: “plant-based,” not “meat-free”[/su_pullquote]

What has really changed is that while Watson and co were seeking to make humanity more humane, today’s vegan influencers get their glow from the conviction that they’re saving first of all themselves, and second the planet. It’s the climate crisis that has brought veganism in from the fringes. Compared with other things that we should be doing—stopping flying, using our cars less, resisting fast fashion, or putting on a jumper and turning down the thermostat—adding something new to your life (and here the new language helps: “plant-based,” not “meat-free”) is markedly more appealing, even if that something is just the novelty factor of a non-meat Impossible Burger that appears to bleed.

Mock meat is proving a crucial tool in the mainstreaming of veganism. While purists have traditionally shunned it, they’re not the target audience. Besides, it’s come a long way from “facon”: one Israeli startup, Jet Eat, hopes within the next 12 months to be using 3D printing technology to produce meat substitutes using plant-based formulations. Barclays predicted that the vegan “meat” market, currently worth $14bn, could by 2029 grow to $140bn; investors in the plant-based sector include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Eventually, though, vegan meat looks set to encompass so-called “clean” meat, which is protein grown in a lab from a few animal cells.

In taste, texture and smell, these alternatives are out not merely to rival the real thing, they’re aiming to exceed it. As Pat Brown, a Stanford biochemist and founder of Impossible Foods, told Time in 2018, “We have to produce foods that consumers prefer over what they’re getting today from animals.” This poses fascinating ethical questions: once there is no tangible difference, doesn’t killing animals for food become mere sport, and wanton sport, at that? For anyone iffy about, say, fox hunting it would surely be hard to justify choosing to eat killed rather than lab-grown meat, and all the more so when you consider the environmental benefits. Cultured beef, claimed an Oxford University study, requires up to 45 per cent less energy, 96 per cent less water, and 99 per cent less land than most of the steak that’s presently being consumed. It also produces 96 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

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The Committee on Climate Change, the independent body that advises the government, acknowledged in its 2019 landmark report that meat consumption would have to fall if the UK was to hit the target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But the government has been slow to embrace that idea. When pushed on this question a year ago, the then-minister for climate change, Claire Perry, said: “Who would I be to sit there advising people in the country coming home after a hard day of work to not have steak and chips?”

In stark contrast, the radical lawyer Michael Mansfield suggests giving consumers more than a nudge: he wants meat-eating to be criminalised as “ecocide.” But what the vegan mania demonstrates is that business and fashion can combine effectively without legislation. After all, the Beyond Burger has arguably done far more to disrupt the meat industry and convince people to change their flesh-eating ways than torrents of videos of animals being tortured in factory farms ever did. As food sustainability maven Paul Shapiro notes in his book Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionise Dinner and the World, it wasn’t distress over the treatment of horses that put an end to their use as transportation, it was the invention of the car; nor was it compassion that saved the whales, it was the discovery of kerosene.

Ultimately, motivation is irrelevant—who cares if companies are merely pursuing the vegan pound, or if some self-declared “vegans” are self-obsessed wellness slaves ditching dairy for vanity’s sake? If they’re part of a movement that might help slam the brakes on impending environmental doom, then they are surely a force for good.

But are they? A 2019 Imperial College study did find that your diet is where you can make the biggest difference. The trouble is, while certain facts are indisputable—for instance, the amount of soya fed to a cow to produce a litre of milk is several times that used to produce a litre of soya milk—the more granular the focus, the murkier the picture becomes. Industrially-farmed soya is one of the worst crops in any quantity because it’s what is known as a monocrop, one that is planted in the same field year after year, causing soil depletion and also enhancing vulnerability to famine, Irish potato-style. So, sure, you’ve embraced a plant-based diet, but if you’re indulging every week in jackfruit tacos, prefer almond milk to oat milk, and aren’t yet sick of avocados, then your diet is hardly carbon-neutral. Even fruitarians have been found to have a high environmental impact.

As for “clean” meat (and the term is obviously contested by livestock farmers), there are other studies suggesting that while “fake” beef would have less environmental impact than the real thing,  “fake” chicken might turn out to be more impactful than real chicken. Besides, for all the hype, the technology is still not mature—much could yet go wrong. Six years on from the unveiling of the first lab-grown burger, which cost £215,000 to develop, it remains difficult to predict how long the product will take to come to market. Nor is all the development open source. Do we want to end up in a world where a lot of what goes on to our plates is patented?

Moreover, a vegan diet is rich in maize and grains, and those crops tend to be industrially grown using fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. One detail that’s consistently overlooked in the vegan debate is how your food is farmed. In the rush to embrace veganism, yesterday’s trend for organic foods has been all but forgotten. Far better, the likes of writer Isabella Tree would argue, to supplement a “flexitarian” diet not with intensively farmed, grain-fed animals or lab-grown meat but with the occasional cut from organic, free-roaming, biodiversity-bolstering livestock. That may be harder on the wallet but could turn out to be easier on the planet.

In 2000, Tree and her husband turned their large but struggling 3,500-acre farm in West Sussex over to grazing free-roaming herds of old English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and deer. As she writes in her award-winning recent book, Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, the results persuaded her that calls for everyone to switch to plant-based foods are misleading. Her experience shows that we should instead be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems and conservation grazing, which can restore vital soil quality and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

As the natural world grows to seem more hostile, less nurturing, it’s understandable that as a species we might want to retreat from it, bunkering down in concrete jungles and filling our bellies with food created in labs. But here’s something else that’s curious about the “plant-based” craze: even as it nods to a more natural way of living, its often highly-processed foods further alienate us from the natural world and the rhythms of the planet, and in a way that makes scientists’ ever-more-dire climate warnings harder to grasp.

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A 2016 paper by social psychologist Marleen C Onwezen and philosophy professor Cor van der Weele suggested that many of the consumers who might have seemed indifferent to the animal suffering associated with meat were instead wedded to a policy of “strategic ignorance,” ignoring animal rights videos so as to dodge engaging with the moral tensions. The same seems patently to be the case with reports on climate change. As Jonathan Franzen noted in the New Yorker, this kind of passive denial—distinct from that of determined climate science sceptics—makes psychological sense. It’s a bit like how we cope with mortality, he writes. “Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!), my mind prefers to focus on the latter. The planet, too, is still marvellously intact, still basically normal—seasons changing, another election year coming, new comedies on Netflix—and its impending collapse is even harder to wrap my mind around than death.”

[su_pullquote]The vegan revolution further cocoons us from impending collapse[/su_pullquote]

The vegan revolution further cocoons us from that impending collapse. To the extent that veganism retains any of its early utopianism, that manifests in a conjured world of substitute products, enabling us to continue living our lives uninhibited by climate catastrophe thanks to artificial meat, and—for the more devoted—cashmere spun from soya bean fibre and synthetic Dr Martens boots. Its vision is one where the broader promise of consumption-fuelled growth can continue without disruption.

Yet the reality is that every choice to consume that we make—even if it’s an alternative choice—has drawbacks. Electric cars, for instance: it turns out that their future may depend on mining critically important metals on the ocean floor. The painful truth of it is that if we are to fix a problem as vast as climate change, every choice is going to have to be thoughtful—much more about carbon and much less about what flatters our ideas about who we are. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as sovereign consumers, and reimagine ourselves as one potentially dangerous element in an interlocking and vulnerable ecology. And whatever ingenious products we might invent, we almost certainly also need to consume less overall—less of virtually everything, starting immediately. No amount of “vegenaise” is going to make that tough truth any more palatable.