Is a vegan diet better for the environment?

Is a vegan diet better for the environment? We can’t and shouldn’t try to calculate the value of living systems by only using reductionist science that is centuries behind explaining the true wonder of mother nature and her balanced systems.

This sort of mechanistic analysis only makes sense for de-natured food systems where all-natural processes have been ‘knocked out’ and what’s left is a lifeless medium in which a plant can put down roots – this ‘dirt’ is not a living soil.

Sadly, much of our modern agriculture produces food in this way; be it plant foods that humans eat or plant foods that are then inefficiently fed to livestock.

In our modern ‘Frankenstein’ agriculture where the living soil can no longer provide fertility through the so-called ‘microbial bridge,’ we need to add chemical fertilisers to produce the food plant. This sickly and undernourished plant will only survive if you exterminate all pests (also known as wildlife) with pesticides, all fungi (one of the most important organisms for carbon sequestration) with fungicides, and all weeds (also known as wildflowers) with herbicides. These agricultural ‘inputs’ are by far the most energy-hungry and environmentally costly elements of our modern agricultural systems.

This ‘efficient’ yet highly vulnerable chemical agriculture system is what mostly produces the plant foods that many vegans eat. It is sometimes assumed that by simply shunning meat products their overall diet is better for the planet, but this is only the case if you are comparing the vegan food with animal products from livestock also fed on this anti-nature grain plant feed. If this animal produce comes from a 100% grass-based organic system, then there has been ZERO use of these planet destroying inputs.

Sustainable Dish

It’s also important to understand that in any food production system – especially those run by large profit-driven corporations like the companies who are offering fake meat as an ethical alternative to real meat – there’s a lot of waste crop that doesn’t make the grade for human consumption which makes up a significant part of what is fed to livestock. This isn’t factored into the number crunching.

The next consideration is how much land is required to produce the food. Free range meat has been accused of being ‘more damaging’ than even conventional meat based on the land required to produce a KG of grass-fed steak.

These accusations are based on the highly simplified idea that a living animal on a living system should be quantified using this calculation;
Total methane emissions = number of animals x lifetime of animal x methane emissions per head per day.

It’s a damaging idea to think of a cow as a ‘meat machine’ and highlights the hazards of using reductionist science for making decisions about what food to eat. As explained in this great piece and its relevant links much of the methane emitted by cattle as part of a properly managed grazing system is oxidised and countered by the processes in the healthy living soils that the animals themselves enhance. Mother nature worked out this problem some time ago which is why we didn’t have an issue with GHG emissions when we had vast herds of megafauna roaming the planet which outnumbered our current domestic herbivores.

In a properly managed grazing system, a cow is acting as a proxy for a wild herbivore and can be part of a healthy ecosystem. Just as a beaver, elk or wild pony would be in other wilder ecosystems.

If we think of a cow as a machine that belches unacceptable levels of methane into the atmosphere, we must also use the same logic to asses’ other wild animals. For example, reintroducing beavers into the landscape could potentially increase methane release from saturated soils. As we can see in this systematic review of the literature, wetlands, which are promoted by beavers making dams, may sequester some carbon but the methane they release could overall make their GHG contribution more than if the land were to be left as grazing land.

If we take a holistic rather than reductionist approach we realise that it would be ridiculous to judge the beaver based on science that is taken out of context and will probably soon be out of date anyway. Beavers offer huge benefits to the overall ecosystem function; especially the water cycle, but that is not considered when only quantifying the methane impact.

In Wilderculture we believe one of the reasons most people no longer take responsibility for our foods impact on the planet and the people producing it is that they see nature on one side of the fence and agriculture on the other.

By segregating and exploiting agriculture to feed humans so we can ‘give back’ land to nature, we further alienate ourselves from ‘the’ environment. Shouldn’t it be ‘our’ environment?

So often we hear about important habitats and rewilded referred to as ecosystems, but we don’t apply any of the same principles and logic to farmed land and food systems. Holistic management is a framework that helps us increase the effectiveness of the ecosystem processes. In Wilderculture our work is underpinned with holistic management.

In holistic management, we use tools – that sometimes include livestock – to build a healthier ecosystem that supports the greatest range of species possible, including predators where appropriate. For us Holistic Managers, we consider predators, and diversity as a barometer of how well we are managing our land.

Conservation organisations have highlighted that one of the biggest threats to species and habitats is the fragmentation and isolation of species in reserves; they’re like islands in a sea of degraded farmland. Our vision in Wilderculture is to create a new integrated farming and conservation land management technique that’s even better than our current nature reserves.

Is a vegan diet better for the environment?

These ‘farms’ will also produce highly nutritious meat and other plants, in greater volume than the current low baseline, as a ‘by-product’ from the use of livestock to improve habitat. We would LOVE to have the problem of trying to protect our livestock from wolves and lynx one day, this would mean our environment is enormously productive and resilient to climate fluctuations. But until there is a public appetite for large wild predators we land managers must take on the role and mimic the functions of the predator-prey relationship – it’s a ‘key insight’ of holistic management – in order to create a truly natural landscape.

In holistic management, we assess our land through four windows; the water cycle, the mineral cycle, the energy flow and community dynamics. Increasing function in these can increase productivity dramatically; good for increased and healthy food production and good for wildlife.

Using this simple approach may sound unscientific, don’t be fooled. When you read the most updated soil and climate science from globally respected experts such as Jason Rowntree, Walter Jehne, Christine Jones, Elaine Ingham, David Johnson, Richard Teague – you begin to see why we shouldn’t look at food systems through a single ‘window’.

This article is a great and full explanation of why carbon sequestration and methane oxidation cannot be separated out from the – sometimes more important – climate change mitigating functions of a food production system. Learn more by taking our free ‘regenerate earth’ online course. I now more than ever appreciate the simple elegance of assessing land and food production through these four windows into the ecosystems function, it encapsulates the incredible and complex natural balancing system at play, in a way that science can’t yet fully quantify.

The four ecosystem processes.

The water cycle – we assess and improve how well the water passes into and is retained within the soil and utilised by plants avoiding drought and flood. A poor water cycle reduces the ability of our planet to cool itself, drastically reduces productivity in all growing systems and reduces the ability of soil to sequester carbon.

The mineral cycle – can your plants access minerals and recycle through a living soil food web then back to the soil quickly so more plants can grow? If it does then, we can drop all the fertilisers, chemicals and medicines from agriculture – the biggest contributor to the agricultural Carbon footprint AND the biggest cost drain on farmers.

Energy flow – How effectively are you using sunlight energy and passing it through the ecosystem system for the benefit of all organisms including those that will eventually feed humans. By getting more plants photosynthesizing per every Metre squared we are making more food; for microbes in the soil, for livestock, for wildlife and eventually us. If solar energy flow is not effective you will be using fossil fuel energy; that’s expensive and destructive.

Community dynamics – How effectively are you harnessing the highest successional state within the land you manage to balance our and reduce pests, maximise nutrient uptake, seed rainfall and make all land (agricultural or ‘wild) more resilient to climate change and wildfire?

In conventional plant food production, all these ecosystem processes function poorly; limiting climate mitigation potential, suppressing biodiversity, reducing the healthiness of the food and preventing ecosystem services such as flood or drought prevention.

One argument for eating a vegan diet is that in land use terms it is inefficient to grow animals for food. One recent report states ‘animal farming takes up 83% of the world’s agricultural land but delivers only 18% of our calories’.

In Richard Young’s (Sustainable food trust) superb response he highlights the many problems with using global averages to back up a highly Westernised viewpoint.

The above figures neglect to understand that when farmers pioneer land they will assess the production capabilities of a given area and cultivate the lower, flatter and most accessible for crop (plant food) production and use the higher more inaccessible or less productive areas for grazing animals. it’s just sensible land management. You will, of course, get fewer calories and protein from these vast areas of uncultivated land, they wouldn’t sustain effective plant food production anyway.

What’s worth noting, however, is if you assess what is produced from the marginal acres in terms of nutrient density rather than calories we see that upland areas supply the most nutrient dense foods of all. These foods will become even more important as an ever-increasing portion of our plant foods are grown from minerally depleted intensive systems leading to an overall dilution of nutrients essential to human health.

We should be using better metrics to judge the suitability of a farming system to offer a range of healthy foods that can nourish communities and be produces sustainable long term. Singling out calorie ‘efficient’ plant food crop grown a conventional system that will ‘bottom out’ in ten years of production as an alternative to a truly balanced diet grown on soils that can keep producing forever is pedalling a false choice. Instead, we should be using ways of assessing production such as the ‘sustainable nutrition security’ approach which evaluate the potential impact of food system interventions intended to improve both human and planetary health.

The food system metrics presented here make it possible—for the first time—to holistically and accurately measure food system performance across all relevant domains of interest: nutrition, environment, economic, social, resilience, safety, and waste. This new methodology thus allows quantification of sustainable nutrition security (SNS), an approach which can now be deployed by decision-makers. 

There is no evidence of any traditional cultures that ate a vegan diet with zero animal foods, some eat mostly plant and some eat mostly meat and fat, but all eat some nutrient dense foods such as the organ meats of wild animals.

On the 2/3 rds of the planet human-occupied land where the climate includes long dry seasons, it is virtually impossible to grow plant foods without relying on ecologically damaging irrigation systems. All the traditional peoples of dry-land cultures must depend on the milk, eggs, meat and blood of animals to survive or top up a diet of imported grains. The FAO has long recognised the importance of animal foods in truly sustainable systems and why sustainable nutrition security is critical when designing agricultural systems in developing countries.

So, it’s clear simply saying ‘eating a vegan diet is better for the environment is a highly simplified statement which limits our potential to move to better production systems that support wildlife and provide a wide array of ecosystem services.

As Isabella Tree of Knepp rewilding project says in her superb article ‘We should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, while demonising sustainable forms of livestock farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

We can use holistic management to produce plant foods in ways that mimic ecosystems or we can produce them ’efficient’ intensive ways that destroy ecosystems.

Animals can be reared for food whilst helping regenerate ecosystems or they can be produced in ways that are damaging to our planet, inhumane and produce foods toxic to our health.

As Diana Rodgers of Sustainable Dish says’s ‘It’s the how not the cow’.

Gabe Brown a holistic arable farmer has proved his way of producing plant foods is highly productive, resilient and requires no environmentally damaging inputs whilst producing nutritious healthy food. What’s important is that he didn’t ‘crack’ the fertility problem until he integrated livestock into the system.

This is backed up by As Mark Palmer, an experienced organic agricultural advisor explains in his excellent article, producing food from an animal-free cropping system is not as simple as some make it sounds.

Regardless of if we choose to eat just plants as part of a vegan diet, or both plants and animals as an omnivore diet, we ALL have a responsibility to push towards better more holistic management systems and make better choices of both plant AND animal foods.

Want to learn more?

My colleague Georgia and I have written a whole series of articles on how to eat in ways that regenerate land and recover human health whilst still producing enough food to nourish a growing population; we cover them fully in our ‘Wilderove approach’ the eco-omnivore approach to saving the planet.

Thanks for reading my article and please share on social media if you liked it. Caroline

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