Your Vegan Diet May Not Be Enough to Save the Planet

Text by: Adina Oster, NC

Alternative meat products have been declared number five out of the top 6 challenges for the meat industry of 2018, by a recent article in feedstuffs. According to Chuck Jolley, this is a threat for cattle producers but a big win for those who are growing the grains that will become these alternative meats, as well as the vegans behind them.


Veganism has had several successes over the past four years, going from 1% of the population in 2014 to 6%, according to a 2017 report. Accompanying the rise of vegan culture are impressive statistics regarding food industry changes, celebrity campaigns, and a global rise of vegan support, shown by the Food Revolution Network. Many of today’s youth and young adults are turning to veganism as an answer to the environmental challenges that face these generations. The influence of social media and documentaries on Netflix are only helping the movement spread faster.

Rachel Jacobs, a student at CSU stopped eating meat in high school after watching several documentaries on Netflix. “I feel like social media played a really big part,” said Jacobs who said that her dietary switch was “not initially about the environment but learning about it made [her] feel better.” Jacobs was inspired by infographics on tumblr about how many animals could be saved if she stopped eating them. Now three of her friends have become vegan or vegetarian after her.

Vegans are going vegan for good reason. If animal production is at the forefront of environmental pollution and climate change, it makes sense to stop buying these products. With the rise of social media also comes the rise of articles like this one at Mercy for Animals that spout mind-blowing statistics about the meat industry. Industrial meat, egg, and dairy production, according to a study on animal agriculture and global warming, was found to be one of the leading causes of climate change. Factory farming, and cattle production especially has been linked to deforestation, acid rain, dead zones, manure run-off, and water contamination.

Yes, Industrial meat is huge problem, but it is not the only one. The majority of vegans are still part of the global food system. If you are vegan and still buying Oreos, bread, or even avocados from the grocery store, recent research and ancient wisdom are asking you to do more.

One of the main arguments of veganism is that we can feed more people, a notion that started during the green revolution. In theory, plant crops can feed more people than cows, because of an animal’s trophic level. However, a 2016 study of ten dietary variations takes into account the diversity of the biosphere, finding that a vegan diet did not support a larger number of the population because it did not make use of perennial crop lands. In fact, a plant-based diet with some meat and a vegetarian diet including dairy and eggs were shown to feed more people the vegan diet.

Industrial vegan diets rely heavily on mono-cropped plant foods, like wheat, corn, bananas, soy, and avocados. These crops threaten perennial ecosystems, including grasslands, temperate deciduous forests, and tropical forests that are essential in providing key ecosystem services for the neighboring regions and the world. For instance, the amazon is nearing a tipping point due to deforestation to produce cattle, corn, soy, palm oil, and bananas. These crops, though most vegan, still contribute to the same issues of deforestation, biodiversity loss, species extinction, land conversion, and water pollution.

Jason Downing, a Sociology professor at Colorado State University, presented a different solution after his Environmental Sociology class while waiting at his son’s middle school. He has his reduced consumption of large scale animal meats but taken one step further to address the environmental turmoil caused by Industrial Agriculture.

He has not eliminated meat, but backed off because he believes that in general, people eat too much. He says, more important to him than being against something, is saying that he is for something. To him, it’s about supporting the food system that he wants to see. Downing and his wife have decided to grow most of their own food.  Prompted by the birth of his son 12 years ago, Downing began to question where their organic baby food was coming from and began to wonder why they didn’t grow it themselves.

Downing shared his story, “I looked at science, and I know that when you feed [kids] early on you are feeding them a lot of fruits and vegetables and there are a lot of pesticides in these foods. Fruits and vegetables are heavily pesticided and people that work around them have high rates of cancer…if we can eat more consciously, that is safer and better for us.”

His driving force, Downing says, is logic. “It’s research, it’s science.”

Additionally, Downing says that he lost 30 pounds within the first year of his mostly local diet. He contributes the weight loss to the corn and soy that they cut out. To Downing, it is also about relationships, about the human connection with the environment and the food that we eat.

“My biggest thing is that we have become so disconnected from our food system that it is to the great detriment of our health. It is also to the great detriment to many spiritual purposes. When you reduce [food] to 30 minutes and a car...These are the foods with the greatest ecological footprint,” Downing says.  

Globally renowned journalist and food expert, Michael Pollan, has come to similar conclusions about how we source our food. Every action has a reaction, and the elimination of meat means an inclusion of something else. We must look at these consequences. In “An animals place,” Pollan says that a Vegetarian diet “doesn’t seem an unreasonable response” to the evils of factory farming. He goes on to expose the undesired underbelly of what a vegetarian diet could do to the environment.

“The vegetarian utopia would make us even more dependent than we already are on an industrialized national food chain. That food chain would in turn be even more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, since food would need to travel farther and manure would be in short supply. Indeed, it is doubtful that you can build a more sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature–rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls–then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do,” writes Pollan.

Veganism itself is not in question, only diets that are linked to large-scale production, and global environmental collapse. The question of whether we should be raising animals for personal gain is still an imperative ethical dilemma of our time. What is in question is our relationship with where our food comes from. The option to go vegan in the Northern hemisphere is a modern phenomenon, dependent on imported foods for much of the year. So too is the prevailing environmental crisis perpetuated by the modern food industry. It is only natural to wonder if the two are fundamentally linked. As Downing would say, we must look to the logic. This logic asks us to do more than to just go vegan. If eating some local small scale animal products helps you eliminate global inputs, it might be worth considering.

What Michael Pollan and Jason Downing point to is that it is important to cultivate a personal connection with our food sourcing, rather than food type alone.

Martha Hammel, Certified Nutrition Specialist, weighs in on her solutions for a more sustainable diet. “I think local food is key. I think the transportation of food is just, it’s wasteful,” she says. She also includes supporting local farms, eating seasonally, and building more sustainable food systems, “agro-forestry, instead of mono-cropping” into her ideas of sustainability.

Her practical advice for anyone who is concerned about their impact on the environment is to get a CSA. She says that CSAs may not solve everything but that they are a start.

Hammel says, “I think sustainable food production is in its infancy. I think there is a lot of hope with community gardens and roof top gardens…There are a lot of problems policy wise. I think the total cost of large scale farming isn’t felt [and] does not allow for farmers to make sustainable choices. What would happen if there was no agricultural policies is that people would have more sustainable farms because of diversity. I think if you are trying to eat to prevent climate change, it would really just be to support your local farmers. But there is so much more that needs to be done to change our whole food system paradigm. The other thing I think I would tell people. I think we should eat more bugs. I think crickets are a fantastic sustainable protein.”

The issues are complicated. It’s not just meat that is produced with vast quantities of toxins, and it’s not only cattle that require deforestation for land access. Maybe the best thing we can do is to eat our neighborhood crickets.

Whether we decide to eat insects or not, going local instead of, or in addition to, going vegan may help confront the primary issues of our global industrial food system.