In the popular imagination, veganism and environmentalism go hand-in-hand. Both are championed – often in one voice – by ultra-progressive types who protest that we should live more ethically and responsibly in order to save the planet. Both types argue that eating less methane-emitting cattle and consuming more agriculturally-efficient crops is the first step we can all make as individuals into halting climate change.
A report published by the UK Sustainable Food Trust not only implicitly challenges the assumption that veganism and environmentalism work in symbiosis, it tacitly suggests that the two movements may be in actual conflict with each other.
It calls upon vegans to stop drinking soy milk in order to save the planet, and that milk from cows – especially cows grazed on grass rather than imported soya beans – is much better for a sustainable planet. 'Vegans and others who buy milk substitutes made from soya for their latte and cappuccino, or breakfast cereal, are also harming the planet. They would do better to switch to milk from cows... if they want to help make a more sustainable planet,' the report states.
Global production of soya beans and palm oils has doubled over the past 20 years and continues to rise. The two account for 90 per cent of global vegetable oil production and are used in processed foods, animal feed and non-food products. Many of us are attuned to the devastation caused to rainforests by palm oil cultivation, but less well known is comparable ruination caused by soya bean production: and the cultivation of both is having terrible consequences.
Soya milk is only the most glaring battle-ground between vegans and environmentalism. Veganism, as practised today, is mostly the preserve of the cosmopolitan middle-classes, whose diet often include quinoa imported from South America, almonds from California, pomegranates from India, beans from Brazil, goji berries China and soya from south-east Asia – this soya will, in turn, be transformed into processed vegan burgers and vegan sausages. Most popular plant-based proteins, including chickpeas, lentils and chia seeds, are also usually flown thousands of miles to reach their consumers in the UK.
Another dairy product substitute, almond milk, begins life on the monocultural landscape of the almond plains of California, where the almonds are doused in pesticides and fungicides, before being flown thousands of miles to the UK. (It requires a colossal 130 pints of water to produce just one glass of almond milk). The use of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides has long been a feature of industrial crops producing maize and grains.
The appetite for voguish vegan food can have a devastating effect on local economies. In 2013, prices of quinoa rocketed to such an extent that those growing the grain in the Andes, where it plays a central part in the local diet, could no longer afford it.
Not all conventional fruit and vegetables are environmentally-friendly, either. The UK imports strawberries and blueberries from continental Europe and the US when they are out of season here, generating their own carbon footprint. And perhaps the biggest sinner is the asparagus. Research by Angelina Frankowska at Manchester University recently found that asparagus eaten in the UK has the highest carbon footprint of any vegetable here, mostly because it is imported from Peru and because of the vegetable's thirsty nature and demand for land.
Another environmental villain that we take for granted is the avocado, a staple of the hipster vegan diet, and a similarly thirsty fruit. A single mature avocado tree in California, Chile or Mexico – areas that face chronic water shortages – needs up to 209 litres every day in the summer, before taking its journey by plane to the consumer.
The processed nature of much 'vegan food' is yet another problem. This February, Graham McAuliffe of the Rothamsted Institute, said that tofu has a worse carbon footprint than chicken, pork or lamb. The protein foodstuff has a larger carbon footprint than the meat it ostensibly replaces owing to the fact that it is processed and because it is made from soy milk. The story is similar with cow-free vegan cheeses made from coconut oil. These require a warm tropical climate to grow and they are often imported from Pacific regions or Sri Lanka.
It's not veganism per se that is necessarily bad for the environment. A 2018 Oxford University study found that a vegan diet is the single most effective way to reduce our environmental footprint, which is true, but only in the case of a sensible and rational vegan diet. If you were to eat a diet derived from locally-sourced, in-season, non-processed vegetables, fruit, pulses, legumes, berries, rice and oats, you would indeed be considerably reducing your carbon footprint.
That sounds a very boring and time-consuming life, which explains the allure of today's exotic vegan diet, a voguish affair which is rather bad for our planet.