Plant-Based vs Vegan: Which Diet Is Better For The Environment?

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Deciding what type of food we put in our bodies can be difficult to stomach. Plant-based eating and veganism continue to grow in popularity, with supermarkets dedicating more shelf space to these lifestyles.

Personal health, the environment, and animal welfare are all motives for individuals switching to a plant-based or vegan lifestyle. However, people often confuse the two. This article will explore the differences between plant-based and vegan diets, alongside their impact on the environment and level of sustainability.

What is the difference between plant-based and vegan?

The term “vegan” was first coined in 1944 by the founder of the Vegan Society — Donald Watson. Watson became vegetarian aged 14 after witnessing a pig being slaughtered on his uncle’s farm, leaving him horrified. By definition, veganism is where an individual removes animal products from their diet for ethical reasons.

Vegan philosophies often filter into eliminating animal-based products beyond food, including items that use animal-derived materials or anything involving animal testing. This could include abolishing anything from silk and fur goods to reassessing their choice of shampoo and conditioner.

While veganism is based on animal cruelty, a plant-based diet is normally aroused by environmental or health benefits. A plant-based diet refers to eating foods that originate from plants, which are as close to their natural form as possible.

The notion of a plant-based diet was first introduced in the 1980s by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. He used the term to define a low-fat, high-fibre, vegetable-based diet centred around health, not ethics. Plant-based diets are designed to be flexible and don’t strictly mean cutting out animal consumption.

What can I eat on a plant-based diet?

There’s an emphasis on eating whole foods that have undergone minimal processing when it comes to plant-based diets. The type of foods you can consume on a plant-based diet include:

  • vegetables (carrots, beetroot, broccoli, etc.)
  • fruits (bananas, oranges, peaches, etc.)
  • nuts and seeds (cashews, chia seeds, walnuts, etc.)
  • legumes (chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, etc.)
  • whole grains (barley, oats, quinoa, etc.)
  • unsaturated oils (avocado, olive, etc.

While plant-based dieters are not forbidden from tucking into small amounts of meat, fish, poultry, and other animal products, they will proportionally ensure the majority of their dietary pattern focuses on food from plant sources.

What can I eat on a vegan diet?

A vegan diet allows you to eat foods derived from plant sources, such as those listed above. You can also tuck into breads, rice, and pasta. However, where it differs to plant-based diets is the absence of any food made from animals — meat, fish, dairy products, and honey are all on the banned list.

Don’t worry though, as there are many alternatives you can still enjoy. For example, you can add soya milk to your cup of tea.

How does a plant-based diet affect the environment?

While a plant-based diet has been shown to bring many health benefits, including reduced inflammation and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, can it help reduce our environmental impact?

Along with health positivity, plant-based diets have a universal reputation for being environmentally friendly, but it seems absurd that eating more plants could equate to saving the planet. Here are some of the key benefits that switching to a plant-based diet can do for the environment.

Benefits to the environment of a plant-based diet

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Meat production weighs heavily on the environment, with the UN estimating it makes up more than 14% of all man-made greenhouse gases. This includes large quantities of methane — a greenhouse gas approximately 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Plant-based foods generally require less water and land than is needed for animal products and cause less pollution. To put it into perspective, producing 1kg of wheat emits 2.5kg of greenhouse gases, while a single kilo of beef creates 70kg of emissions.

Plant-based diets are also crucial for protecting biodiversity. The consumption of meat consumes large amounts of land, causing deforestation and the loss of natural habitats.

The prolificacy of this land used for farming livestock also means it is not a viable solution for sustainable food production. Farmed animals only produce 18% of the calories consumed worldwide, which is unresourceful for the amount of the world’s farmland they take up (nearly 80%). A more calorie-efficient system that replaces all animal-based items with plant-based replacement diets could add enough food to feed 350 million additional people.

Negative effects of a plant-based diet on the environment

We must be mindful that some plant-based foods come at a heavy price to our planet. While the UK produces some of its own fruit and veg, we rely on imports from abroad in winter to meet demand when local fruit is out of season.

Importing and exporting food by air is damaging to the environment, creating more greenhouse gas emissions than locally reared poultry meat.  Asparagus might be a green vegetable, but its green credentials leave plenty to be desired. Boasting the highest carbon footprint of any vegetable in the UK, it is mainly imported from Peru, with a kilogram of asparagus landing with 5.3kg of carbon dioxide produced in emissions.

Green beans are another prolific air miler. The UK receives 70% of Kenya’s green bean exports, with over 90% of beans travelling across the skies.

Avocados are another plant-based favourite struggling to make friends with the planet. They have an incredibly large water footprint – a single avocado needs 227 litres (60 gallons) of water.

What impact does veganism have on the environment?

Joseph Poore, part of the Oxford Martin Programme on Food Sustainability Analytics, believes that a vegan diet is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact. Veganism prohibits all animal-derived products, so does excluding dairy, eggs, and fish alongside meat put it top of the eco-friendly diets?

What are the environmental benefits of being vegan?

Just a gradual transition to a vegan diet can make a significant difference to the environment. If families cut out meat and cheese one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking a car off the road for five weeks.

Overfishing is the greatest threat to our ocean ecosystems, with 6 out of 10 of the UK’s most important fish stocks overfished or in a critical situation. This means they are being caught at a faster rate than they can reproduce. Going fish-free will go a long way to restoring the ocean’s natural balance, as it will reduce the demand for mass fishing.

Eliminating fish from our diets would also bring an end to destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling. Used by commercial fisheries worldwide, this method involves dragging heavy weighted nets across the seabed, clearing everything from seafood habitats, vegetation, and organisms to the target species. The unwanted catch is thrown back overboard, polluting the ocean and fuelling food waste.

WWF research reveals that 92% of recorded fisheries discards in the EU come from bottom trawl fisheries. The fishing boats used for bottom trawling are responsible for releasing over a billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually — more than the total emissions from global aviation.

While dairy production is not as harmful to the environment as meat production, cows and other dairy animals still contribute to methane emissions. If you’re intent on reducing your carbon footprint, consider swapping your dairy delights for vegan alternatives, even if just for a few days per week.

Negative effects of veganism on the environment

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While vegan diets don’t directly damage the environment, they still require vegan alternative products such as tofu, mushrooms, and nut-based milk. All of these come with a small environmental footprint, and that’s without us revisiting asparagus and avocados.

Mushrooms are a classic substitute for meat in popular vegan recipes. They need specific temperature-controlled environments to grow (up to at least 62°C), which take enormous amounts of energy to maintain.

Mock meats such as facon (vegetarian bacon) and vegan sausages are not necessarily great eco-friendly alternatives, with every step of their highly processed and lab-grown methods consuming energy.

Even dairy-free milk alternatives require vast water consumption. A single glass of almond milk requires 130 litres of water — with the huge rise in veganism, the demand for almond milk has increased and, as a result, so has our water usage.

Almond pollination is also a big part of beekeeping, but almond crops are harmful to bee populations as they are treated with an excess of pesticides.

Is a plant-based diet sustainable?

A plant-based diet is arguably the most sustainable diet because of its focus on whole, minimally processed foods and cutting out the “middleman”, preserving energy that is typically lost. It also doesn’t rely heavily on natural resources, which helps preserve our fossil fuels and save on our land and water usage.

Deforestation is another significant environmental factor that can be positively influenced by going plant-based. If the world adopted a plant-based diet, we would reduce global agricultural land use from 4 billion to 1 billion hectares.

While this is all well and good, it’s important for plant-based products to be grown and transported sustainably for the diet to be considered the most ethical option.

Is a vegan diet sustainable long-term?

As we’ve discussed, cell-based meat alternatives produce high emissions — a label we can’t attach to plant-based foods. Even though imitation foods have smaller climate, water, and land impacts than conventional meats, they involve additional processing compared to plant-based foods.

The different farming systems and practices could be more sustainable, especially regarding artificial fertilisers and creating vast areas of arable land.

Should I go plant-based or vegan?

Veganism is promoted in January as ‘Veganuary’ — a campaign to encourage the population to try veganism for one month, hoping they permanently switch to this way of life.

While there are clear benefits to both plant-based and vegan diets, it’s clear shopping locally and seasonally can be equally (if not more) effective than dedicating to a specific diet.

If you believe the grass is greener on the other side of your meat-rich diet, look into the best way for you to shift to a vegan or plant-based lifestyle and listen to your body. Remember, transitions take time.

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