Is veganuary really the most sustainable option in the long run?
3rd February 2021
Veganuary has become a very popular trend both in Ireland and across the world in recent times. Since the pandemic began, it seems the push to go plant-based has become even more prevalent with more people experimenting with vegan recipes and taking the pledge to be more environmentally conscious. A vegan diet could lead not only to a more sustainable, diversified planet but could also allow for 4 billion more people to be fed each year, virtually eradicating poverty. But is making veganuary a trend the most sustainable option in the long run?
The UN has advised that a diet free of meat and dairy is the most impactful way to decrease pollution and live more sustainably. Naturerising, who provide vegan advice and information, has published some startling statistics about the environmental consequences of meat and dairy consumption. 30% of private Irish wells are contaminated with E-coli, mainly by slurry. This is the highest rate of groundwater pollution in Europe. Ireland’s farm animals also produce fifty times more waste than the population of people in Ireland, which in turn contaminates streams, rivers and lakes. With over 80% of Nitrogen emissions to water being linked to animal agriculture. Awareness of the perilous impact animal agriculture is having on the planet has led to a move towards more sustainable plant-based options. The scientific evidence suggests that plant-based foods in Ireland produce ten to twenty times more protein per hectare than beef production and need significantly less water than the 15,000 litres required to produce just one kilogram of beef.
It cannot be denied that gentrification is seeping into the urban areas of the larger counties in Ireland and across the world. One could argue that veganism could be a signpost of this change. The introduction of expensive vegan shops, restaurants and cafes could potentially make areas more attractive to people of a higher social class. Studies conducted in LA have found striking evidence supporting this. Undoubtedly, there are some benefits for the locals, with new employment opportunities, new amenities and more options available nearby. However wealthier individuals tend to move to these areas as they become more desirable, which can lead to a rise in property prices, driving the locals out if they cannot pay these extortionate rates.
TD Mick McCarthy highlighted this issue last year focusing on Cork City. He suggested that working people are being forced out of the city centre and having to commute to work as a result. There is less social housing being constructed than the number of rooms in one of the many new hotels being built in Cork City currently. As well as extortionate student accommodation rates, there is definitely a rise in the prominence of primarily vegan restaurants in the area, including loving salads, Umi Falafel, 143V, Rocketman and the Quay Co-op. The same can be seen in an even more prominent way in Dublin city, the astounding rise in property prices has led to mass emigration from the city to commuter towns. Those who manage to remain have to face noise pollution from construction and a loss of their sense of community. Interestingly, vegan restaurants have become a massive trend in Dublin also, such as Cornucopia, Vegintiy and Govindas. These restaurants tend to have prices that exceed the working-class budget, serving the needs of a higher social class.
“One could question the longevity and health impacts of going completely cold turkey and giving up all meat and dairy products in such a challenging month.”
Large multi-nationals need to consider their corporate social responsibility. There are vegan companies such as Allplants that have been certified as B-corporations for their remarkable efforts in eradicating waste and contributing to a more environmentally conscious planet. On the other hand, some large retail outlets, MNCs and fast-food chains could be seen to be using the inclusion of vegan alternatives as a form of greenwashing. We must remember that having vegan options does not make a company sustainable if they still engage in unethical practices which are harmful to the environment. Nestle, for instance, have been found, by the ‘Break-free from plastic initiative’ to have been in the top three companies to have created the most plastic pollution for the third consecutive year. As well as this, the MNC has been tied up in many unjust controversies including false advertising of their powdered milk formula for babies in developing countries, miss-informing mothers to their detriment as many did not have the knowledge or amenities to provide sanitised bottles to their babies. Along with this manipulative misuse of power, the company has also been accused of engaging in child labour, price-fixing, mislabelling products and deforestation.
Nestle’s vegan ranges have expanded by 40% in recent times, leading to the company introducing vegan cereals, vegan meat brands, coffee alternatives and so on. While these companies like Nestle, Tesco, Marks and Spencer’s and many more are making vegan options accessible and affordable, it is important to be mindful of where our vegan options are being purchased, whether the produce has been imported and what packaging is used. We are left to wonder whether veganuary is really having a positive impact if most of the products are being purchased from large MNCs.
Veganuary could be seen as another New Year’s fad in some cases. One could question the longevity and health impacts of going completely cold turkey and giving up all meat and dairy products in such a challenging month. Diet culture aims to push a particular way of eating on society, engaging in body shaming, the promotion of unhealthy, unsustainable weight loss and providing a lot of unsolicited advice. There are countless examples of new diets being branded and used as a marketing tool to increase sales without much prior research. We see the owners of large companies going plant-based for January and encouraging customers to do the same. We see social media influencers and content creators on Instagram and Tiktok promoting veganuary and uploading ‘What I eat in a day’ videos and sometimes untrue, unproven facts about particular eating patterns.
Eating disorders are increasing at an alarming rate with hospital admissions in Ireland increasing by 66% last year alone. We need to question whether defining a certain diet morally as good or bad is really a healthy solution. People who have intolerances to certain foods, are pregnant or are recovering from eating disorders may be advised by medical professionals to follow a diet which includes meat or dairy. We need to be mindful of the heightened use of ‘veganuary’ in marketing campaigns and on social media and really question whether branding veganism as a trend alongside all of the other new year’s fads is a sustainable, ethical response to the global environmental crisis we are facing in the long run.
As Dr Joe O Brien discusses on Dr Hazel Wallace’s podcast ‘The Food Medic’, making new habits is harder than we think, involving small changes over a long period of time rather than deciding we are going to do something drastic and expecting to maintain this new behaviour with willpower alone. Veganuary, in my view, is not as impactful in the long-run as making small, healthy changes towards a more plant-based diet over a prolonged period of time, giving our minds and bodies a chance to adapt to this new way of life.