Switching to a plant-based diet is one of the most impactful things we can do to help the planet. In fact, one study found that it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a remarkable 73 per cent, due to the high levels of gases created by the meat and dairy industry.
But going vegan doesn’t mean that everything you eat is suddenly good for the planet, due to other factors such as water consumption, deforestation and land degradation. “Nearly all plant-based foods have a lower environmental impact than meat and dairy, but all food requires some input of resources,” says Dr Hannah Ritchie, senior researcher at the University of Oxford. “There are, of course, some differences in the environmental impact of different vegan foods.”
The treatment of workers producing our food, along with the impact on local communities, is another key concern. “Ask where the food comes from, ask how it was produced and under what conditions,” says Dan Crossley, executive director of the Food Ethics Council. “Don’t settle for ‘I don’t know’ as a good enough answer.”
Here, we examine the real impact of popular vegan foods, and how we can be more mindful of our food choices.
While all plant-based milks have a much lower carbon footprint than dairy, they’re not all created equal. Almond milk has significant environmental impact, with an astonishing 74 litres of water needed to produce a single glass, according to one study. Instead, try oat milk, which requires significantly less water to produce.
Growing cashew nuts also requires high volumes of water, but here, ethical issues are an additional concern. A 2013 report by Traidcraft Exchange found that workers in India were paid as little as £2 a day to shell cashews, with workers reportedly suffering burns as a result of the acid released from the shells. That’s why you should look out for the Fairtrade logo when buying cashews, as this ensures workers’ rights have been properly protected.
High in protein, tofu is popular with vegetarians and vegans — but has an environmental cost, too. That’s because soy production is one of the leading causes of deforestation (although it’s worth noting that the majority of soy is grown to feed cattle). Tofu produced from soy grown in deforested areas of Brazil can have twice the carbon footprint of chicken, making tofu made from sustainably grown soy – a more eco-friendly option.
As the ultimate millennial staple, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a brunch menu that doesn’t feature avocado. But there is a dark side to their production: shocking human-rights abuses are alleged to have taken place on one Kenyan avocado farm and Mexican cartels are reported to be taking control of avocado production. Meanwhile, 272 litres of water is needed to grow two to three avocados, with deforestation being another big issue, as vast areas are cleared to grow the crop.
All this makes it essential to look for the Fairtrade label when buying your avocados. You might also consider looking for alternative sources of healthy fats, including sunflower seeds and olives. For vitamin K try broccoli, kale, and spinach.
After quinoa became popular as a ‘superfood’ in the west, increased demand led to soil degradation in countries such as Bolivia and Peru as farmers stepped up production. But there’s good news for communities who rely on the grain: studies have found that living standards in Peru actually rose as a result of its increased popularity, despite suggestions to the contrary.
Increasingly used as an alternative to dairy milk and cream, coconut consumption is on the rise globally, with the market forecast to be worth $31.1bn by 2026. But the tropical fruit isn’t great for the planet as it’s often grown using chemically intensive processes, leading to soil degradation and the loss of biodiversity.
Coconuts aren’t always an ethical choice, either: despite their popularity, 60 per cent of coconut farmers in the Philippines live below the poverty line. For a better deal for producers and the planet, look for Fairtrade certified products to ensure workers are properly paid and farmers are adopting better environmental practices.