Why I’m Not Doing Veganuary

A plant-based diet is one of the best ways to reduce climate changing emissions. Fact.

Producing meat and dairy products for human consumption is an incredibly inefficient process. In simple terms, we grow crops to feed animals which we then eat – why not cut out the middleman (animal) and grow crops to eat directly ourselves?

In addition, industrial animal farming is leading to large scale deforestation, particularly in South America. The global demand for meat has seen a meteoric rise in soya production, which is used to feed livestock. Vast areas of rainforest and other natural habitats are being cleared (often by burning) to make way for soya fields.

This destruction of forest and grassland releases carbon as well as removing one of the best ways of capturing carbon from the atmosphere – trees. Add to this the widespread use of artificial fertilisers which emit greenhouse gases and the amount of methane produced by cows farting and it’s easy to see why animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of all human induced emissions (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation). Then there are the knock-on effects of industrial farming; soil erosion and degradation, pollution, disruption to water supply, loss of biodiversity, to name a few.

I know this and yet I’m not a vegan. I’m not even a vegetarian.

So, when I saw a link for Veganuary a few weeks back, I clicked on it and signed up straightaway. Veganuary is a campaign to encourage people to follow a vegan lifestyle for the month of January in the hope that people will become long term vegans.

The first email I received from Veganuary included a handbook full of testimonials, tips on how to switch, and nutritional information. Although a little daunted, I was looking forward to the free recipes, the health benefits and the reduction in my environmental impact.

I started to think about what I’d need to cut out or replace. We don’t eat a lot of meat or fish in our household, maybe two or three times a week at most. We hardly eat chicken at all because my son claims to be allergic to it and none of us like lamb. But we do enjoy steak, burgers, bacon, sausages and good old fish and chips. We already eat some Quorn products (mince and nuggets), so this didn’t seem too difficult. Butter, used in sandwiches and baking, could be replaced with margarine. Cows’ milk could be substituted with soya milk or oat milk. So far so good. The swaps are totally doable.

Excitedly I asked my family “who wants to do Veganuary with me?” This was met with a resounding no! As my husband and kids quickly pointed out, whilst we eat a lot of vegetarian meals, we also eat a lot of cheese. This, it became evident, was not something my family were prepared to give up. And what about eggs, my dear husband asked. Now, I know there are a number of vegan alternatives to eggs in cooking (mashed banana, flax seeds, aqua faba for example). But we have chickens and therefore our own supply of eggs. Surely it would be a waste not to eat them?

Undeterred, I decided to look at vegan alternatives to add to my next online supermarket delivery. But this quickly became a minefield. Some margarine contains palm oil (which I have been actively avoiding for some time, due to deforestation issues), whilst many meat alternatives are made from soya, again a controversial crop due to deforestation. On top of this, some plant-based milks raise ethical and environmental questions of their own. According to the Guardian, the global rise in demand for coconut milk is contributing to worker exploitation and rainforest destruction. Almonds, which are grown on a vast scale in California, require huge quantities of water and their increase in popularity is leading to unsustainable and environmentally damaging farming practices in the US.

I was beginning to get very confused. Does vegan automatically equal environmentally friendly? Or are the eco-credentials of some products better than others? Is it better to eat an intensively farmed avocado from Mexico or a grass-fed organic steak from just down the road? I’ll admit that I don’t know the answers to these questions yet and as with many environmental issues, I’m sure the answers are not always clear cut.

With the realisation that going vegan is a lot more complicated than I first thought and the fact that my family weren’t on board so at times I would have to prepare two different meals, my enthusiasm for Veganuary began to wane. What’s more, sometimes I just really want a nice steak or a burger.

I realise that this just sounds like a lot of excuses. And maybe it is. But I’m not sure that I believe that global veganism is realistic or desirable. Yes, we should all be eating less meat and a more plant-based diet. We need to do this for the planet and our own health. But I believe there is a place for meat and dairy products, provided the animals are well cared for and it is done in a sustainable and organic way.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I’ve talked myself out of doing Veganuary. Don’t get me wrong, I think Veganuary is a great idea and I agree we should all be eating a more plant-based diet, but at the moment veganism is not for me. In trying to live more sustainably we all have to make decisions about our lifestyles and for me this is a compromise. Although I’m not vegan, I have made changes in other areas to reduce my carbon footprint; for example, I no longer fly and I only buy second hand clothes. So, I’m comfortable with this compromise.

I will continue to eat meat, but less often. And when I do eat meat, I will choose organic, which has much higher animal welfare and environmental standards than industrial farming. Likewise, I plan to switch to organic milk from my milkman. And in the spirit of Veganuary, I have added some vegan and vegetarian products to my online shop. If we discover some vegan sausages that we all like, then great, no need to buy pork.

On a final note, please don’t let me put you off trying Veganuary or experimenting with veganism! There are some good plant-based meal ideas here. We all need to reduce our meat and dairy consumption by over half by 2030 if we are to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C. So why not try out some vegan or vegetarian recipes and incorporate a Meat Free Monday (or more) into your week?

As the US writer Michael Pollan puts it “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

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