Will Vegans Save the Planet?

As the climate crisis intensifies, we’re all wondering if and how our food choices can heal the planet. Benjamin Selwyn discusses the pros and cons of going vegan in relation to climate change.

A photograph of the author, Molly Mitchell.

By Molly Mitchell

February 24, 2020

Avocado toast, banana and blueberry toast, and tomatoes on toast on a cutting board.
Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

As the climate crisis intensifies, we’re all wondering what we can do to heal the planet. Large-scale industrial meat farming is a major contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change, so naturally an en masse switch to veganism would solve the problem. Or would it?

Benjamin Selwyn is a professor of international development at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. An expert in food systems, Selwyn cautions that veganism may not be the cure-all we’re looking for.

We are hearing a lot about people choosing to forego not only meat, but also dairy, eggs and all animal-based foods. Is veganism growing in popularity?  

Headshot of Benjamin Selwyn
Benjamin Selwyn teaches a course on ‘The Global Politics of Food’. His most recent book is The Struggle for Development.

Benjamin Selwyn: Veganism is on the rise big-time in the United Kingdom and the United States. In the U.K., the number of vegans has increased from around half a million in 2016 to more than 3.5 million today. In the U.S. approximately 2.5 percent of the population is vegan.

What makes people decide to go vegan?

There are three interlinked arguments for veganism. One of them is from an animal rights perspective, which draws on arguments about ‘speciesism’ developed in Peter Singer’s highly influential book, Animal Liberation. Singer argued that non-human animals are intelligent and feel emotions and pain. Human animals do not uniquely possess these abilities and feelings. Of course, once we recognize that animals possess intelligence and emotions and feel pain, then it becomes much more difficult to justify our maltreatment of them on the basis that they are ‘dumb beasts.’ One way that Singer explains this is to ask us to consider how we’d feel if our household pets were treated in the same way as intensively reared cattle. Many of us would be shocked, and the conclusion we should reach, according to Singer, is that such treatment of any animal is unethical.

Another argument for veganism is that it can be more healthy than diets that include animal products.

A third argument is that turning to veganism would cut demand for meat, in particular beef, and that such reductions in demand would contribute to saving the world’s environment. This is because meat production, according to this view, causes all kinds of environmental damage – from cutting down forests for pastureland to the greenhouse gas emissions from cattle.

If everyone in the world were to go vegan tomorrow, would it stop climate change?

The global livestock sector, and especially industrial-scale beef production, has a particularly severe impact on climate change: 33 percent of global croplands are devoted to feed crops and 26 percent of the world’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing. Livestock generates around 7 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Quite clearly, something needs to be done about these negative impacts on climate change.

But eliminating meat production in and of itself would not stop climate change. Beyond global livestock production, the global agro-industrial system generates between 20 to 35 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

I’m quite critical of the idea that by simply giving up animal products people will be saving the planet. Having said that, I’m very enthusiastic about the motivation driving more and more people to question what and how they consume.

Many vegans rely on meat substitutes such as soy for protein. And mass soy production in places like Argentina and southern Brazil is ruinous for the environment in various ways. It is responsible for widespread deforestation. It relies heavily on pesticide, fertilizer, fungicide and herbicide applications that damage local soil and water systems and native plant species.

And we should not lose sight of the $4.65 trillion fossil fuel industry – the 1,500 oil and gas firms listed on stock exchanges across the globe – that have quite literally fuelled the climate disaster.

Stopping climate change requires much more than giving up meat. It means shifting our economic system away from fossil fuels, radically cutting the amount of goods that are produced globally, making mega investments in renewable energy and finding new ways of organizing our living and working habits.

I believe that in addition to these shifts, we need to make the world a more equal place, where every single person can lead a good life. This would require widespread redistribution of economic and political power. If we abandon this idea of equity in the face of the climate crisis, we risk opening the door to extremely authoritarian solutions to the crisis, which would represent a civilizational reversal on an unprecedented scale.

What are the upsides and downsides to veganism?

Upsides could include a more healthy diet if the shift away from animal products is undertaken carefully.

It should be obvious by now that I’m quite critical of the idea that by simply giving up animal products people will be saving the planet. Having said that, I’m very enthusiastic about the motivation driving more and more people to question what and how they consume.

As far as I’m concerned, the rising popularity of veganism is part and parcel of rising awareness about the dangers of climate breakdown and the ways that our growth-based economic system has contributed to this situation. For me, the rise in veganism signifies a determination amongst more and more people to create a better, fairer, genuinely environmentally sustainable world.

In terms of downsides, shifting away from animal products without properly understanding our bodies’ nutritional requirements represents a risk. Some research suggests that vegan diets could actually be contributing to increased malnutrition in developed countries.

Veganism is well-known and understood in the United States. Is that the case everywhere?

It is important to remember that around 1.3 billion people are small-scale farmers and livestock keepers for whom animal products are essential, and for whom there are precious few alternative livelihood strategies on offer.

The modern variant of veganism that we are familiar with, popularized in the mainstream media, is reasonably well understood in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and across parts of Europe. These are regions where intensive cattle rearing generates numerous horror stories – about animal welfare, environmental breakdown and problems of obesity.

But in many parts of the Global South, the situation is quite different. It is important to remember that around 1.3 billion people are small-scale farmers and livestock keepers for whom animal products are essential, and for whom there are precious few alternative livelihood strategies on offer.

Are there places where going vegan simply isn’t an option?

One of the big problems following the global financial and economic crisis in 2008 is of changing food consumption trends. My colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex studied changing food consumption habits in ten countries following the crisis. They found that a coping strategy for poorer people was to reduce their food expenditure and the time spent preparing and consuming food. This was so that, as a consequence of increasingly precarious and low-pay jobs, they could undertake more work. My colleaugues found that one of the ways they did this was to reorient their diets toward ‘filling foods, sacrificing safety, taste and familiarity for volume and price.’

In many contexts around the world, where securing and consuming food is part of a survival strategy, appeals for a shift to veganism won’t get much of a hearing. What would be popular would be arguments about making high quality, nutritious, environmentally sustainable food a public good. At the moment in many countries, education and some degree of health provision are considered public goods to be provided by the state to citizens. There is no reason why food could not become increasingly integrated into such systems.

Can you talk about the cultural and socioeconomic privilege inherent in even having the choice to be vegan?

As far as I’m concerned there is an element of socioeconomic privilege inherent in the idea that by changing our individual diets, we can change the world. Consumer choice is one thing if you have plenty of disposable income. It is something quite different if you live in poverty.

Is there a less dramatic but still impactful way to change our diets in order to be more Earth-friendly?

We need to think about public procurement. Together, public universities, schools, hospitals and prisons constitute a significant locus of demand in our economies. At present many of these institutions are locked into deals with private food-provision companies. These deals are often based on the idea of ‘value for money’ (i.e. as low cost as possible) procurement by the institutions and a profit-first mentality by providers. Often the consequences are that the foods provided in these institutions are low quality and contribute to public health issues such as obesity and hidden malnutrition.

How about reworking these systems of provision and consumption so that they combine the provision of high quality, locally produced food to consumers, with livelihood sustaining prices for consumers? Of course, some people might ask, ‘Who’ll pay for all of this?’ The global fossil fuel industry receives huge subsidies, around 6.5% of global GDP. If we could find a way to instead aim these subsidies towards activities that actually made people’s lives better, then we’d be on the right track!

What does your own diet look like?

[laughs] That’s a good question. Since I started teaching a course on the Global Politics of Food at the University of Sussex last year, I began thinking a lot more about food production and consumption.  Now I consider myself to be a flexitarian. Having said that, my wife is Italian and we spend most summers in Italy, which makes it impossible to get away from amazing food, meats and cheeses in particular.

If going vegan won’t save the planet, what should we focus on instead?

I’m hopeful that a Green New Deal will emerge. At the heart of the Green New Deal is a commitment to decarbonize the economy and combat poverty, inequality and all forms of discrimination. In terms of agriculture, this could mean implementing land reform (to make land more accessible to the mass of the population), reorienting subsidies to support nutritious and environmentally sustainable food production and increasing the power of consumers collectively to determine how food is produced.

Ultimately, however, we need to think about the overarching economic system. Capitalism is very creative, in terms of technological innovations and economic growth. But it is also very destructive, in particular in terms of the environmental costs of economic growth, and the way it concentrates wealth and resources in the hands of a tiny minority while leaving the mass of the world’s population with relatively little. We need to think about economic systems where wealth and power are more equitably distributed.