Is Veganism the Answer to the Climate Crisis?

How one university student's experience with flooding led her to analyze the environmental and health benefits of adopting a plant-based diet.

Can going vegan solve the climate crisis? Pictured- fresh produce

With a growing number of potential lifestyle diets to follow, it seems that being more mindful of one’s consumption is what’s most important.

I write this article on the heels of throwing out most of my basement’s contents. After rapid and heavy rainfall, nearly everything became soaked in rainwater and sewage, as water levels reached over two feet (well over half a meter) high. My city and its surrounding areas were instantly devastated.

Originally, I had planned to write about my curiosity for plant-based diets as they relate to health. But after dealing with flooding from such unprecedented rainfall, I felt compelled to also look into how a plant-based diet can positively affect the environment. In the midst of more intense hurricanes, nearly uncontrollable wildfires, and the decimation of the ocean’s coral reefs, it seems right to consider how I—and other individuals around the world—could do my part to mitigate climate change.

In a recent effort to switch from cow’s milk to plant-based alternatives, I noted how cow’s milk is accountable for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions [EPA]. Exploring the data further, cattle comprise 62% of the food industry’s carbon emissions [Washington Post]. So while switching from cow’s milk to plant-based drinks is certainly something, there’s definitely more that could be done to decrease personal involvement in these emissions.

Veganism and vegetarianism are perhaps the most popular plant-based diets, with pescetarianism and flexitarianism not far behind. Studies have shown that all have a positive affect on the environment. A diet that simply emphasizes eating less animal products can decrease one’s carbon contribution by 900kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. However, vegan diets show the most impact with an approximately 1500kg per year reduction in CO2. Meanwhile, vegetarians reduce their carbon footprint by approximately 1200kg per year. [AZoCleantech]

Just going off of the numbers, it appears that becoming vegan results in the most positive impact on the environment, but what exactly does becoming vegan entail?

Preparing a plant-based vegan meal. Fresh vegetables on a cutting board

Veganism is actually a type of vegetarianism, which I’ve come to realize is a bit more complex than simply not eating meat or seafood. There are a number of different forms of vegetarianism including lacto, ovo, and lacto-ovo. Lacto-vegetarians avoid meat, seafood, and eggs, but will still eat dairy products. Ovo-vegetarians avoid meat, seafood, and dairy, but will still eat eggs. Lacto-ovo vegetarians do not eat meat or seafood, though they will eat dairy as well as eggs. This is most likely the type of vegetarian that immediately comes to most people’s minds.

The health benefits of a vegetarian diet are undeniable, but not automatic. Vegetarians are at reduced risk for cancer, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and heart disease. However, these benefits are due to consuming low glycemic foods that stabilize blood sugar such as high fiber whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. Simply cutting out meat will not work any medical miracles, especially when meat can be beneficial in combatting nutrient deficiencies such as B-12 or omega-3s, which vegetarian diets can lack. The consumption of empty calories to stave off hunger while adjusting to a new diet may also counteract vegetarianism’s many health benefits. It is for this reason, I imagine, that many people turn to veganism for more structure.

Veganism is yet another type of vegetarianism that avoids all animal products and confers marginally greater health benefits than its less restrictive, aforementioned counterparts. But as the most environmentally friendly, I was willing to give it the consideration it deserves.

While vegans save money on eggs, dairy, seafood, and meat—usually the most expensive items in a grocery store—convenience vegan food and produce can cost quite a lot as well. Some people may also find a vegan diet difficult to navigate, as many seemingly plant-based recipes or items contain animal by-products. I imagine that after a steep learning curve in the beginning, this gets easier over time. However, needing to be extremely attentive to nutrition labels while also making sure to get enough essential nutrients everyday seems time intensive, and is something to consider before making a big commitment. Besides the B-12 and omega-3s mentioned above, vegan diets also commonly lack vitamin D, calcium, and protein, and can be harder to accommodate socially.

Vegan meal prep. Prepped salads for the week

At this point in my research, I was a bit discouraged by what I had learned about veganism. It is the most impactful for the climate, but also seems to require the most commitment. As a busy college student on a budget, I’m not sure that I would have the time or discipline to make sure I read every nutrition label while getting enough calories and vitamins.

On the heels of this realization, I discovered that vegan diets are also not always the environmental solution that they seem to be. While a plant-based diet is almost always going to cause less carbon emission than a diet that includes animal products, it is not a given. For example, fruits and vegetables that require air transportation can create more greenhouse gases per kilogram than poultry. One account of a vegan couple that consumed so many delicate and out of season fruits that they had a greater carbon footprint than most non-vegetarians was shocking, but telling. Plant-based diets are still incredibly beneficial for personal health and climate, but are not automatic problem solvers without some intentionality.

At this stage in my life, it is likely that I would be unable to stick to a vegan diet. It would instead be more plausible to lean towards flexitarianism, allowing me some health benefits by consuming far more fruits and vegetables and only eating animal products every now and then. While perhaps not as positively impactful on the environment as veganism done right, my actions would still contribute.

All in all, for one’s lifestyle, health, and environmental accountability, the type of plant-based diet is less important than being generally mindful and more conscious— conscious of where your food comes from, of its role in your mental and physical health, and of its impact on this beautiful planet that we share.

Roasted root vegetable dish. Vegan cuisine