The vegans are on the march. What used to be a seen as part of a cranky lifestyle embraced by sandal-wearing hippies has gone mainstream. Celebrities from Bill Clinton to Beyoncé have sworn off meat and dairy, and record numbers of people signed up for Veganuary this year, flooding Instagram with photos of their seaweed ‘bacon’ and jackfruit burritos. Vegans claim their way of life is better for the environment, human health and animal welfare, but are they right?
According to an Oxford University report, switching to a vegan diet is the most effective way to reduce your impact on the planet. Livestock belch out massive amounts of methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases. Farm animals are also extremely wasteful of resources, using up 83% of farmland while providing only 18% of our calories, guzzling soya and grain that could feed humans more efficiently, and requiring vast amounts of water. As for your health, vegan sports stars such as Venus and Serena Williams and Lewis Hamilton prove that you can be superfit on a plant-based diet, and research has linked vegan diets to lower rates of some diseases. As for animal welfare, if you’re an omnivore, don’t kid yourself that you’re being ethical by eating only ‘humanely’ reared meat. Livestock on on so-called high welfare farms undergo many of the same cruel practices that are inflicted on factory farm animals. If you really care about non-human sentient beings, don’t eat them or any food derived from them.
That’s the argument made by the vegan lobby. But there are many experts who disagree on all counts. Take the environment. Few people realise the high carbon cost of growing crops – some 15-20% of the world’s CO² output comes from ploughing – and that plants grown for food require vast amounts of fertiliser and pesticides that are derived from fossil fuels. And while vegans like to demonise all forms of animal husbandry, traditional methods of cattle grazing can actually help the environment by fertilising the soil, capturing and storing carbon and increasing biodiversity. And then there’s human health. As very few people have stuck to a vegan diet for more than 10 years, we don’t know its long-term effects. But what we do know is that it is difficult for those on a vegan diet to get enough of certain vital nutrients. As for animal welfare, is it obviously more ethical to be a straight-edge vegan rather than to eat fewer products from animals reared to the very highest welfare standards? Vegans should get off the moral high-ground, say their critics, and acknowledge that a plant-based diet is just a fad that makes people feel good about themselves rather than making a difference to the world.
Who’s right and who’s wrong? Come to the debate, hear the arguments and decide for yourself.
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