2018 marked the rise of the vegan, with over 150,000 people participating in Veganuary [1]; a campaign encouraging individuals to opt for a vegan lifestyle for the entire month of January, showing support for animal welfare, reducing carbon footprints and improving the use of our natural resources [2]. With Veganuary fast coming to an end, I reflect back on the success of this year’s campaign, exploring the rationale behind it, why so many people are taking part and if a vegan diet really is the answer to global food security.

The United Nations* [3], PETA [4] and multiple public figures [5] have all previously publicized their support for a Vegan lifestyle: suggesting that a vegan based food system is the only sustainable way forward to feed our growing population estimated to reach 9.1 billion in 2050 [6]. It is undeniable that a change in the way our food system works is necessary, if we are to support the growing population, but is a vegan diet the only way to achieve that?

Food security: changing attitudes

The economic status of a country is often reflected in its people’s diets: the more affluent the country, the more meat consumed, compared to developing countries: India, South Africa etc., who consume more vegan or vegetarian based diets [7]. And yet, this appears to be changing, as an increase in affluence in western nations, is leading to more people opting for a vegan lifestyle [8]. As the wealth of these economies has increased, so it seems, has our empathy towards the environment, more people are mindful of their anthropogenic impacts on the natural world, current issues with animal welfare, food security and human health, topics at the very heart of the Veganuary campaign. All the same, it is important to recognise the fact that there are distinctive differences between countries in what can be considered a ‘vegan diet’. Wealthier economies have developed nutrient-rich vegan alternatives, such as the impossible burger [9], and are able to import a variety of foods from all around the world, providing protein-rich alternatives for its vegan communities. Whereas, a vegan diet in a developing country consists mainly of local vegetables, cereals and grains, low in nutrition and a bit dull in comparison.

 

comparison
Left: The ‘Impossible burger’, consumed in a western vegan diet [10]. Right: A vegan meal in South Africa [11].

Improving Yield

Besides animal ethics, one of the main arguments for a vegan lifestyle is that of improving global food security. For instance, in the US an acre of land is needed to produce 250 pounds of beef, in comparison, the same amount of land has the potential to produce 50,000 pounds of tomatoes or 53,000 pounds of potatoes [12]. With this in mind, it is pretty obvious what we should be farming to produce the highest possible yields, even so, it isn’t that straightforward. It is important to consider the nutritional differences between these foods, in terms of its impact on human health and calorie intake, along with the cultural differences that influence what and how people eat.

Nutrients are necessary

The UN World Food Program (WFP) Nutrition Policy advocates for the treating and prevention of undernutrition to improve livelihoods, striving for everyone to have ‘physical and economic access to a nutritious and age-appropriate diet’ [13]. With that knowledge in mind, consider a scenario in which you cease consuming beef, in favour of a diet high in cereals and vegetables, say broccoli, in order to ingest the same number of calories a kilo of beef provides, you would need to consume 6.7 kilograms of broccoli  [14]. This is not to say that consuming beef is in any way better than broccoli; rather that the impacts of farming certain foods should focus on the calories and nutrients provided as well as the environmental emissions.

 

meat v broccoli
You would need to eat 6.7 Kilos of broccoli to consume the same amount of calories provided by a kilo of beef. I hope you know some good broccoli recipes!

 

Efficient land-use

There are other flaws in the argument for veganism with regard to food security, again the subject of land-use springs to mind, stated in a study published in the Journal of Elementa: it suggests that an omnivorous diet is in fact, more sustainable for humanity than a vegan diet [15]. A claim that completely contradicts a previous UN report, which states that the western meat-heavy diet is unsustainable [16]. The research suggests that the vegan diet does not exploit each land type equally. In other words, land use efficiency is lower in a vegan based farming system, as not all land is productive when it comes to farming crops, some landscapes i.e. mountainous terrain, are better used to farm livestock [17].

Commodity markets

Market economics plays a massive role in food security, theoretically, if the global population was to suddenly go vegan, the demand for products such as cereals and grains would sky rocket, which would then be mirrored by the price of the produce, similar to the current situation with quinoa production [18]. This means many people in the global south, who are reliant on a no-meat high protein diet, would be priced out of the market and struggle to buy even the simplest of foods [19]. In the past, veganism has been said to be a western privilege, not a cure [20], having said that, a vegan diet may equate to a food secure world in theory, but in practise, many developing countries would suffer through the loss of certain livelihoods, (i.e. cattle farming), and without the provision of alternative employment, could lead to reduced income and social upheaval [21].

“If this global phenomenon was to occur, two things would happen, those in the global North would benefit from environmental, health and welfare benefits while those in the south would be plunged into poverty.” -Andrew Jarvis [22].

Conclusion

In previous years, the vegan community has had problems gaining traction with non-vegans, but the success of this year’s Veganuary campaign holds promise for the future of the vegan movement. I am in no way opposed to Veganuary or veganism as a concept, in fact, I support it. However, I do not believe that this is the ‘only’ way forward to protect the planet and achieve global food security, but rather, a change is needed in our farming models, not what we farm but how.

*The United Nations Report has since been removed from its website.