A note on veganism and vegetarianism (2)

A note on veganism and vegetarianism (2) February 11, 2019


At harvest time
Camille Pissarro, “The Harvest” (1882)     (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Continuing from the prior post:


An interesting and, to my mind, important article appeared in the 13 October 2018 issue of The Economist:


The retreat from meat: Why people in rich countries are eating more vegan food: The further they go, the better”


I’m drawing here from that article:


Across the “First World,” in affluent countries, interest in vegan foods has been rising sharply.  In the United States, for example, according to The Economist, sales of “plant-based” foods — in other words, of foods that contain no meat, eggs, or dairy — rose 20% in the year preceding June 2018.  That figure was ten times the growth in food as a whole that year, and two and a half times faster than vegan foods grew in the year before.  Waitrose, an upscale British grocery chain, introduced a line of vegan foods in 2017 and then expanded its selection by 60% in mid-2018.  Waitress reports that its sales of vegan and vegetarian foods in July 2018 were 70% above the level of sales just a year earlier, in July 2017.


Global meat consumption has been growing consistently by nearly 3% a year since 1960, but this is largely because people in poorer countries buy more meat as they become more affluent.  In the early 1970s, the average resident of China consumed 14 kilograms (31 pounds) of meat a year. Today, the average Chinese resident eats 55 kilograms annually — well over three times as many.  And that worldwide trend hasn’t slowed.   But most growth in meat consumption has been in the developing world.  While rich countries have been eating more meat, too, their consumption is increasing more slowly than it once did. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), meat consumption in the world’s richest nations has risen just 0.7% a year since 1991.


Is veganism as such surging?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Many non-vegans eat vegan foods from time to time — many more than formerly — without committing to a vegan way of life.  For every active vegan or vegetarian, there are more than five people who identify themselves as former vegans or former vegetarians.  But this may change, as more vegan and vegetarian options become available in restaurants and grocery stores.


Evidence for the health benefits of vegan and vegetarian diets is ambiguous.  A large 2002-2007 study of Seventh Day Adventists who consumed a plant-only diet seemed to show substantially lower mortality rates, but a smaller survey of British vegetarians in 2016 failed to demonstrate such a benefit.


However, large studies have demonstrated that people who consume red meat in significant quantities, as opposed to poultry, have higher overall mortality rates.  And eating large amounts of processed meats, specifically — meats such as bacon and salami — is linked to colorectal cancer.


A 2016 research study at the University of Oxford found that a global transition to well-balanced vegan diets might yield as many as 8.1 million fewer deaths a year. Worldwide vegetarianism would do almost as well, reducing annual deaths by 7.3 million.


However, most of the benefit claimed in that study could apparently still be achieved if omnivores simply ate better-balanced diets, including less meat.  If, for instance, the world adopted what the Oxford study called a “healthy global diet,” which would include less sugar than most in the West typically consume as well as plenty of fruits and vegetables and only, on average, 43 grams of red meat daily, the reduction in deaths would still be approximately 5.1 million.


Rich-world diets tend to get all their daily protein requirement (about 50-60 grams) from animals.  And, in fact, Americans eat 90 grams of protein a day while Europeans consume 85 grams — most of it from animal products.


But protein can also be obtained from plants.  And relying more on plant proteins might convey notable benefits, both related to human health and to the environment:


Because meat is energy rich, eating more protein than is needed, and getting it from animals, entails consuming a large number of calories.  And excess calories are likely to be stored as fat.


Vegans, by contrast, eat less protein and what they get comes from less energy-rich and less potentially fattening products.  A 2017 French study found vegans and vegetarians were both eating more varied diets and consuming fewer overall calories — and eating only 67 grams of protein daily (vegetarians) or 62 grams (vegans), compared to 81 grams among the meat-eaters who were surveyed — which, rather than veganism or vegetarianism as such, may account for the difference in health outcomes.


Additionally, growing edible plants requires less land than raising meat does.  More land is required per calorie of food in beef production than in the production of broccoli. Raising livestock takes about 80% of all agricultural land while producing just 18% of the world’s calories.  A study from Israel’s Weizmann Institute contends that, if America obtained its protein from plants rather than animals, that would be equivalent to increasing the food supply by a third.


Amazingly, too, cattle farming alters the climate.  For one thing, clearing land for pasture creates greenhouse gases.  In addition, cattle and similar animals produce methane, a fairly powerful greenhouse gas — mostly, incidentally, released by belching rather than otherwise — and methane warms our environment. The United Nations Food and Agriculture organization calculates that cattle generate up to two-thirds of the greenhouse gases from livestock, and that they are the world’s fifth largest source of methane.  “If cows were a country,” says The Economist, “the United Herds of Earth would be the planet’s third largest greenhouse-gas emitter.”


According to the Oxford study, by 2050 a vegan world’s agriculture would produce 70% lower greenhouse emissions than  a world where people ate as they do today.  In a world that had adopted the mixed “healthy global diet,” they would be 29% lower.  Raising cattle produces seven times more emissions per ton of protein than raising pork or poultry does, 12 times more than soya, and 30 times more than wheat.  And here’s a thought:  Getting our protein from insects—who are very efficient converters of intake into output—might yield a world that was almost indistinguishable, in environmental terms, from a vegan one.



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