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Plant-based vs Meat: the 21st century Diet Dilemma

Every day we see more and more articles hailing the benefits of a plant-based diet, so much so that the vegan movement is being seen as the answer to almost any global problem. But, is turning vegan and dismissing animal products completely the best solution?



As a vegetarian myself the thought of eating, handling and even smelling meat has instilled a kind of gag reflex in my body. While this wasn’t always the case, I now find myself turning in the opposite direction as soon as I see the giant ‘M’ logo towering above the entrance to McDonalds with its distinctive scent trailing close behind me.


This new aversion to meat is not unique to me, the past year saw 350,000 people across the world embrace the vegan lifestyle. Though, in spite of these efforts, we still have some serious meat lovers, Spain being one of them. The country ranks second in Europe for meat consumed per capita. The Spanish meat industry is worth almost 6 billion euros, with the Iberico Ham remaining as one of the symbols of spanish culture. So, should we really be feeling guilty about the meat we eat?


Loui Blake, vegan entrepreneur and pioneer, thinks that eating meat is something that should be playing on our conscience. He has created a vegan restaurant empire around this very ethos, with a five level plastic-free and vegan bar, restaurant, cafe in Norwich, called Erpingham House and a fast-growing vegan chain in London, Kalifornia kitchen. “Becoming vegan became my passion and entrepreneurial inspiration. It has turned into the social justice movement of our era,” says Loui while speaking at Goldsmiths University, London.


“Health, environment [issues] and ethics are all problems I believe can be solved by veganism”, says Loui. After being hospitalised with health issues that appeared untreatable with pharmaceuticals, he turned to a vegan diet. Within weeks he was back on his feet, stronger and filled with energy.


He had reaped the health benefits of this plant-based diet, and with a little more digging he realised the true horrors that eating meat had on our planet. “Environmentally we don’t have that much time left,” says Loui. In a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), it revealed that each year almost 1 million hectares of the Amazon rainforest disappear to make space for the soy production used as animal feed. This is the equivalent of Belgium disappearing within 3 years, a whole nation removed from the planet. The Amazon is the largest ecosystem in the world, home to 40 percent of the earth's species. “We are talking about the life blood of our planet disappearing to make room for livestock,” says Loui.


The Amazon isn’t the only place on the planet which the animal food industry is eating into. According to a study carried out by Greenpeace, in Europe, 71 percent of the farmland is used to grow animal feed instead of food for people. This uses a large amount of natural resources such as water. So you would think the simplest solution would be to cut the amount of farmland dedicated to the meat industry to make space for vegetables, right?


This view is not shared by everyone. Farmer and award-winning writer, Isabelle Tree argues that if done in the right way, meat production could keep our planet intact. Isabelle says, “While cutting out intensive farming systems, such as grain fed or force fed livestock, produced in non organic farms would make a huge impact on the environment, it’s not to say that becoming completely plant-based would be the solution.”


Isabelle Tree lives on Knepp Castle estate with her husband, the environmentalist Charlie Burrell. Their once crop covered 3,500 acres of land, and has been rejuvenated into a nutrient rich area of wilderness as part of their rewilding project.


The animals on their land, which includes cows, pigs and horses, are free to graze across their land to stimulate vegetation in such a way that acts as a very efficient carbon sink. a carbon sink is when naturally growing plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When livestock graze these plants, part of their roots decompose, releasing the carbon into the soil. The soil converts the carbon into a substance that can be safely hidden away underground. Therefore keeping the carbon from damaging the earth’s atmosphere and creating a more fertile soil.


Through this project she has seen not only does this method reduce the amount of carbon dioxide levels in the environment, but has shown the vital role free roaming, organic livestock plays in our food system. “We need to eat much, much less animal products but pasture-fed, organic meat and dairy is playing a vital role in returning nutrients to the land. Our soils are currently so impoverished, we have to eat 10 tomatoes today to have the nutritional value that our grandparents would have got from one. And that’s all down to lack of natural fertiliser which we can only get from manure.”

So, what does science say? Senior researcher on the Oxford University, Future of Food programme, Dr Marco Springmann, acknowledges the vital role soil could play to combat climate change by acting as a carbon sink, but he believes that the current condition of the soil will not be restored within our lifetime on the scale needed to make a real impact.


Marco is a vegan himself, and has carried out studies on this very topic, his most recent being from October 2018 called “Health and nutritional aspects of sustainable diet strategies and their association with environmental impacts”. After uncovering the health benefits of a plant-based diet over a decade ago the switch was a no brainer. “A vegan diet is an optimal diet in many aspects, if well balanced it can be among the healthiest diets in the world but also it has the lowest greenhouse gas footprint.”

In the study, Marco considers the most environmentally damaging systems of food production in order to determine what diet is the most sustainable both in relation to health and climate change. “We found if people were to switch to a balanced vegan diet, which would also include not over consuming, that would free up land resources by an estimated 25 per cent.” Pasture land for meat farming accounts for two thirds of the worlds’ farmland use. It’s estimated that if grouped together plant-based agriculture would take up the size of South Africa.


Not only does his study reveal the huge reduction in land use that a vegan diet would have on the world, but also the reduced carbon emissions produced by the agriculture industry. “If the world adopted a vegan diet it would reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions up to 70 percent by 2050,” says Marco. “If the whole world were to eat a predominantly plant-based diet, with one portion of red meat a week and minimal consumption of animal products, we could reduce carbon emissions by half.”


So, although cutting meat and dairy out of our diets completely isn’t the only solution it is one of the best. The plant-based diet makes the biggest impact in fighting the environment and wildlife crisis, with added benefits for our health too.


written by Lindsay Castro

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