November 1st is World Vegan Day, so let’s talk all things vegan. What does the raging global pandemic (that seems to have no end in sight) have to do with plant-based diets? Is going vegan really going to save the planet? We present the facts, so you can decide. PS: we got to sit down with one of our favourite environmental educators, Isaias Hernandez (@queerbrownvegan), for a quick chat on his experience, tips, and thoughts on intersectionality and accessibility.
Plant-based diets in 2020?
Are more people going vegan in 2020? According to FMCG Gurus, from April to July 2020, the number of global consumers looking to include more plant-based foods within their diet as a result of the pandemic jumped from 18% to 26%. Apparently, the primary reasons were the perception of plant-based products as healthier, more nutritious and better for the planet. We’re just speculating here, but probably what happened is that people had more time to pay attention to what they were eating and bothered to find out more about what the vegan hype was all about. But if we zoom out, we’ll see that the pandemic really put plant-based diets in the spotlight.
In fact, Leah Garcés, president of Mercy for Animals, the leading international non-profit animal advocacy organisation, even said that in her whole career, she’s “not sure we’ve had a better chance than this to have the eyes of the nation and the world on the way we’re using animals in our food system and the risk that puts to us as a species.” And it’s not about pointing fingers at “foreign” places, she added, and blaming them for generating pandemics. It’s about looking at how the global food system is a ticking time bomb for pandemics like COVID-19.
The meat we eat is a pandemic risk
We hope this isn’t the first time you’re hearing this, but the vast majority of the meat we eat comes from factory farms. And in these huge industrialised facilities, animals are tightly packed together and live in harsh, unsanitary conditions. Yes, it’s totally unethical—this you’ve heard before—but more importantly here, it’s a breeding ground for disease. Michael Greger, author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, says “there’s stress crippling their immune systems, and there’s ammonia from the decomposing waste burning their lungs, and there’s a lack of fresh air and sunlight”, and when you put all this together? A perfect storm for pandemics. Worse, farmed animals are genetically uniform (yeah, the industry did that too). Which means viruses spread easily from animal to animal, and can’t be stopped by genetic variants. Greger puts it bluntly: “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms.”
And lots of money is going into that. As Jonathan Foer and Aaron Gross highlight for the Guardian, one study suggests that the public is providing $1m per minute in global farm subsidies, “overwhelmingly used to prop up and expand the current broken model.” So what do we do? Foer and Gross note that scientifically, it’s clear that there’s a link between factory farming and increasing pandemic risk. It’s just that the political will to curtail the risk is absent. We need to build that will by talking about it, calling on our political leaders, supporting advocacy organisations, and thinking about how we should eat differently.
“Changing the most powerful industrial complex in the world – the factory farm – could not possibly be easy,” they note, “but in this moment with these stakes, it is, maybe for the first time in our lifetimes, possible.”
It’s going to help us fight the climate crisis, too
And let’s not forget there’s a huge bonus to changing our global food system—fighting the climate crisis. The global food system accounts for about 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions. And nearly a quarter of the world’s total emissions. There’s a bunch of things we can do to improve the system, like reducing food waste, shifting away from monocultures, etc. But shifting towards plant-based diets certainly helps. You probably heard about that major study that found that a widespread dietary shift from meat to plant-based foods over the next few decades could remove as much as 16 years of global fossil-fuel carbon emissions.
The study looked at three possible outcomes for 2050 based on global meat production. If business-as-usual continues, we’re going to have inevitable environmental destruction. If there’s a 70% reduction in meat consumption, we could remove 332 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s the amount produced over the last nine years from burning fossil fuels. And of course, the final scenario, of a global vegan diet? 16 years’ worth of carbon dioxide.
But before we go around preaching that everyone, everywhere, should just stop animal agriculture entirely… it’s not that simple. Even the study’s authors recognise that raising animals is critical in some developing economies. A fully vegan diet isn’t achievable in all countries and regions. So they suggest locally tailored strategies for restoring viable ecosystems.
Let’s all go vegan? It’s not that simple
A recent WWF report, “Bending the Curve: The Restorative Power of Planet-Based Diets” also echoes this sentiment. It emphasises: “[t]here have been many recent calls for action on diets, but most of these have looked at solutions from a global perspective. […] The global imperative must be translated into national and sub-national contexts, by understanding the impacts of shifting consumption patterns, on both human and environmental health. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and we need flexible, adaptable models which can be tailored to different cultures, but consistently deliver high human health benefits and low environmental impacts: Planet-based diets.”
Meaning: we need to look at the local context. And we need to look at the differences between those local contexts around the world. “Currently,” the report highlights, “consumption varies widely and can be best characteri[s]ed by massive inequality. […] For example, daily food consumption in the United States (nearly 2000 g/day; Figure 7) is almost double that of Indonesia (approximately 1000g/day; Figure 8). This includes much higher consumption of foods such as red meat (116 g/day) and dairy (594 g/day) in the United States compared to Indonesia (14 g/day red meat and 35g/ day dairy). Shifting toward more healthy and sustainable diets in these countries would require a large reduction in consumption of these foods in the United States. However, overconsumption of other foods that can cause poor health, such as highly processed white rice, would need to decrease in Indonesia.”
The report goes into much greater detail, but as this note above alludes, the point is that we need to look at both human health and planetary health. Yes, going vegan for the climate is great. But if you’re advocating for that without realising the real issues that people actually face, then you’re missing the point.
What does this mean for me?
The WWF report outlines suggestions for nation-wide and international implementation, but what about on an individual level? How do we, individually, adopt more nuanced approaches? Should we still try to go vegan? Influence those around us to go vegan? How do we start, anyway? To answer these questions, we spoke to environmental educator Isaias Hernandez (@queerbrownvegan)—who runs one of our favourite Instagram accounts—to learn more about how to adopt a critical approach to going vegan.
Why did you choose to go vegan?
Being in college, I really learned about the environmental injustices from agribusinesses. But also, I wanted to fight for the anti-oppression of animals and humans. And so what that meant to me was really advocating for the large industries (that have contributed to the degradation of many communities and have stolen land from Indigenous peoples) to really acknowledge that part of that history. It’s also about going further and acknowledging that agribusiness itself is a product of environmental colonialism. And so when we’re doing environmental work we need to look at how they’ve contributed to the food inequalities that we have today.
What was the transition process like?
I think for me the transition process was really easy, mainly because I had already not eaten beef. And so I primarily ate chicken during those years. But I think I did it one by one. I stopped eating chicken. Then I was still eating cheese or eggs. And then slowly cut off eggs, and then eventually just cheese… it was pretty easy in that sense to make it in steps rather than leaps. Because, I think, like many of us can agree, if you’re instantly cutting it off in exactly one day, I don’t think it’s gonna work. So I think for me, I took baby steps, and so it really helped me build my relationship with veganism in a more holistic and I guess you would say, better way.
What is it like being vegan now?
I think for me being vegan now is pretty great. I think I know what recipes work. And I don’t necessarily crave anything in the sense of like what I used to eat in animal-based derivatives. Now I’m just really learning more, continuously growing, and seeing what the best foods are for me. I think it’s also about understanding that a lot of the nutrients that we eat today have been heavily altered mainly because of monoculture. And so looking into ways of how I can grow my own garden (how I can grow my own food) is a really powerful act which I’m trying to discover right now.
What are your favourite vegan resources and influencers?
Some really great pages that I love are: @iye.loves.life and VEGANVOICESOFCOLOR. What I’ve noticed is that many BIPOC vegans that I follow really approach their vegan work through intersectionality (the interconnections of environmentalism). Which is because we cannot solely focus on animal liberation when there’s a lot of humans that have issues and are being enslaved today. The most important part is that if we want to create a movement, we have to be fighting and advocating for different types of voices, not just one. And so part of my work, and what I do today, is to amplify BIPOC vegans who are also fighting for the same mission.
What are some tips you have for going vegan?
Ask yourself what are the things that you can currently do right now, and what are the things that you should know about your health. I’ve noticed that a lot of people who go vegan are not necessarily doing it right. Or they lack knowledge about nutrition. I think it’s important that when you transition to this type of lifestyle that you understand your body and understand what your body reacts to. This is not to say if you have reactions, you can’t go vegan. But I think that everyone has different gut reactions. And so I think it’s important to know your body first before reading what’s being put out there.
Another tip is also to recognise where you can reduce, one step at a time. Like, for example, committing to reducing your meat intake from three times a week to two times a week. Which is a very easy compromise. Ultimately I think it’s about reducing as much as you can, rather than being perfect.
What are the top reasons, to you, why someone should go vegan?
I think one thing is understanding how the food today we eat really isn’t cruelty-free nor ethical, you know. Mass slaughtering of animals, pesticides thrown at undocumented farm workers… Using concepts like nutritional ecology, we can also realise that the food systems and the soil that the food is grown in are poisoned. That’s stuff we aren’t talking so much about. Another thing is also that many of the animal and dairy products contain very harmful chemicals. And these products from factory farms contain worms or bacteria that eventually enter our bodies, harming us or making us ill. The funny thing is that if you overcook or undercook your vegetables, you won’t die, but with meat you have that risk.
So there you have it—a critical approach to veganism is not to say that you shouldn’t go vegan. But rather, it’s about acknowledging the limits of the plant-based movements, and about questioning the global food system more broadly. Hernandez highlights that when we have these conversations, we have to “note that our food systems are embedded in colonialism”. (More reason to unlearn here…) We also need to understand “how green capitalism can also be embedded with veganism”. By acknowledging accessibility issues, we can move beyond a sole focus on animal liberation, towards a more meaningful, intersectional approach towards veganism. Which, perhaps, should be the way we move forward in talking about veganism and the plant-based movement in 2020 and beyond.
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