To be or not to be a vegan…

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

― Albert Einstein, in a personal letter to a friend in 1954
To be or not to be vegan. Meghna Chakrabarti

Why are people fascinated by being a strict herbivore? Is this just another fad lifestyle choice, or there is some solid reasoning behind Einstein’s love for his soya chunks?

I’ve to be honest, I’m very skeptical about this quote (like most of the quotes from the pool of WWW). However, it’s unavoidable to not dig more into the latest ‘ism’ in town- this time the Veganism.

The contending argument is, widespread dietary changes are needed if we’re to combat the range of health problems, and the environmental damage caused by modern day industrial farming.

Before we pick up our sides, we must evaluate our options! So, here comes science to our rescue.

A study, in Science Magazine, published a large data-set based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries and covering 40 food products that represent 90% of what we eat.

The authors assessed the gross impact of these foods, from farms to our plates, on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification). Therefore, putting forward the evidence, supporting that “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to protect our planet Earth”.

Larger ecological footprint left behind industrial farming of the livestock. It provides just 18% of calories but takes up 83% of farmland.

The author in an interview with The Guardian argued, that the benefits might even be, “ far bigger than cutting down on our flights or buying an electric car”. As it is not just bringing down the greenhouse gases, but also global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.

Several headlines were made last year. Consequently, the number of vegans just in the UK exceeds 3.5 million, which is ~ 7% of the population. These figures indicate that veganism has seen a 700% growth in less than 2 years. If a similar trend is adopted by other nations, multitude of environmental problems in the agriculture industry might be curtailed down.

However, selling the idea to the meat-eaters globally is a tricky trade, and often we confront a dilemma – how would our body react to this switch? Is cutting out animal products the only way out ?

Following increased demand for food, most of the modern farms are now large enterprises. These are run with the intention to maximise profits. They often require higher uses of fertilisers (nitrogen based and synthetic oil-based), as well as pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. These practices although seen as highly productive, but hidden costs underlie them.

Rather than being lured by the goading to eat more of plant-based foods under the umbrella of industrial farming, we should also be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy products based on methods like rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing.

In this context, organic farming is gaining the glamour, despite the higher prices. A paper published in Nature Plants reviewed the performance of organic farming vs current farming methods. Four key sustainability metrics: productivity, environmental impact, economic viability and social wellbeing were evaluated.

Preliminary data suggests organic food is supposedly healthier, more natural and more ethical. However, there is no consensus on what do we even mean when we say organic. Pros and cons of this method still need more validation.

So, what is deemed kosher? How do we feed and nourish 7.7 billion people without destroying the planet we call home?

Moving forward, sustainable farming systems with balanced dietary habits are the only way out. When it comes to the establishment of sustainable farming, the grass is not greener on the other side. No single agriculture and animal husbandry systems can safely feed the planet.

Sustainable agriculture can feed the world without killing it.

We need researchers and policymakers, to lay the foundation of sensible agriculture. This will require:

  1. State of the art research bodies and educational units
  2. Enforcement of appropriate environmental rules
  3. Restoring farm programs that do not prioritise the production of artificially cheap livestock feed over fair prices to crop farmers

Most importantly, we need to empower our citizens, who can make a conscious choice to navigate out of this conundrum, because at the turn of the century our species won’t have the luxury to toss and decide ‘To be a vegan or not to be’.


The cover image for this post is made by an aspiring computer artist Meghna Chakrabarti. Follow her stepping stones at Tumblr and Facebook.

We publish using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license so that users can read, download and reuse text and data for free – provided the authors, illustrators, and the primary sources are given appropriate credit.

Author: Rituparna Chakrabarti

I'm a scientist, for me wisdom alone is the science of other sciences and I hope to retain my rights to ask why.

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