Is Being Plant-Based Really Better for the Environment?

This month is Veganuary! Throughout the month, people across the UK and beyond, pledge to follow a plant-based diet for the entire month of January. In 2021, 508,000 people participated in Veganuary, with 21% of these people citing the environment as a reason to take part in the pledge. It may raise the question, is a plant-based diet really that much better for the environment than a diet containing meat or dairy?

Meat vs. plant-based protein

Plants are packed with protein and often plant-based protein sources are much more affordable than meat. What many people forget is that the meat that we consume usually gets its protein from plants, so switching to a plant-based diet means you’re just cutting out the middle-man. The production of meat for consumption contributes large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere. Here’s a comparison of meat protein sources’ environmental impact compared to plant-based protein sources:

  • Eating beef 1-2 times a week for a year generates 604kg of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the same amount of CO2 as driving a petrol car 1,542 miles or heating the average UK home for 95 days. However, eating tofu 1-2 times a week emits only 52kg of greenhouse gases per year.
  • Eating chicken 1-2 times a week contributes 106kg of CO2 to your annual greenhouse gas emissions, whereas eating 150g of beans 1-2 times a week has a phenomenally low environmental impact, generating only 7kg of greenhouse gases a year.

If you’re still not convinced that you could switch to plant-based proteins, here is a list of the protein content in some of the most affordable protein sources that are available in most supermarkets:

  • Dried lentils (~£1.15 for 500g) - 5.9g protein per 80g
  • Dried quinoa (~£1 for 300g) - 3.5g protein per 80g
  • Tinned lentils (~60p per can) - 5.8g protein per ⅓ can
  • Tinned chickpeas (~35p per can) - 5.8g protein per ⅓ can
  • Tinned kidney beans (~55p per can) - 5.5g protein per ⅓ can
  • Firm tofu (~£2 per block) - 13g protein per ¼ pack

Dairy vs. plant-based milk

For some people, it’s milk and dairy that’s the big sacrifice. Plant-based milks tend to be considerably more costly and for many it takes a little while to get used to the taste. And finding a tasty vegan cheese can be challenging to say the least. However, the benefits to the planet are worth considering when making this shift.

  • Eating 30g cheese per day generates 352kg of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Producing the amount of cheese needed to match this consumption takes 82,703 litres of water which is equivalent to 1,272 8-minute showers.
  • Consuming 200ml of dairy milk per day generates 229kg of greenhouse gases a year and uses 45,733 litres of water which is equal to 703 8-minute showers, whereas consuming the same amount of oat milk per day uses 3,512 litres of water which is equal to 54 8-minute showers.

There are many different brands and variations of milk on the market these days: oat, soya, almond, cashew, pea, hemp… the list goes on! Not all of them are to everyone’s taste so it’s worth trying a few before you give up completely.

How can you make the switch?

Many people think you have to go cold turkey (or cold Tofurkey?) and drop it all overnight, but that isn’t the case. Personally, it took me about 2 years to do the full switch. First, I went veggie back in mid-2018. Then in 2020, I challenged myself to be fully plant-based by the end of the year. By ‘fully’ I mean about 98-99% because even the best people in the world miss things when looking at ingredients lists. Realistically, I think it was around August 2020 when I’d found all the appropriate alternatives for the foods that mattered to me. So, if you’re wanting to become more plant-based but not ready to make the full switch, here are some things you could try:

  • Go veggie or plan to have at least a couple of meat free days a week.
  • Try one plant-based switch a week. Swap dairy milk to oat milk for a week. If you like it, keep buying it. If you don’t, switch back to your preferred milk -it’s no biggie!
  • Challenge yourself to just a week of plant-based eating (like in Veganuary!) and see how you get on. If you don’t like it, you can always eat meat and dairy again.

If you’re challenging yourself to switch your diet at all, good luck! I hope you find lots of tasty and more environmentally friendly options for your favourite foods. Perhaps, next year some of you will be signing up for Veganuary 2023! Have a look on the egalitarian’s social media for links to some tasty vegan meals to try too.

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