A Vegan Diet Is Not Automatically the Most Sustainable Choice

This gardener prefers to think of herself as a "sustainavore."

grazing cattle

Noelia Ramon, TellingLife/Getty Images

I sometimes describe myself as a "sustainavore." In other words, I try always to make sustainable choices when it comes to what I eat. This means that, for the most part, I enjoy a plant-based diet. But I am not vegan, nor even entirely vegetarian. I do eat eggs from my rescue chickens, local honey, and occasionally local meat or fish.

Many people believe that eating a vegan diet is the best choice for people and planet. But in this article, I want to explore this idea and explain why entirely vegan growing and eating is not always the most sustainable choice—at least, not for me. 

Before I continue, let me add that this article does not look at veganism in ethical terms. I completely understand that for some people, there are ethical concerns over eating animals—full stop. Animal welfare is very important to me. But I will occasionally eat meat as long as the animals lived well and were treated and killed humanely. This is a personal choice.

No matter what diet we choose to eat, it is important to look at it objectively, with a full understanding of the facts. 

Reducing Meat and Dairy Consumption

Reducing meat and dairy consumption is often touted as one of the best ways for individuals to reduce their carbon footprints. And there is certainly a lot of merit to this argument. As things stand, the global meat and dairy industries take a massive toll on the environment. By avoiding factory farmed produce, we can all reduce our individual negative impact in very real ways. 

The problem is that modern meat production has been decoupled from arable growing (aka crop production, such as wheat or barley). Agriculture nowadays relies on intensive production, without recourse to the holistic systems which could allow for more sustainable meat production—and more efficient and productive use of land. As a result, modern livestock farming has a lot to answer for—from pollution of soils and waterways to deforestation.

But not all livestock farming is necessarily entirely bad from an environmental standpoint. Holistic systems which integrate livestock rearing and other means of food production (such as silvo-pasture systems, for example) can be among the most efficient and sustainable uses of land. "Rewilding" schemes that integrate livestock to replace ruminants within ecosystems can also be effective ways to boost biodiversity and let nature reign. Remember, carbon footprint is not the only metric of sustainability. The type of meat you eat matters, too. Switching from beef to chicken or pork can save significant amounts of carbon.

Reducing sustainability arguments to a "vegan = good, meat-eating = bad" mindset oversimplifies some very complex issues. As things stand, reducing meat-eating in general is certainly an important part of the puzzle; however, eliminating meat from our diets entirely means that we do not leave room for sustainable meat production to succeed. Where ethically-reared meat farmed with eco-friendly practices is available, as in my area, and there is a paucity of other local proteins such as pulses and nuts, this may be a more sustainable option than relying on other forms of protein and types of food.

Issues Within Plant-Based Diets

Switching to a plant-based, or predominantly plant-based, diet will help us withdraw our support from damaging factory farming systems. But how sustainable a plant-based diet is depends on what food choices we select to replace the meat and dairy. Everything except B12 (easily supplemented) is provided by a fully vegan diet. But like meat and dairy, many of the foods included in such a diet can (and do) come at a cost. 

For those who can grow all their food on their own land organically, the sustainability and eco-credentials of this type of diet are easy to argue. Low to zero food miles, sustainably managed land, and high yields per acre are maintainable in smaller-scale systems. 

Most of us, however, do not have the land available to grow all our own food at home. I am able to grow most of my own fruits, vegetables, and herbs on my third of an acre, but I still have to source cereals and pulses from elsewhere. This is where sustainability issues can creep in.

Eating common arable crops grown on tilled, non-organically managed fields is not without its issues. Arable agriculture also has a lot to answer for, and in many cases, can be just as environmentally problematic as meat production. Eating fresh produce out of season, especially if it is not organic and if shipped from far away, comes at a cost. Maintaining soil organically without the integration of livestock raises a host of thorny issues.

What is more, certain protein replacements and common vegan foods have high carbon costs. The sustainability of certain foods can also vary significantly depending on where we live and how items are packaged and transported.

So, yes, we should all be reducing meat consumption, but we also need to look carefully at what we replace it with. We should not become complacent, and must remember that even fully vegan, plant-based diets come at a cost. Whatever type of diet we choose, we need to remain critical and informed. We need to ensure that we always try, in this minefield of a topic, to make the most sustainable choices we can.