Veganism: why settle for anything less?

“Meat reduction goes mainstream” runs the headline of an article in the Summer 2015 issue of Farm Animal Voice, the magazine for supporters of Compassion in World Farming. The article claims that “the need to eat less meat … is at last taking root, as the growing popularity of ‘flexitarian’ (also known as ‘demitarian’ or ‘part-time vegetarian’) diets so powerfully attests”, citing initiatives such as Meat-Free Mondays, the Jamie Oliver-backed Meat Free Week and Friends of the Earth’s Meat Free May as examples of how the meat reduction message is getting across. Even the UK government’s Global Food Security Programme report is cited as advocating a reduction in meat intake. So far so good: I’m all for campaigns that will reduce the number of animals that are slaughtered for food.

However, the article then goes on to promote the ‘flexitarian’ diet as an end in itself, declaring that “unlike all-or-nothing diets that require rigorous discipline, flexitarian eating is eminently realistic and achievable for many more people”, reminding the reader that “most people do eat meat or fish on a regular basis”. The problem I have with this is simple: if eating less meat is better for animal welfare, the environment, world hunger and so on, doesn’t it follow that eating no meat at all is the best option? An example of this was found in a study of climate change-inducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of people following a range of diets in the UK. In the study (Scarborough et al, Climatic Change 2014, DOI 10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1), the dietary GHG emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters (who ate fish but not meat), vegetarians and vegans were estimated from food frequency questionnaires completed by the participants. The meat-eaters were further subdivided into ‘high’ (at least 100 grams of meat per day, typical of that consumed by most people in the UK), medium (50-99 g/d) and low (<50 g/d) meat categories. After correcting for differences in age and gender between the diet groups and standardising to a 2000 kcal diet, average dietary GHG emissions across the 6 diet groups in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents (kgCO2e) per day were 7.19 in high meat-eaters, 5.63 in medium meat-eaters, 4.67 in low meat-eaters, 3.91 in fish-eaters, 3.81 in vegetarians and 2.89 in vegans. Thus, the low meat-eaters did better than the medium meat-eaters, who in turn did better than the high meat-eaters. However, the groups who did not eat meat did even better! Overall, dietary GHG emissions among the meat-eaters were approximately twice as high as among the vegans. This is not to say that a vegan diet is necessarily 'optimal' in environmental terms, but it does show that a 'flexitarian' diet (which to my mind means eating whatever you like whenever you like!) is, at best, an unsatisfactory compromise. A vegan diet does not require 'rigorous discipline' and is 'realistic and achievable' for many people, so why settle for anything less?

Paul Appleby

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