What’s the environmental impact of vegan substitutes?

Sampling the vegan burger at Beyond Burgers in a local Whole Foods store. It was pretty good, but didn’t quite hit all the beefy notes I was hoping for. The sweet potato fries were great though. 🙂

Of the things I buy regularly, food (whether groceries or eating out) is absolutely my most frequent purchase. So, it makes sense that changing the way we eat regularly makes it into the top behavioral choices that can  impact climate change. Eating a plant based diet is the most clear way to reduce the environmental impact of your diet; as we learned in this post, meat (and beef in particular) is one of the most carbon intensive foods to produce. While going vegetarian is certainly a step in the right direction (and it has been relatively easy for me to move to a mostly vegetarian diet), going fully vegan has been a challenge. Over the last three months, I have averaged 2.75 meat meals per week, and less than 1 beef meal per week, an average of around 85-90% vegetarianism. Cheese, butter and/or eggs are such common components of vegetarian meals that it’s been hard for me to eat many fully vegan meals without putting significant thought into menu planning ahead of time. I also dislike having to specify food preferences if a friend is cooking for me; vegetarian cooking is so mainstream that it’s easy for me to find a vegetarian option no matter where I’m eating with minimal effort or forethought. Given these issues, I’ve only managed to average about 3.5 vegan meals per week; clearly, full veganism involves a level of commitment I haven’t been able to make.

So, my struggles have lead me to ask the explicit question: what is the carbon impact of vegan substitutes? Many vegans rely on alternative sources of fat, like nuts or coconut, to create vegan substitutes for common ingredients like butter or cheese. How environmentally impactful are those substitutes?

Like nearly every question I’ve looked into, there’s a pretty straightforward answer, and a more complicated answer. The short answer is: pretty much any plant-derived food will have a smaller carbon footprint than its animal-derived counterpart. A study done by a Dutch consulting firm which looked at environmental impacts including carbon production and water use suggested that all meat substitutes, including lab-grown meat and veggie burgers, have a significantly smaller environmental impact than their non-vegetarian counterparts. However, I admit I could not read the full report from because it’s in Dutch! Another European study looked at the life cycle impacts of various meat substitutes relative to chicken (which they used as a baseline because it is the least energy intensive meat to produce) and found that soy-based and insect-based meat substitutes were the most environmentally friend meat replacement options.

What about milk substitutes, especially given how much scrutiny almond milk has come under for its intense water usage? Several studies and analyses (reported on here, here, here) all suggest that even accounting for the agricultural resources needed to produce non-dairy milks, every alternative has a smaller environmental impact than cow’s milk. What about the issue with water consumption in growing almonds? It turns out that dairy milk is also water-intensive to produce, using significantly more water than almond milk, despite almond milk’s bad rap.

My research has brought me back to the same conclusion we came to in our exploration of beef eating: any steps we can take towards consuming less animal products are likely to be generally better than consuming more animal products. But, I really liked this article and the subsequent comments on the Food Climate Research Network site, which is a balanced discussion of how our food choices can have unintended and complicated consequences. The author points out that eating less of something pretty much always means replacing it with something else. What that something else is can have its own consequences, which may or may not be better than what you eliminated. For example, palm oil is common in vegan versions of things like cheese or ice cream, but has its own very serious environmental consequences.

I’m still working on changing my diet to be more environmentally friendly, and I probably won’t ever get to a fully sustainable diet (since unless you’re growing your own food, it’s nearly impossible to really know all the details of the supply chain that produces your food). But, here are my main heuristics for making environmentally friendly food choices:

  • Chicken is less environmentally impactful than pork or beef; vegetarian is better than non-vegetarian, and vegan is the most environmentally-friendly choice when possible.
  • Buying locally grown vegetables is a great way to reduce the transportation carbon costs of your food; now that it’s getting to be nicer weather, I’d like to try shopping more at farmers markets.
  • We all make hundreds of decisions about what to eat every week; you don’t have to make the “correct” environmental choice every time you pick a meal. Just working on making more plant-based diet choices will already be a step in the right direction.

A few resources I found interesting or helpful:

Study: Going vegetarian can cut your food carbon footprint in half

The carbon foodprint of 5 diets compared

Swapping T-Bone for Tofu (from the BBC)

Carbon Footprint Factsheet (UMichigan)

Protein Scorecard

Potential to curb the environmental burdens of American beef consumption using a novel plant-based beef substitute (paper from Beyond Burger)

Is a vegetarian diet really more environmentally friendly than eating meat?

Climate change: Which vegan milk is best?

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