How environmentally friendly is the vegan diet?

Veganism is no longer a dirty word.

Whether it’s a Greggs sausage roll or switching to Soy milk, over 600,000 Brits have adopted the diet.

It's assumed that the plant-based diet and sustainability go hand-in-hand but some are questioning the ‘remove and replace’ lifestyle.

With a quarter of the British population set to go meat-free by 2025, how environmentally friendly is the vegan diet?

The Growing issue

Non-dairy milk varieties such as almond require a staggering 74 litres of water to produce one glass. Credit: PA

Professor of Food Policy at City University of London Tim Lang believes vegans are on the right track but their impact might not be enough.

He told ITV News: “It’s a lot of very thoughtful people but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sustainable diet.”

The former farmer - who helped found the Food Standards Agency - warns vegans to be more careful about what they're adding to their plate.

An Oxford study revealed that although producing a glass of dairy milk gives out almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any non-dairy milks, varieties such as almond require a staggering 74 litres of water in the process.

Although he thinks the diet should be praised for its positive message, he warned that the demand for foods like soya, which cannot be easily grown in the UK’s colder climates, is too high.

He said: “We’ve got to stop thinking about agriculture and more about horticulture, we have a catastrophic underproduction and consumption of fruit and vegetables.”

The expert who coined the term ‘food miles’ as a measure of from plant to plate, called on the government to protect UK crops and stop policy from drifting.

Professor Lang said: "It's time they got their act together. There's been three years and no guidance."

Looking to our neighbours to tackle the issue, he said: “The European Union is motoring on trying to address this problem.

“We’ve got 10 years and the clock is ticking, climate change has gotten out of control.”

Veganism 'isn’t going to save the planet'

Activist and YouTuber Madeleine Olivia thinks more can be done to reduce the UK's food footprint. Credit: Madeleine Olivia

One person who is aware of the problem is Cornwall-based activist Madeleine Olivia, who turned her passion for sustainability into a movement.

Madeleine - who has nearly half a million followers on YouTube - was originally drawn to a vegan diet in 2014 because of an eating disorder.

The blogger told ITV News: "I went into veganism following fads and strict ways of eating, becoming too obsessed with being ‘healthy’.

"After going vegan I started to learn about minimalism and reducing the amount of things I consumed and bought."

Madeleine's interest in the lifestyle movement inspired her to write upcoming book 'Minimal: How to Simplify Your Life and Live Sustainably'.

But her transition to a low-impact lifestyle wasn't so simple.

She explained: "There are so many ways we can reduce our impact, and veganism is just one of them.

"Veganism also isn’t going to 'save the planet', systematic change on a large scale, and all of us living in a truly sustainable and regenerative way, would get us a lot closer."

Madeleine believes there's a collective responsibility towards the planet, adding: “If we don’t come together and ask for change, as well as changing ourselves, it won’t happen.

"Sadly as consumers we are up against a system which thrives on consumerism, money and waste, and we benefit from it daily."


The UK introduced more vegan products last year than any other nation but not to everyone's taste. Credit: AP

In 2018, the UK launched more vegan products than any other nation but some additions haven’t been welcomed by everyone.

Companies are being accused of ‘greenwashing’- a term first heard in the 1980s to describe how brands overstate environmental and ethical claims.

Many vegans face a dairy dilemma of accidentally pouring millions into the animal milk industry.

Unlike allergy warnings displayed on the back of products, there is no legal definition of what 'vegan' or even 'vegetarian' means.

The UK introduced more vegan products than any other nation but there are no legal definition for how vegan products are labelled. Credit: PA

However, The Vegan Society - who only put their name and symbol on trusted items - think "there has never been a better time to be vegan."

Dominka Piasecka spokeswoman from the charity said: "Veganism is no longer portrayed as an unusual lifestyle, it’s easy and accessible."

"Shopping locally and seasonally is important, but it pales in comparison to the impact you can have by changing the types of food you eat – avoiding meat, dairy and eggs.

An Oxford study revealed a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from food production.

But all meat options produce more greenhouse gases than meat-free sources chosen by vegans.

Ms Piasecka said: "There are also no food exclusive to vegans as everyone eats fruits, vegetables and other products; sustainability issues around food miles are therefore not just a vegan issue.”

According to studies, UK vegans emit 1,055 kg of CO2 a year almost half the amount of meat-eaters.

Ms Piasecka said:"While veganism may not be the sole answer to environmental and sustainability issues, it is a very significant part of the solution to overcoming these issues.

"Food production has a high carbon footprint and if enough people try to reduce it, collectively we’ll make a huge contribution to fighting climate change."

Food tracking technology

Giki founders James and Jo Hand wanted to simplify labelling. Credit: Giki

Emerging technology is trying to resolve this issue and sustainability apps are bringing a whole new meaning to ‘green-fingered’.

App Giki Badges has rated over 280,000 supermarket products so shoppers can check out their environmental impact.

Whether it’s an all-organic basket or a low carbon footprint, users can flick through the 14 badges to weigh up their options.

Co-creator Jo Hand said: "It became very clear people wanted a one-stop shop.

"It’s often the two-pronged reason of animal welfare and the environment."

And 80% of users have made a switch to more environmentally friendly products since using the app.

The app allows users to scan items to check their overall Giki rating. Credit: Giki

An acronym for 'Get Informed. Know Your Impact', the app looks at: sustainability, health and fairness.

Ms Hand said: "Last year the hot issue was sustainable palm oil but a low carbon footprint has been more important in 2019."

Top rated products are elevated to a God-like status with a "hero badge" and although nearly 10,000 products have made the cut, the developers have found it difficult to accurately rate more items.

Ms Hand added: "Labelling is a real challenge for us as individuals, the information that is on a label doesn’t really help.

"With non-food products there are around 200-250 names for palm oil you probably wouldn’t recognise."

In their view, the key to reducing Green House Gas emissions from food could be as simple as updating the back of a packet.