I’m not vegan. That might seem hard to accept or controversial in some way, as I very much identify as an environmentalist. It’s a topic that comes up a lot in the online conscious living community and also in real life with friends and family. I always find it difficult to answer the question: “Are you vegan?”. “Well, sort of. 90% vegan. Mainly plant based. I guess I’m vegetarian” is usually how it goes.
The fact is that for me, it’s a complex issue. My approach to food encompasses a number of considerations and I can’t go around saying I’m vegan, when in reality, I’m not. So, you might be thinking, "how can you call yourself an environmentalist if you don’t cut out animal products all together?". The animal agriculture industry is one of the most polluting industries on the planet, after all.
Not black and white
In my opinion, it’s not as black and white as veganism being the most sustainable and ethical diet. There are many other factors which contribute to a sustainable diet, which I’ll cover in this article.
There are occasions where, based on the circumstances of the situation, I choose to eat or use animal products. I've listed some of these circumstances below:
I eat eggs from backyard chickens, as long as I can see them with my own eyes and are confident they are happy and healthy. I don’t see any problem with this, and in fact would argue it’s valuable food gone to waste if the eggs aren’t eaten.
I ate kangaroo occasionally when I was living in Australia. Kangaroos have virtually no carbon footprint and are overpopulated in Australia. If every Aussie switched from beef to kangaroo that would be good news for the planet.
I ate slow-raised organic turkey at Christmas.
I eat locally produced, organic honey.
I eat cheese occasionally when I'm eating out or at someone else's home (but try to avoid cow’s milk cheese altogether).
I wear wool and leather shoes (I’ll cover why in another article).
In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t eat the meat mentioned above now, as my views are evolving all the time and I generally don’t enjoy eating it any more. I’ll admit that some of these occasions where I ate said animal product was purely because the desire to do so outweighed my conviction (at the time - it is generally followed by guilt). However, for the most part, meat just doesn’t appeal to me anymore and I’m very happy with my plant-based diet - I find it far more interesting, more in line with my values and better for my health.
Here’s the other thing - I don't believe the arguments that humans should not eat meat or are not designed to eat meat. I am not, from an objective standpoint, against eating meat. I am however, strongly against the way we currently produce meat and dairy. Back in the days of hunter gathering, humans would catch an animal (if they were lucky) and it would last for weeks if not months. I do not agree with the way our diet has evolved into eating meat every day with almost every meal. It has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on our environment and on human health.
Then there’s the ethical side. Cutting out meat for me was triggered by the environmental impact, and the ethical stuff came later. I am well aware of the shocking animal abuse that goes on in factory farms - everyone should be. I feel sick at the thought of live export. I’m aware that the dairy industry is fundamentally wrong (artificially inseminating female cows and then taking her calf shortly after it’s born so humans can enjoy the milk meant for her child). I find it incredibly frustrating that society sees some animals as food and others as pets or animals that should be protected.
With all this said and while humanity faces the very real and very scary prospect of climate change, I think the moral thing to do as someone who is privileged enough to be living in the Global North, aware of these issues and has access to a variety of food: is to eat a mainly vegan diet.
In some ways it would be easier just to be completely vegan, and I have friends who adopt this approach because they’d rather not make exceptions. I respect that and at the end of the day eating no meat and dairy is the most effective way to lower your carbon footprint - so I’m all for it. But there are other factors which are worth considering, and not being vegan does not make you a bad environmentalist.
Vegetarian, climatarian or plant based
So let’s get back to what I think is an ethical and sustainable diet. Sustainable eating encompasses more than just eating less (or no) meat and dairy. Here are the factors I think should be considered for a sustainable diet:
Locally produced food: this is a big one for two reasons. Firstly, I want to support local farmers, not corporate mega farms producing monocrops and using masses of pesticides. I try to buy produce grown in Germany (while I live here) and neighbouring countries in Europe (Europe has fairly tight regulations on agricultural when compared to the US). Secondly, there's the air miles - the smaller the distance that food has travelled before ending up on your plate, the lower the carbon footprint.
Less packaging: plastic pollution is a huge problem and the food industry makes a significant contribution to single use plastic waste. I choose to buy my food without packaging where possible. That means I don’t buy tofu or any other fake ‘vegan’ meats.
Organic production: while organic farming might not be perfect, it’s the best option we have at this point. By buying organic you are supporting farmers who are choosing to have less of an impact on the earth’s valuable soil and are using more traditional farming methods. Not to mention, it’s better for you.
Eating seasonally: this is another big one. If you are buying tomatoes in the middle of winter you can bet they came from an industrial greenhouse which has a huge carbon footprint. I try to eat seasonal produce (this is easy if you shop at organic stores where the default is to stock seasonal produce).
Food waste: I do not waste food - ever. If I have to throw something away I forgot about, I would feel incredibly guilty. I buy what I need and no more. Food waste is so important to me and is a higher priority than not eating animal products (e.g. if there is leftover food at work that contains cheese that will be thrown out otherwise, I would rather eat it than it go to waste).
Palm oil: while palm oil itself is not inherently bad for the environment, palm oil plantations are a key driver of deforestation in Indonesia. There are so many issues related to this, like the fact that fire is used to clear forests to make way for more palm trees (releasing masses of CO2 into the atmosphere) and that it destroys the homes of Orangutans and other endangered species. Products with palm oil should be avoided, unless it is specifically stated that the palm oil is sustainably sourced.
As you can see - there are a number of things to consider when choosing the most sustainable diet. The best word I’ve found to describe my diet is: climatarian. This definition fits most closely with my approach to food and my goal to reduce my personal carbon footprint (and therefore help reduce the effects of climate change).
I believe in a conscious approach to food. I try to encompass all the issues I’ve mentioned above into every food-related decision I make. I am constantly learning more about the food industry and seeking new information to remain as conscious as possible. If everyone adopted this attitude to food, I believe we could live in a world where people who want to eat meat can do so occasionally, but on a significantly smaller scale and with dignity to animals and farmers.
I understand that many vegans will not agree with what I’m saying and I as I said I respect their decision to be completely vegan. At this stage, after lots of research and deliberation of the issue, I can’t see myself ever being vegan.
If you want to adopt a more plant-based diet, check out my beginners guide to going plant-based.