How sustainable is vegan food?

25 January 2024, 09:39 AM
  • Speciality Food takes a look at the real environmental impacts of meat versus plant-based food
How sustainable is vegan food?

Each January, vegan food soars into the spotlight as retailers gear up for a month of plant-based promotion for Veganuary. The annual challenge to eat vegan for a month, which is now in its 10th year, attracted more than 700,000 people last year. But in the vegan sector, the last year hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Mark Lynch, partner at Oghma Partners, says the plant-based food market overall saw “significant upheaval” over the last 12 months, “with reduced ranges, falling consumption and businesses going bust in the sector”. 

Indeed, Meatless Farm, supplier of meat alternatives to Byron Burgers, Itsu and Pret, went into administration last year, while Oatly and Heck reduced their plant-based ranges in the UK. 

As Sally-Jayne Wright recently explained in Speciality Food, fake meat and cheese products are coming under increased scrutiny over their ingredients as Brits worry over the health concerns of ultra-processed foods. In fact, recent data showed that sales of plant-based meat alternatives were down 13.6% over the year, and it’s become clear that consumers want to put the ‘plant’ back in ‘plant-based’.

Vegan food’s environmental impact

As well as questions over health concerns, one of the biggest concerns consumers have about plant-based food is its impact on the environment. But here, all signs point to vegan diets being the way to go. A study published in Nature Food in July 2023 concluded that plant-based diets are less harmful to the environment. “The environmental impact of animal-based foods is generally higher than for plant-based foods because of both direct processes related to livestock management…and indirect processes through the inefficiency of using crops for animal feed rather than directly for human consumption,” the study’s authors wrote. 

Based on its models of vegan, vegetarian, fish-eating and meat-eating diets, “vegan and vegetarian diets have substantially lower [greenhouse gas] emissions, land use and water use requirements than meat-containing diets and that diets with reduced animal-based foods tend to be healthier and have lower environmental impact.”

A spokesperson for Food4Climate Pavilion, a group of organisations who were influencing food policy at COP28, says adopting a plant-based diet also helps with the development of a more sustainable global food system. 

“For three decades, the link between our dietary choices and the warming of our planet has been notably absent from global climate negotiations, despite global food systems accounting for more than 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions,” the spokesperson said. “Not only this, animal-based foods are responsible for twice the emissions of plant-based foods.

They urged policy makers to “pay more attention to the detrimental impacts of industrial livestock farming on the environment and the benefits of diversifying agriculture to more plant-based alternatives” but warned against placing all the responsibility on farmers to adopt new methods or change their livelihoods. “Instead, a diverse array of organisations, policymakers, and world leaders must collaborate and contribute to changing agricultural practices that create a more sustainable food system.”

Consumers crave sustainability

While health is still the key motivating factor for flexitarians, the protection of animal welfare and sustainability are both on the rise, according to Jordi Barri of plant-based brand Flax & Kale. Sustainability is at the top of the business’s agenda. “We truly believe that companies like ours have the mission to produce food which is sustainable, and which can help change peoples’ diets and the overall food system. The system we currently have is depleting the planet of its natural resources and, unfortunately, the food industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. We need to reverse this,” Jordi said.

Indeed, the food system was estimated to be responsible for 34% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, as well as 70% of the world’s freshwater use and 78% of freshwater pollution.

Andy Shovel, co-founder of alternative-meat brand THIS, agreed. “The key thing to highlight is we’re trying to give consumers a more sustainable alternative to intensively farmed meat. Our THIS Isn’t Chicken, for example, requires 87% less water than real chicken and produces only 1.2kg of CO2 per kilogram, compared to 7kg required by real chicken,” he said. “This is essential in changing our global food system.”

Producing more sustainable meat

Despite the bubble bursting on vegan food – at least in the form of fake meat – people in the UK are also eating less meat at home, according to data released by the government in October 2023. Thanks to the cost-of-living crisis, the impact of Covid and lifestyle changes, less meat was consumed in the year to March 2022 than at any point since records began in the 1970s. 

Over half (56%) of adults want UK farmers to adopt farming practices that preserve and enhance the environment and nature, according to new research from Ipsos commissioned by the food and farming certification scheme Fair to Nature.

However, the research also reveals a widespread lack of knowledge of the terms regenerative, sustainable or nature-friendly farming, with no more than two in 10 people surveyed saying they either know this type of farming “very well” or know a “fair amount” about it.

Mark Varney, head of Fair to Nature, says the results highlight that many Brits want more sustainable food products. “This is a golden opportunity for food businesses to adopt nature-friendly farming and food production to respond to their customers’ wants and needs,” he says.

Veg in the spotlight

While locally produced meat and alternative meats both provide more sustainable routes, Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of plant-based restaurant Stem & Glory, said swapping in more vegetables will be key as more consumers look to reduce their meat consumption. “There is so much that is broken in the global food chain, so getting back to a meaningful relationship with the land around us is urgently needed,” Louise said. 

Plant-based food and drink is often better for the environment and consumers’ diets, but here too considering where and how these products are produced is important. For instance, air-transported fruit and vegetables can create more greenhouse gas emissions than some meat. 

“Vegan food can play a big part in this, but plant-based processed food isn’t the answer either. Natural wholefoods grown in the climate where we live is the right direction for us all to move in as the predominant food culture. If we wish to live the lives we are used to in terms of leisure and eating out, then we must decarbonise this now,” she said.

Environmental labelling

Communicating the benefits of eating vegan food or local meat will be an important way to boost sustainability efforts, experts say. “I believe our sector has the need and the duty to become much better communicators,” Jordi said. “We have explained that a plant-based diet is more sustainable, but we perhaps need to be blunter about the opportunity cost and even damage we cause when consuming livestock and livestock-based ingredients. People should know that a making a chicken burger will deplete the planet of almost six bathtubs worth of water. Our sector should be using clearer, more direct language with messages ordinary people can relate to.

“We need to move beyond our comfort zone and not just talk to our vegan/vegetarian/flexitarian supporters, but to the wider population,” he said.

Environmental impact labels on food and drink products could also help. Cristina Stewart’s research looked into the effect of labelling and designed experimental labels that scored food and drink products based on their greenhouse gas emission, biodiversity loss, water use and water pollution. “When you don’t have the information about environmental impact of food, it’s really hard to shop with that in mind,” she said.

With the National Food Strategy targeting a goal of reducing meat consumption by 30% over the next 10 years, it will only become more important for consumers to understand the sustainable credentials of the food and drink they buy – and retailers, as well as food and drink producers, have a key role to play.

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