It’s a common misconception that a vegetarian or vegan product must have a positive environmental impact as it is animal friendly.
Whilst a recent study by the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce your carbon footprint from food by up to 73%, evidence also shows that some plant-based diet staples could have a negative impact on the environment.
Unsaid asked a number of environmentalist vegetarians and vegans which food they choose to eat and those they avoid in their plant-based diet in order to have the most positive effects on both their personal health and the environment.
“I avoid anything with palm oil”
The controversy surrounding palm oil will be nothing new to those who keep up to date with environmental debates.
Palm oil is the world’s most popular vegetable oil and a common ingredient in many different types of products, including shampoo, pizza, lipstick and chocolate.
Oil palms thrive in tropical regions which are usually home to endangered species such as orangutans and tigers.
Forest destruction means the devastation of animals’ homes and also leads to the emission of greenhouse gases.
The debate surrounding palm oil concerns the fact that palm oil production employs millions of people in south east Asian economies globally. To stop buying palm oil would have a detrimental impact to those involved in its production.
However, certified organic and sustainable palm oil products exist.
To be officially sustainable, companies must abide by the global standard set by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The company must have transparent supply chains, responsible carbon emission, respect for wildlife and treat workers fairly.
Palm oil which is sustainable sourced should have a RSPO label. Alternatively, you can scan the barcode of your product with the free app Giki which is recommended by WWF.
“I only buy ethically-produced tofu”
Tofu is a staple of most plant-based diets, offering high levels of protein, iron and calcium. However, its environmental impact is also a controversial topic.
Dr Graham McAuliffe from the Rothamsted Institute suggested last year at a National Farmers Union (NFU) conference that tofu could have a worse environmental impact on global warming than lamb, pork and chicken.
“If you look at tofu, which is processed so there is more energy going into its production, […] you can see it could actually have a higher global warming potential than any of the monogastric animals.
“To get the same amount of protein, tofu is worse,” Dr McAuliffe said.
It is possible, however, to find ethically produced tofu products in supermarkets, such as leading UK brand Tofoo. Such products will be labelled with organic certification stickers.
“I’m trying to cut down on anything out of season”
Due to the phenomenon of Instagram food posting, avocados have shot up in popularity (and price) recently.
Fresh avocados are usually available in UK supermarkets all year round due to mass importation from places such as Mexico, California, South Africa where the majority of the world’s avocados are produced.
Buying fresh fruit and veg when it is in season promotes a direct supply chain with the growers. Eating seasonally and buying locally reduces the energy (and associated CO2 emissions) required to grow and transport the produce.
Buying produce with the Fairtrade logo is also another way to ensure this.
This BBC Good Food Seasonal Calendar can help you tailor your shopping list to produce in season.
“I’m vegetarian but happy to eat insects”
Whilst some are vegan for religion reasons and therefore insect eating wouldn’t be an option, those who choose to follow a plant-based diet for environmental reasons might like to also look into the benefits of eco-friendly insect farming.
Liz Boote, joint founder of Protein Rebel – a protein powder company which specialises in natural and sustainable products – is a vegetarian who says she ‘is a big fan of insect eating for environmental reasons’.
She says that the company, which was founded in summer 2020, is finding that ‘more people than you’d think are more open to trying insects as part of their everyday diet’.
“Farmed insects are the most sustainable protein source on the planet as they take up minimal land and need hardly any feed and water.
“2 billion people worldwide already eat insects and most people will have inadvertently eaten insects in spices, grains, pulses etc.
“Insects such as crickets are also highly nutritious- more protein than beef, more iron than spinach and 4 times the antioxidant levels of orange juice
“Insects need to be taken seriously because they’re a key solution to the forthcoming food and climate crises.”
Although some vegetarians and vegans view insect eating as meat consumption, insect-based products such as protein powders and flours are becoming increasingly popular with those following primarily plant-based diets.
For every person on earth, there’s 1.34 billion insects which means insects have the largest biomass out of all land-living animals.
Vegetarians and vegans often struggle to consume enough important nutrients and vitamins such as D and B-12 which insects could provide.
It seems then that whilst following a plant-based diet means you are more likely to have a positive impact on the environment than someone who tends to eat meat, extra steps can be taken to make your vegetarian or vegan diet even more eco-friendly.