In part 1 of my exploration of the question: What is the most sustainable diet? I address the recent hype that a vegan diet is ‘not as sustainable’ as other diets.

In the modern world, everyone seems to want a simple answer to every question, no matter how complex. That’s probably why a recent study has been promoted as proof that am omnivorous diet is more sustainable than a vegan diet.

In the study, the researchers examined various dietary scenarios, using nutritional guidelines and different amounts of meat consumption, including vegetarian and vegan diets. While the research is certainly interesting and important, its conclusions and the way it has been promoted misrepresent the data. As the research is exclusively U.S.-based, it does not account for: (a) how land use and diets would vary drastically in other countries and (b) how globalisation means a wide variety of food eaten locally is produced globally, while a wide variety of food produced locally is consumed globally. The result is a very isolated, incomplete picture.

u.s. flag cropland.jpg

And this is the problem with sustainability research: it can only ever be a partial representation and when the ubiquitous internet tries to turn it into something more, the message gets confused. In this case, the researchers rely exclusively on U.S. diets and land use, without accounting for things like greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, soil degradation or many of the other effects of our modern agricultural system.

In fact, this study found that the vegan diet used the LEAST land of any of the diets examined. The only reason it was found that fewer people could be fed on a vegan diet was because the diet used fewer types of land. But, that means that more land would be available on a vegan diet than any other diet, land that could be used for any number of purposes other than food production.

So, yes, if we don’t account for anything else like water usage or soil degradation and we assume that all the agricultural land available in the U.S. should be used to grow food (for Americans and no one else, while all U.S.-residents eat exclusively U.S.-produced food) it might be true that  a vegan diet is less sustainable. But, that is ONLY according to a very narrow — and misleading and likely unsustainable — definition of sustainability that does not in fact, incorporate a globalised, broader notion of sustainability.

farmer on farm

To be continued tomorrow with Part 2.

5 thoughts on “What IS the most sustainable diet?: Part 1

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