Vegan v flexitarian – which will save the planet?

The global food system is damaging our planet. It is one of the leading causes of climate change, land use, freshwater use and pollution through fertilisers and pesticides, and this is only expected to get worse unless we take action.

As population and income levels across the globe are set to rise, scientists believe that the environmental impact of our food system could increase by 50–90 per cent by 2050. This would see us “reaching levels that are beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity", according to the article 'Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits', published in the science journal Nature.

So how do we stop our food system from damaging the planet? If everybody became vegan, what would the environmental impact be? Or would everyone taking on a flexitarian diet, where a small amount of animal products are eaten, be enough to make a difference?

The case for veganism

According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans (who avoid eating all animal products) in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2018, from 150,000 (0.25 per cent of the British population) to 600,000 (1.16 per cent).

This trend looks set to continue, as recent YouGov analysis shows that 7 per cent of the British population is likely to become vegan or vegetarian within the next year. Of those who plan to give up meat, 35 per cent plan to do so primarily because they are concerned about the environmental impact of their diet choices. But what impact could becoming vegan really have on the planet? According to a University of Oxford study, if everybody cut meat and dairy from their diet there could be…

  • A 49 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from food production. (The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations claims that livestock is responsible for a whopping 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.)
  • A 76 per cent reduction in land used for food production (67 percent of deforestation for agriculture, which causes carbon to be released into the atmosphere, is driven by the need for land for animal feed and pasture.)
  • A 49 per cent reduction in eutrophication, where nutrients from fertilisers run into lakes and rivers, damaging ecosystems and reducing biodiversity.
  • A 19 per cent reduction in fresh water withdrawals weighted by local water scarcity. Water production, which includes extraction, transportation and filtration, is energy intensive.

The same study shows that the impact of the very lowest-impact animal products still exceeds that of substitute vegetable proteins, such as tofu.

However, every single person on the planet would have to adopt a vegan diet for these figures to be achieved. Cutting out entire food groups can also lead to environmental pressures on certain ingredients that a vegan diet depends on for plant-based fats and protein. For example, almonds need a lot of water, fertilisers and pesticides to grow, while avocadoes are being exported in such huge quantities that Kenya temporarily banned exports of the fruit in 2018 due to their own supply being at risk.

Could it be argued that a diet that includes a small amount of everything, including locally reared meat, is perhaps more achievable and sustainable than a vegan diet?

The rise of flexitarianism

The word 'flexitarian' was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014 and is defined as “A person who has a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish". The definition in itself is problematic, because “occasionally" could mean once a week, or more, but the premise is to reduce your consumption of animal products.

According to YouGov analysis, 14 per cent of Brits identify as flexitarian. This is twice the number of people who say they follow a vegan, vegetarian or pescetarian diet.

Research analysis by Oxford University scientist Joseph Poore shows that if every family in the UK swapped a red meat meal to a plant-based meal just once a week, the environmental impact would be the same as taking 16 million cars off the road. This is not surprising, considering world meat production was expected to hit a record high of 335 million tonnes in 2018 – more than double the 155 million tonnes produced in 1985.

Other potential environmental benefits of a flexitarian diet include:

  • Research published in the science journal Nature reports that, compared to baseline projections for 2050, moving to a more plant-based flexitarian diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 52 per cent.
  • If everyone ate less meat it would reduce or eliminate the need for intensive animal farming, which has a high impact on the environment. Some low-impact, more sustainably produced meat can create less greenhouse gas than coffee or cocoa beans produced as a result of deforestation.
  • Cattle farming could actually help to reduce soil erosion and carbon emissions. It is thought that cow dung, when spread across fields (abiding by Defra’s rules), adds nutrients and microbes to soil and locks in carbon, therefore reducing the need for additional fertilisers. When you consider that there is three times more carbon in the soil than in the atmosphere, this could make a big difference.
  • It is likely to be a sustainable, long-term choice for more people.

So which will save the planet?

A vegan diet is in most cases better for the environment than a flexitarian diet, when you consider greenhouse gas emissions, land use, freshwater use and water pollution. But it's a complex issue, and your personal dietary footprint will be influenced by many factors, including which meats you eat and how you shop. See our vegan recipes for some inspiration.

However, because a vegan diet can seem so restrictive, eating a varied diet that includes a small amount of animal products could be more realistic and achievable for more people – and the only way for diet changes to have an impact is en masse.

How much meat is acceptable in a flexitarian diet is debatable, but research published in the science journal Nature suggests that followers restrict red meat to one portion a week, with ‘modest’ amounts of poultry, fish, milk and eggs.

The Committee on Climate Change’s most recent report confirms that a shift towards a diet that's less reliant on carbon-intensive animal products could enable you as an individual to reduce your dietary emissions by 35 per cent.

Of course, there are other ways to reduce the impact of your diet on the environment, including reducing the amount of food you waste, considering where your food has come from and how far it has travelled to get to your plate, or how many chemicals have been used to produce it. Ultimately you need to decide what matters to you and what changes are realistic for you to make.

See our tofu recipes for inspiration

Does the thought of a vegan diet fill you with fear?!

  • Start small – if you’re used to eating meat every day of the week, why not start with a meat-free Monday?
  • Change your mindset – rather than thinking of it as limiting your diet, start thinking about how you can incorporate lots of new foods and ingredients into your diet, such as tofu.
  • Make meat the side – Switch your meals around so that meat isn’t at the centre. That way you won’t notice if there is less of it.
  • Make simple swaps for more meat-free meals – use halloumi instead of bacon, a marinated portabello mushroom instead of a beef burger, or beans instead of mince in a burrito, you’ll soon learn just how versatile vegetables and pulses can be.

Even if you only manage to cut out one red meat meal a week, that’s better than nothing. The latest recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change claim that a 20 per cent reduction in beef lamb and dairy consumption would help the UK to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero by 2050. So that gives you something to aim for.