So you’re thinking of trying Veganuary – giving veganism a shot for the month of January? Good for you! It shows you care about animals, your health, and the impact humans are having on our planet.
But what if there were better things you could do than giving up all animal products?
Veganism may be noble in its intentions, but it isn’t actually very effective as a solution to animal cruelty, health issues, or the environmental catastrophe we’re facing. In fact, much of the time, it’s worse! But we’ll get onto that.
The average carbon footprint of a (Western-world) vegan diet is about 40% lower than the average Western omnivore diet. The key word there is “average”, because there are many more factors that can make far greater impacts. There’s a huge difference between eating chicken from your own birds compared to quinoa that has been flown to your table from the Andes.
Here are five simple food-related changes you could commit to for the New Year that will have a greater positive impact than going vegan.
- Cut out waste
- Grow your own food
- Cook more
- Find your farmer & support local
Cut out waste
Food today is cheaper than ever, and that is a big part of the problem. Cheap food is often processed, industrially-manufactured, containing artificial and/or harmful ingredients, and over-packaged.
But a low price also means lower value. The results is that we have far less respect for our food than previous generations did. We also lose sense of the connection between what we eat and its impact on our bodies and the natural world.
About one third of all food produced is wasted every year, about a trillion dollars’ worth.
So any food that you can save from going to waste almost saves the 40% that eating vegan would save, right there!
Westerners really have lost our respect for food, because we take it so much for granted. Whereas previous generations had a much greater reverence for food, we no longer see the connection between the sweat of our brow and the food we put on the table.
Really, no food should go into the trashcan and end up at landfill. (Wouldn’t that be a great commitment to make?)
There are so many ways we can cut down on waste.
One of the simplest things is to plan your weekly meals, which helps you buy only the food you know you need.
Also, regularly going through your fridge and freezer helps make sure you always know what you already have in store, so you don’t end up buying duplicates. Get into the habit of making a list of the things you need before you go shopping.
If you are able to keep backyard animals, pigs are the ideal food recyclers. They’ll eat almost everything and turn it into delicious and nutritious meat.
If you can’t keep pigs, chickens are amazing omnivorous recyclers too. Dual-purpose breeds will give you eggs as well as meat all year round. (We haven’t bought eggs in years and know that the duck and chicken eggs we eat come from happy, totally-free-range birds and are antibiotic free.)
If you have a dog, they will eat most food we eat. So don’t forget to use leftover meals as top-up dog food, where suitable.
Disclaimer: Laws governing what you’re allowed to give various animals vary depending on where you live, so please check for your own location. Also use common sense (e.g. many people say don’t feed poultry bones to dogs).
As a last resort, you can compost all kinds of things, from vegetable peelings to eggshells. If you have a sealed rodent-proof composter, you can also add leftover cooked food and bones. Whereas food that’s buried in landfills will often rot anaerobically, generating methane, which is a greenhouse gas, aerobic composting (decomposition in the presence of air) turns waste products into a useful soil additive.
Grow your own food
Even if you can’t keep backyard animals, most of us can grow some of our own fruit and vegetables. It’s not only great for the environment with zero food miles, but it’s satisfying and a great activity that all generations can do together.
The best way to start is by looking at what veggies you use the most. For many of us, that will be potatoes, runner beans, and leafy greens like kale and lettuce. The good news is, all of these are easy to grow. All you need is to add water regularly!
Herbs are also very easy to grow. What you can have depends on where you live, and what you like to use. It’s really satisfying to walk into your own garden to grab a handful of rosemary, basil, dill, mint, tarragon, or a few bay leaves.
If you have a greenhouse, why not try growing peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers?
If you live in an apartment, make use of pots to grow your vegetables. All you need is a sunny window to place them in. If you have a deck, this is also good to fill with a variety of potted greens.
If you like fruit, why not plant a couple of apple trees or soft fruit bushes, which require very little work and will give you healthy food on your doorstep for years to come?
Why not commit to growing some of your own food in the coming year?
Foraging wild food is hugely rewarding and has a practically zero carbon footprint.
There are all kinds of natural foods growing all around us, from edible weeds and fruits to nuts and mushrooms. You’ll be surprised how many of the plants growing around you are edible or medicinal. Commit to discovering what already grows around you, and to making time to go out on foraging walks.
Any time you grow your own food, raise your own animals, forage, or hunt, you are reconnecting yourself with the natural world around you, the seasons, and Nature’s cycle of life.
Obviously you need to be clear what you’re picking, particularly when it comes to herbs and fungi, and there are plenty of books and online resources.
For fruits and herbs, check out an app called PlantNet, which will identify practically any plant from a photo of its leaves, stem, or fruit. I love to pick up a new plant while out walking, ID it in moments (requires Internet connection) and then look up its properties.
When you grow your own or forage for food, you will often find you have more of something than you can use, which is where preserving comes in. Our great-grandparents naturally wanted to save any surplus food from going to waste. That’s why most of our cooking practices actually derive from preservation (including brewing, fermenting, cheesemaking, jams and condiments, pickling, salting, and smoking).
One of the most fundamental reasons why our food habits have become so damaging, to the environment as well as our health, is that we cook less and buy more processed food than previous generations.
By “cook”, we’re not talking about taking something out of a packet and microwaving it or sticking it in the oven, but turning fresh ingredients into delicious, healthy meals.
The “convenience” of processed, convenience food comes at a great cost, not necessarily a financial cost, as industrial production tends to use the cheapest possible ingredients. But the cost to us is further disconnection from our food, and consequently our bodies, our environment, and the seasons.
We know processed food often includes ingredients that are unhealthy for body and planet, including artificial preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, palm oil, hydrogenated vegetable oils, flavour enhancers like monosodium glutamate, etc. etc.
Cooking with ingredients you recognize means you know what you’re putting into your body and you can avoid the hidden chemicals that are added to so much processed food.
Cooking also a social activity that can bring people together and reconnect us emotionally with our food, as well as making us far more conscious about planning meals and minimizing waste.
If in doubt, simply ask, “Would my great-grandparents have eaten this?” If the answer is “no”, don’t eat it.
Find your farmer & support local
Of course it’s very unlikely that any of us can grow or forage all the food we need, particularly if you also have a full-time job. So we will have to buy many of our groceries.
Here, the key is buying local food. Buying local not only means cutting right down on food miles, but also means you’re eating fresher, and you’re eating what’s in season, instead of food that has been frozen or stored in CO2 sheds.
It’s easy to pick up a plastic-wrapped pack of strawberries in the middle of winter, without considering the fact that they were grown thousands of miles away, picked while still raw, and shipped to your local store in climate-controlled conditions.
But what about picking strawberries that is in season from a local, or better yet, regenerative farm? A bit more difficult than to just stop by at the grocery store, yes, but isn’t that a more conscious means to support your farm, plus actually know where your food comes from?
Eating local, seasonal food makes us think more. We become more conscious about the passage of the seasons, what’s growing now in the fields, and the farmers who are working in our area.
Making the effort to support a local and regenerative farmer near you is definitely worth the effort. Not only do you get to meet with the very person that is responsible for growing the very food you are putting into your body, but you also get the amazing opportunity to see for yourself how your food is grown.
Farmers’ markets are also a great place to meet the people who make your food. Veg box or CSA schemes are popping up all over, making it easy to buy natural, local, in-season ingredients.
Unlike the packaged, supermarket equivalent, from an environmental standpoint, local, free-range, grass-fed meat can be one of the best foods you can eat. Not only is it extremely healthy, but it will have very few food miles, and will usually contribute to building soil and actually helping to draw down greenhouse gases, making it beyond sustainable – actually regenerative!
Here’s something to think about: If you are purchasing pasture-raised/grass-fed meat from a local farmer that practices regenerative agriculture, what a great opportunity to be able ask the farmer him questions you may have about how the animals are cared for, and what they are fed. I wouldn’t doubt that the farmer would be more than happy to take you on a personal tour of their farm either!
Take advantage of what’s around you, outside of the grocery store, while you still have the option to do so. Otherwise, the only option for those of us recovering, now ex-vegans, and ethical meat-eaters is sourcing meat from factory or CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) farms as part of an optimally healthy diet. (Please stay tuned as we continue to build our world-wide Directory.)
Say “No” to Veganuary
We all want to be healthy, and to minimize our impact on our environment. Veganism is a radical lifestyle that seems to offer the chance to feel like we’re really making the difference. But does it? In reality, veganism can simply cover a multitude of sins. Vegan food is not necessarily healthy, local, or seasonal.
You can choose to join the crowds in doing “Veganuary”, but in doing so you could inadvertently increase your negative environmental footprint, if it means you’re investing in more pre-packaged food, more food miles, even more deforestation.
Instead, why not commit to simply being more mindful about what you put in your body? If you can, grow your own, forage or hunt or fish, and otherwise commit to buying local and seasonal produce.
Like our ancestors did, let’s reconnect with our natural home, the passage of the seasons, and the sacred source of our health.
This New Year, instead of making an extreme change (with questionable benefits and clear risks), why not commit to some simple changes that will make a real difference?
Perhaps take one meal or one day per week when you commit to cooking real food with great ingredients from scratch? Enjoy the process of discovering what’s available in your area, meeting your producers, and trying out new recipes with friends or family.
Thanks Kathy! I’m cutting out bread, sugar, and alcohol (except on special occasions) and we’re going to be spending more of our money on local, regeneratively-farmed meat.
Excellent article, just hope people thinking of going vegan go and study health risks to themselves and their children
This is brilliant! Supporting the local farmers of all sorts and being mindful of what you eat and take into your life is honestly the best way to slowly tilt the world back to right. Now if only people would listen and stop wearing plastics and synthetics thinking they were helping animals.
Totally agree. Like anything vegan, clothing *can* be natural and sustainable (for example, with cloth spun from flax, hemp, or nettle fibres). Cotton is another excellent natural product, but I don’t know how much cotton is actually sustainably produced. But nothing beats the magical properties of wool, down, and leather. Too often, as you say, vegans will end up being reliant on – and supporting – the oil industry by shunning natural, animal-based products, which is absolutely unsustainable and disastrous for the environment.
I, too, had given thought to being vegan. Thought it was healthier than eating animals injected with hormones and antibiotics. Seems, though, that even our plant food sources have become unsafe.
But my real, heartfelt sorrow with eating meat is the horrific, inhumane way that animals are treated, especially on huge factory farms. I want farm animals to be respected and treated well, with love and kindness, warmth and comfort and be killed in the most humane way possible. They are feeding us, nourishing our bodies. I want to try not to let any go to waste, to honor the lives given up for us. So, yes, I will commit to EOMuary.
This is a great article! I would note that there are many things that dogs can’t eat from our human diets (onions, Coco, and all cooked bones can be deadly). I was considering trying to follow a vegan diet but considering I would be doing it on environmental grounds, I think this would be more appropriate.
Thanks Jo, you’re quite right. I’ve added a small disclaimer to the article.
Crazy that you advocate that dogs eat “what humans eat.” They are true carnivores and have been subjected to enough crap with grain-based store bought dogfood and now you want them to eat an omnivorous diet? Which is even marginal for humans, considering our guts. Their guts are not designed for anything other than animal.
Hi Marci. Of course, every dog owner should use common sense and discretion when feeding their dogs. I’m not suggesting dogs can eat everything we do, of course. Grapes, for example, are toxic for them.
I am cattle producer and I work as anima welfare professor at university in Brazil.
I really enjoyed your words.
Great article Ben!! I say yes to EOMuary!!