Life as a Herbivore
Vegetarians and vegans are increasing in numbers, but how do we ensure these plant-based diets remain kind to the environment? Rebecca Day gets digging…
Globalisation has contributed largely to the food industry we know today – eating foods from different parts of the world has become entwined in our daily diets. As the world’s population numbers increase, so does its demand for food. The food supply chain encompasses more countries than ever before; products are being grown in one country, packaged in another, and consumed right here in the UK. And whilst parts of the world are addressing issues surrounding heart disease and obesity, other parts are suffering greatly from malnourishment.
According to Soil Association’s spokesperson, Natasha Collins-Daniel, there is already enough food produced today for everyone to have the nourishment they need. “One billion people are hungry, one billion are malnourished with another one billion people overweight – and these numbers are growing,” she explains. “It is predicted that there will be 9 billion people in the world by 2050. This has led some to argue that a 70% increase in food production will be needed.” Along with a growing number of international experts, she believes that organic and other agro-ecological farming systems can help the world feed itself. However, we also need to eat differently and waste less food.
Vegetarians & vegans
There are many reasons why people choose to eliminate meat and dairy from their diets. With previous studies reporting that the meat industry produces half of the world’ greenhouse gas emissions, embarking on a journey of vegetarianism or veganism reinforces a clearer conscience; reducing our connection with an industry of animal exploitation and suffering takes a considerable weight off the shoulders. However, as a vegetarian, I increasingly question where my food comes from and what benefits it has, for both my health and the environment. Many benefits are to be reaped from becoming a herbivore.
Well-balanced, meat-free diets are generally low in saturated fats and cholesterol, therefore reducing the risk of heart-related problems. Today, we can meet our nutritional requirements through a variety of sources, allowing us to alleviate meat and fish from our diets. Omega 3 can be met through eating tofu, walnuts, rapeseed oil, flaxseed and dark green vegetables, such as spinach, whilst pulses and beans provide a sufficient amount of protein. Many nutritionists can happily talk for hours about other effective ways to get those essentials which can often go missing from a vegetarian or vegan’s diet, such as iron, calcium and zinc, as well as vitamins D and B12.
The discovery of ‘superfoods’ in the raw food world has also meant that herbivores can consume more nutrients per calorie than found in most other foods. Raw foods such as hemp, chia, wheatgrass, maca and goji berries are jam-packed with impressive health benefits and can simply be added raw to dishes. Deemed a thoroughly rewarding lifestyle choice, many herbivores find that they become more creative at mealtimes, spending more time cooking and mustering up flavoursome dishes using herbs and spices, which they wouldn’t have done otherwise. Even high profile meat-loving chefs, such as Jamie Oliver, have been praising the veggie lifestyle!
However, it is important to understand where these foods are coming from and how they have been sourced and manufactured. With more and more people hopping on the herbivore band-wagon, there is a much higher demand for fruit and vegetables, grains and pulses, and superfoods. We only have to focus on issues faced globally, partly generated by an excessive meat demand, to recognise our need for plant-based foods must not add to the damage. People supplying at a local level also need to ensure the products ending up on our plate are not only benefiting us, but the environment as well.
Soya has been making headlines in recent years. With a growing demand for soybeans, soy plantations have been wiping out and claiming vast areas of rainforests across the world, most notably the Amazon. Not only is the production of soy destroying biodiversity and polluting the environment, but it is also having a major impact on the rainforest’s indigenous people and wildlife. Communities and animal species are being displaced with their surroundings burnt to the ground. The world’s rainforests are home to 50 million indigenous people and 30 to 40 million different types of animal species. According to the World Information Transfer, ‘Soy production has already destroyed 21 million hectares of forest in Brazil’. The destruction of rainforests goes hand-in-hand with global warming, with reports revealing that the loss of forests constitutes more to the world’s carbon emissions than the transport industry.
Due to the high amount of carbon held in this type of land, when burnt it releases an extortionate amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 10 million hectares of Indonesia’s peatland have already been lost to feed the world’s ‘need’ for palm oil. Often listed as ‘vegetable oil’ on food labels, it is difficult to avoid consuming palm oil. However, by purchasing products which contain alternative vegetable oils, such as 100% sunflower oil, we can avoid this highly unethical substance. Large corporations also need to be held to account, as they are often the ones contributing to a corrupt industry of deforestation and animal genocide.
Conventionally grown produce, whereby farms use pesticides and herbicides, is also having a detrimental impact on the environment – the chemicals often far-reach their intended location, infecting surrounding species, polluting the water and air, and even making its way into our own bodies. Despite strict regulations on the use of pesticides, it cannot always be guaranteed that enough precaution is given when applying the chemical. The best way to avoid chemical-ridden crops is to stick to organic products.
For foods to be classified as ‘organic’, at least 95% of the ingredients must come from organically produced plants; up to 5% are allowed from a list of non-organic food ingredients. Artificial colouring and sweeteners are banned completely. Organic food products must be produced to strict EU standards and inspected by a registered body, such as the Soil Association – an organisation that puts planet-friendly food and farming at the heart of their work. “Our definition of organic farming recognises the direct connection between our health and how the food we eat is produced,” says Natasha. “Organic farmers take a holistic, principled approach that respects and harnesses the power of natural processes to build positive health across the ecology of the farm.” Soil Association ensures that throughout the farming process artificial fertilisers are banned and fertile soil is developed by rotating crops and using compost, manure and clover. Farmers are to also follow strict regulations and do their utmost to protect the environment, as well as local wildlife. “If organic farming was common practice in the UK, we could offset at least 23% of agriculture’s current greenhouse emissions,” enthuses Natasha. “So, in short – buy organic food to make sure that you are being as kind as possible to the environment.”
Vegans’ opinions and choices vary when purchasing their fresh produce. “Some vegans may see stock-free farming as the way forward for many reasons,” explains Samantha Calvert, the Vegan Society’s spokesperson. “Some vegans will be concerned that any imported fruit and vegetables are fair trade and others will wish to eat predominantly local or British fruit and vegetables.”
Iain Tolhurst is the founder of Tolhurst Organic – a stock-free farm located in south Oxfordshire. Having worked on a conventional dairy farm for four years back in the seventies, seeing modern agriculture in its true light made him decide do things in a more efficient way. Iain has been a vegetarian for most of his life, with most of his family following suit. Tolhurst Organic was the first farm in the country to be registered as stock-free – meaning that the farm has had no grazing animals or animal inputs since 2004. There are many benefits for the environment, particularly in terms of how the land is used,” explains Iain. “We use our land in a much more efficient way – our farm produces more food per hectare than on a normal organic farm. Plus, we don’t exploit animals, so there has been no suffering in order for us to get manure into our systems, which therefore benefits vegans too.” Iain explains that vegans often opt for conventionally grown produce rather than organic, because they are conscious that stock is used on organic farms to create manure. “However, buying conventional food isn’t the answer,” says Iain. In order to support the fertility of his own farm, Iain dedicates a third of his land to producing ‘green manure’; crops are uprooted and then dug back into the ground to provide the soil with nutrients.
A few alternatives…
Tim Barford, who has been eating hemp on a daily basis for the past 12 years, believes that it has provided him with the “missing link” to optimum health. “Hemp is a superb food for the mind body and soul in the 21st century,” enthuses Tim. Having been a vegan for 30 years, he recalls that he has only been truly happy with his diet since introducing hemp. Tim now runs his own hemp company, Yaoh, which specialises in sourcing the finest hemp seeds. “It’s the combination of the fats and proteins which makes it so nutritional,” he explains. “I eat de-hulled seeds in smoothies, on salads and added to pasta and rice dishes. Hemp oil works in the same way – I always add it after cooking, as both the seeds and the oil are best used raw.” Hemp protein powder is also available – ideal for those vegetarians and vegans who lead an active life. Fat is extracted from the powder, in order to increase the protein-to-fat ratio, and then milled to provide a very fine powder that dissolves well. “It tastes lovely, nutty and filling,” confirms Tim. “The powder goes into a protein drink with juice, probiotics, spirulina, wheat and barley grass.”
Vegusto supplies meat and cheese alternatives, which are 80% organic. All of the ingredients are sourced from Europe, including cashews, almonds and coconut oil. The vegan company prides itself of being free from palm oil, soya, sugar, artificial colours, flavourings or preservatives, as well as Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) free. “The affects of GMO on health and the environment is currently cause for great concern,” explains Patrick, spokesperson for Vegusto.“The movie Genetic Roulette would be a great place for anyone to start to find out about the health and ethical concerns of GMOs.” Patrick explains that there are many benefits to be had from going dairy-free. “Many people nowadays are allergic to dairy, even if they are not yet aware, and by going dairy free, people often notice their health and general wellbeing improve.” Whilst dairy from cows – both organic and non-organic farms – contains many active hormones, allergens and cholesterol, Vegusto’s dairy-free cheese is free from any of these elements and uses healthier fats from organic nuts and coconut oils. These oils are free from animal cholesterol, and are therefore far safer for the consumer.
What can we do?
There are many things we can do on an individual level to minimise our impact on the environment, from simply growing our own fruit and vegetables, to choosing products which are in-season. Restricting the amount of food we purchase – only buying as much as we intend to eat – will also help to reduce food-waste. Preparing too much food is also a major contributor to wastage. A great way to tackle this is freezing leftover meals, using remaining items in an alternative dish or ensuring the correct measurements are used. Over 15 million tonnes of food is thrown away each year in the UK, with almost 50% coming from our homes. According to Love Food Hate Waste – an organisation which provides tips on how to reduce wastage – ‘if we stop wasting food that could have been eaten, it would be the equivalent of taking 1 in 5 cars off the road’. By also teaching children and young adults to be more sustainable, we can build the next generation’s awareness about how their food choices impact on the environment.
Running a popular vegan food-van in Bristol, Louise Abel believes that cutting out meat and dairy is a massive step towards living a more sustainable lifestyle. “Simply changing our food choices can have a huge impact on the environment over time,” she says. “When shopping I try not to go crazy and buy lots of out-of-season products. I love making home-made veggie burgers or using seitan if I need a ‘meaty’ fix.” Seitan, made from wheat, is a meat substitute, alongside tofu, quorn and tempeh. Louise claims that becoming vegan four years ago was the best decision she has ever made, and it inspired her to set up the Spotless Leopard. “It’s introduced me to such an amazing group of friends as well as given me my career – I never knew what I wanted to do with my life until I went vegan,” she exclaims. “Health-wise, I felt better within two weeks of cutting out dairy and I am much happier in myself.” Louise believes being vegan is about doing what you can and having as little negative impact on animals, and the world, as possible. “Slip ups aren’t the end of the world – it’s the choices you make the majority of the time that really add up.”
Spreading the word
Festivals and events dedicated to vegetarians and vegans, are great for picking up ideas on how to take a more sustainable and ethical approach to the foods we consume. VegFestUK – founded ten years ago by Yoah’s Tim Barford – was set up to showcase to the public the best of living this lifestyle. The first ever event, which was held in Bristol, hosted 40 stalls and attracted 1,200 visitors. This year’s VegFestUK boasted 140 stalls and raked in an astounding 20,000 visitors! “It’s great to see so many young vegan businesses flourishing and so many people coming to the shows to see what it’s all about,” exclaims Tim. “The vegan lifestyle is getting more popular by the day, as we move towards a more plant-based diet again.”
Taking the steps to eliminate meat, fish and dairy shows determination and a huge amount of compassion. To reinforce our desire to live a sustainable lifestyle, it’s imperative – as numbers choosing the herbivore life escalate – that our awareness of the food chain also increases. Plant-based diets should not cost the Earth, neither should our demand for food in the Western world be at the expense of developing countries. By choosing wisely, eating differently and wasting less, we can be as kind to the planet as its plants are to us.