Veganuary: commercialised ethics

This January there has been record signups for Veganuary. Half a million people have pledged to give up meat and animal products for the first month of the year, a 25 percent rise on participants from 2020. Veganism is on an upwards trend and as I illustrated in my previous article for Yorkshire Bylines this is good news.

The meat and dairy industry are a serious problem for the environment, especially concerning biodiversity loss. Meat production is responsible for 39 percent of land use related to the human diet and to consume meat is to consume space, space that is needed for ecosystems to thrive. Without areas rich in biodiversity, we risk our food supply and water quality and increase the risk of disease.

However, veganism doesn’t completely mitigate this issue. This Veganuary, people will be looking for meat alternatives and many meat substitute products are also harmful to the environment. Veganism has experienced a boom since 2014 and in America alone there has been a 600 percent rise in in the number of people who do not consume meat. In the UK, last year Richmond released a vegan alternative to their meat sausages; this alternative was the second highest selling meat-free product on the market. Similarly, ‘This isn’t Bacon’, from the vegan brand ‘This’, has topped the Vegan Kind best sellers list for some time. Sales of soy milk are steadily growing in the UK, with close to 20 million litres more sold in 2018 than in 2009.

Lots of vegan products and ingredients consumed in the UK are produced in the ‘Global South’ (low and middle-income countries in the Southern hemisphere that rely on the wealthier Northern hemisphere markets), where the labour is cheaper and the land is more fertile, for now. These products, like many other meat-free alternatives, are rich in soy protein. Up until 2013, the US was the global leading exporter of soybeans, but as soy consumption increased, production moved to Brazil (three of the top seven companies that carry this process out are US owned), which in 2018 exported over 50 percent of soybeans worldwide.

The boom in soybean production has had a significant impact on biodiversity in Brazil. Forest has been destroyed to make way for the soy crop and its required processing infrastructure as well as native Amazonian grassland, rich in biodiversity. In 2020, there was 652.00 km² of deforestation in the Amazon, compared with 167.00 km² in 2009. Brazil has taken on the burden of global soybean consumption and now, its widening use in vegan diets is exacerbating the growing problems of land loss and biodiversity.

Quinoa is another example of a widely used vegan substitute that has an adverse effect on the environment. Quinoa is a grain that was formally a staple of the Andean diet and its uses range from cereal and pasta, to Chicha (Andean beer). In the last decade, it has become immensely popular amongst vegans and those who wish to follow a more ‘plant-based’ lifestyle. Bolivia, as the second-highest exporter of quinoa, has been tasked with supplying this increased demand. This increased demand has forced Bolivian farmers to farm in a manner that destroys centuries-old methods of effective land management, using llama-grazing pastures to grow quinoa.

With the rise in demand, farming has been mechanised and tillage increased, placing a strain on soil composition and fertility. Previously, the manure produced by the llamas was a natural fertiliser, which nourished the arid highlands in the Andes; farmers have claimed that since they have used more land to grow quinoa the soil in the area is poorer.

The rise in demand for quinoa has, similarly to soy, made it a valuable and profitable crop and thus companies are incentivised to use land to cultivate the product. Bolivia’s agricultural land does not have the capacity to continue to produce so much quinoa, but is forced to as the value of quinoa rises. Farmers must satisfy the market demands by selling their crop while watching the soil erode and, longer term, the destruction of their livelihood.

Veganism has been capitalised by companies who have changed a set of values into a trend, a fad. Veganism is an ethical choice not simply a decision on what to have for dinner. We must acknowledge that the interest of ‘business’ is different to that of vegans.

Enthusiasm for veganism this January must not be perceived as a bad thing, it is a step towards a better world but, this article is a cautionary marker that not consuming meat is not enough. We must be more conscious of the global environmental impact of all the produce we consume. Veganism is not just a diet it is a worldview.

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