HOW DO PLANT-BASED DIETS IMPACT THE ENVIRONMENT?

“Avocado toast please!” “make it double” – I often wonder how many avocado toasts are served in upper market restaurants, this dish is one of the most popular and the regulars in Soho house, a global renowned member’s club, on their menu. Kale salad and sautéed spinach are another popular dish, and we all converted to dairy alternative such as almond or cashew milk for coffee, in many places and new ways of inventing these super foods comes out every other week thanks to the movement of sustainable living, wellness and plant-based that is better for our health and the future. However, without the knowledge and kitchen skill, people tend to make the same dish often, with such unbalanced choices towards to popular planet based menu, will it still lead us to a better sustainable future even if we completely give up meat and only consume what is offered the most fruits and vegetables in market, what’s branded the new trendy plant-based dishes, what will the impact to the environment?

Plant-based, veganism type of diets has become fashionable to follow in the last few years, the awake of climate change certainly played a huge part influencing the millennials and Gen Z pursuing this lifestyle. Led by Greta Thunberg, fashion designer Stella McCartney, and Sir David Attenborough, the increase of awareness about the negative impact of meat industry is a key element for people to follow the plant-based diet; outburst information of beef, meat and poultry industry in relation to damaging the planet and welfare can easily be found, therefore plant-based meat was born, from Linda McCartney meatless meat range to Impossible burger offering choices for anyone who is health and environmental conscious. 

Image source: left Impossible Burger/ right Nestle

However, when we look deeper, can plant-based diet really save the world from climate change if we all convert? The challenge, I believe actually is insufficiency of knowledge for general public to plan and cook their plant-based meal with balanced choices, especially when most of the recipes we can find for nutritious breakfast and lunch are often ‘same same different’, example of avocado toast, food professionals write similar recipes and promote similar food, this could backfire the method of eating more plants is better for the future, because we can easily be persuaded by what’s been promoted including the precious avocado. This type of human demand would cause unbalanced diet and cause negative environmental impact.

Let’s dive into few of the popular plant-based diet food and review their environmental impact:

Avocado, this super food is continuing trending up, but what exactly is the negative environmental impact? Like everything else, when human decide to industrialise crops, once a pure nutritious fruit can completely destroy the nature habitat. What we are not always aware is that avocado and many fruits grow as monoculture, like coffee and soya, means the crops grow on the same land year after year, and due to its popularity, growers deforest the land in order to mass scale to meet our demand, this then cause serious issue of deforestation, and even originate drought, which messed the entire eco system and demolish natural biodiversity causing animals and insects homeless or drive extinction. Monoculture can also affect the quality of the soil due to the loss of natural minerals. when it’s compromised, crops will need more chemicals and fertilisers to grow, and that means more chemicals will be needed in order to produce better quality of food, and later we consume the chemicals and may cost our own health. Each single avocado takes between 140 – 270 litres of water to grow well, the large consumption of water is claimed to contribute towards to our water shortage.

Image source – slowfood.com avocado farming

Chocolate is our typical guilty pleasure, but how sustainable is cocoa? Coffee, a popular morning ‘pick me up’, apparently both contribute the biggest loss for global biodiversity after beef, pork and poultry meat, and is the one of the key factor for deforestation. “It is estimated 2-3 million hectares (4.9-7.4 million acres) of tropical forests were lost due to cocoa plantation between 1998 to 2008” according to BBC Future article. Yet so little information about this was provided about coffee, cocoa or even almond farming expect knowing the benefits of the food. Additionally, companies greenwash information to make consumers believe their products are aligned with sustainability measure, with minimum information on their labour welfare.  

Another superfood often offered is Quinoa, one of the most popular grain within plant-based diet, the price increased over 600% between 2000 – 2008 alone, the global demands means the growers in Bolivia may be richer however the soil quality is deteriorating fast. Something we don’t think about when we order a fancy quinoa salad in a vegan restaurant or when we bought a small pack that costs £5 for 2 – 3 meals.

Plant-based meat: Study says they are not necessarily better for the environment but certainly helps fighting climate change. Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of the global greenhouse emission, and within that 65% of the emission coming from beef and dairy cattle. This invention certainly will massively reduce the greenhouse emission from the beef and poultry industry however it will still take time to be more mainstream, also their nutritional facts are often challenged by scientists.

image source – somifitness.com

The plant-based diet, in theory, is the way forward into our sustainable future, however the world functions the best when everything is balanced and in moderation. Without correct understanding of greenhouse gas emission impact on farming and general guidance on food sustainability, we may continue only choosing the popular dishes when it impacts greatly on environment. Plant-based meat should be offered as meat alternative instead of marking as better nutritional value than meat, target to flexitarians and vegan aspired consumers to taste the ‘sensory experience’ in mouth and mind. We can’t just eat fruits and vegetables that are in trend to sustain our health either, instead, a broader wellness and food consciousness to buy seasonal food, purchase less import, more local produced is a better way to close the gap of climate change. Media, restaurants offer and influencers need to be aware of all impacts on food and environment when comes to recipe writing and food promotion so we don’t stretch our demand eventually costs our future living quality.

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