Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Blog 6 - Veganuary (or Bananas vs Avocados)

Christmas has passed, the new year has been ushered in and so that can only mean one thing, it's time for Veganuary!

Veganuary began in 2014 and participation in the month long attempt to wean people off animal products has doubled in number each year. In late 2018 the Economist magazine predicted that 2019 would be the 'year of the vegan', Twelve months later they pronounced that piece of crystal ball work as one of their more accurate. Veganism has hit the mainstream and its rise shows no sign of stopping as traditional moral positions on animal welfare and rights are buttressed by rising awareness of the environmental impact associated with eating meat and dairy products

A survey in 2016 by the Vegan Society found that the number of vegans in the UK had grown from 150,000 to over half a million in the course of a decade and that number will have grown significantly since then. By some measures it is the fastest growing lifestyle movement in the UK. A different survey by Compare the Market in 2018 extrapolated that there were 3 million vegans in the United Kingdom but this figure is questionable being based on a small sample and a loosely worded question. What isn't in doubt is the huge growth in vegan living recently.

Veganuary has faced some criticism for focusing on the food aspect of the vegan lifestyle at the exclusion of much else. There are also some campaigners who feel that focusing heavily on the environmental impact of meat and dairy consumption underplays the moral and ethical case for veganism. Some this critique may be true but, because we're a blog linked to a shop that predominantly sells food, that's what we will be focusing on. It's probably also important to note here that realistically the idea of 'going vegan' a few days a week or a month at time is a misnomer at best. Being vegan is a lifestyle that encompasses everything a person chooses to consume and isn't realistically something that you can dip in and out of. Are you sure that on your vegan Mondays your shoes contain no leather? Do you have a different handbag for January? It is more accurate and realistic to refer to adopting an animal free diet for specific periods of time. That's not to say that doesn't still have a real impact, it does. Not eating meat two or three days a week is measurably better than not making the effort. It just doesn't equate to going vegan for a few days.

Anyway, now we've got that out the way...

So, what is the carbon footprint of all that meat we eat? It's not easy to get a precise figure but the best research suggests that human consumption of animals is responsible for 58% of all greenhouse gas emissions whilst only providing us with 18% of our calories. The same study, published in the journal Science in 2018, found that meat and dairy production uses 83% of farmland and that widespread adoption of vegan diets could reduce the pressure on land use which is driving deforestation in parts of the world including the Amazon rainforest. In fact, most studies find that adopting a plant based diet can lead to a 50% reduction in the carbon footprint associated with an individual’s food intake.

It's easy to understand why cutting meat out of our diets makes a huge impact. Growing crops and eating them directly is far more efficient that feeding that same crop to an animal and letting it convert it into tissue that can be eaten later whilst emitting methane along the way. It's this inefficiency that means cheese can sometimes have an even higher carbon footprint that pork. Speaking of cheese, let’s use that to understand what sort of numbers we're talking about. Mike Berners-Lee wrote a fascinating book called "How Bad are Banana's, in which he tries to work out the greenhouse gas emissions associated with² equivalent emissions. (CO²e is the most commonly used way of measuring emissions, It take all type of gas emission and other inputs and equates them to equivalent amount of carbon dioxide). That 12kg figure for our big block of cheese is the same as a four mile car journey. A leg of lamb might work out at as much as 38kg CO²e for a 2kg joint. For the same emissions you could have a bowl of porridge every day for four months. As a comparison, your average banana, despite being shipped across the world, comes out at 80 grams of CO²e per fruit. Even the humble egg has four times more impact than that.
all sort of food and every day products. In the book Mike finds that 1kg of hard cheese could be responsible for up to 12kg of CO
It's hard to find a less impactful way of consuming calories than the humble banana.

But, it's not totally clear cut. Plenty of vegan friendly options come with a surprisingly high carbon footprint. Rice is one good example. Grown inefficiently, using an excess of nitrogen based fertiliser, rice can have a higher emissions footprint than burning a litre of diesel. An avocado air-freighted across the globe is not a sustainable option compared to locally sourced meat that has been reared on land unsuitable for crop farming. Blindly ditching cows milk and switching to a poorly sourced soya product will only generate half the benefits a sustainably managed product would give. (But it should be noted that if we cut our consumption of cows milk and meat then we’d dramatically reduce our need for the soya which often feeds them and in turn help to reduce the deforestation associated with soya production). Equally a lot of almonds are grown in California and contribute to water shortages in the area. Is that really a better option long term? Our detailed choices really do make a difference.
However, even allowing for those nuances, the case for at least reducing our meat and dairy consumption is very strong from an environmental perspective. But what about our health? Can we really get all we need for a healthy diet without eating animal products?

In time for this year’s Veganuary, the New Scientist ran an experiment where they asked 19 volunteers to eat a vegan diet for a fortnight. Now, obviously that is a ridiculously small sample size over a short period of time, but even then some hints about how changing diet can affect us started to show. The first was that all the volunteers ate more fibre and much, much less saturated fat. As a result of the reduced fat intake, there was a corresponding, 80%, drop in cholesterol intake as well. So far, so healthy. However, the volunteers also saw smaller but significant drops in consumption across a range of vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin C and calcium.
Other studies have shown a need to make sure enough vitamin B12 is consumed on a vegan diet. This plays a key role in you nervous and immune systems. For non vegans eggs and dairy products are reliable sources of B12 but non animal substitutes aren't always easy to find. What is clear is that making sure you eat a healthy balanced diet takes some work but, really, that's true for all of us, carnivores or not. Most of us need to eat less starchy, fatty foods, many people don't get enough iron and huge swathes of the population come no where near having their five fruit and veg a day. Being vegan doesn't change any of that, but actually taking the time to consider what you put on your plate in the first place may make you more likely to actively seek out the balance you need. As ever, awareness and education are key.

Adopting a vegan lifestyle can seem like a big challenge. It certainly is a commitment that touches on every aspect of how you live your life and it’s ok for that not to be something everyone chooses to do. Life would be very boring if we were all the same. Equally, those who take such a clear ethical and moral position are to be applauded for their consistency of thinking and actions, without using that to minimise the efforts of others. It might well be that in Veganuary you don’t adopt a fully vegan lifestyle. There might be shoes you really like, foods you don’t want to go without, choices you aren’t comfortable making. But, from an environmental perspective it is clear that any change you can make does make a difference. Being aware of the impact the food we eat has on the planet we live on is key to helping build a better, sustainable, future. So, experiment with meat free Mondays, try the vegan option when you go to a restaurant, see if you can handle well sourced soya milk on your B12 enriched cereal. Baby steps matter and they do add up.

Just make sure you have a banana instead of an avocado.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Blog 5 - Happy New Year... Maybe

Welcome to the new decade. The glorious, roaring, twenties have arrived. Lets hope 2029 sees us in a slightly better place than its 100 year past predecessor though.
Mind you, 1929 might have seen the world tipped into the largest peace time financial crisis it had seen but at least the oceans weren't full of plastic, large swathes of the planet weren't scorched by bush fires and no one was calling the North West passage a regular shipping route. That's the thing about progress, it's a funny old beast.

But what about the decade before us, what do we stand on the cusp of? It's easy to feel very pessimistic when we see the news every day. We're currently being bombarded with images of Australian's fleeing their homes as fires rage with an intensity and breadth that is unknown. Aussie firefighters admit there is nothing they can do in the coming days. The fires are too big, too widespread, they will do what they will do, and humans can scurry around like frantic ants in the face of the destruction as much as they like without making any dent in them. It won't be the last time in the next decade that we are powerless to deal with the consequences of the climate emergency we are living through. Wind, rain, heat will batter us, sometimes into submission.

Closer to home supermarkets pledge to reduce their plastic use. This is fantastic, long overdue, important news. Yet despite the eye catching press releases and proclamations, the big retailers sold more plastic in 2019 than ever before. Sales of bottled water continue to rise. Someone, somewhere, isn't getting the message.

Partly that is due to the confluence of forces stacked up against meaningful change and it is these that will make us feel most hopeless in the coming years. Many of us understand the need for change on a personal level (we wouldn't be in business if you didn't), yet change is also required on a systemic level and here we run into problems. In 2020 no government in the world will be run by a Green Party. The closest may be the Greens becoming a powerful force in a new coalition in Germany if they have a slightly earlier than planned election. Greens are minor partners, shrill opponents or an easily ignored fringe in too many places. This allows governments to listen to those able to shout louder, in particular, big business.

It is a sad fact that all the largest oil producers in the world forecast continued growth over the next decade. Just take a moment and get your head around that, Oil producers, despite all we see going on around us, still believe they'll find a way to sell more oil in 2029 than they did in 2019. Sometimes it can truly feel like we're screwed.

A lot of that growth is planned to come from increased production of plastic. As we burn less petrol in our cars, the oil majors are working to compensate by feeding the ravenous plastic monster that is western consumerism even more. Sustainable it is not. Oh and we haven't even mentioned their opposition to carbon taxes in places like Canada. There is plenty to be pessimistic about if we look for it.

And yet, there are reasons for optimism and it's important we cling on to these. Awareness is rising, particularly among the young, they have seen the future we want to bequeath them and they don't like the look of it one bit. A child born this year will retire in around 2090 (if retirement as a concept even really exists by then). What world are they going to face by then? Will then be happy to work for 50 odd years to find their retirement is blighted by the problems we saw coming but never found a way to deal with?

As that increased awareness took root climate protests rocked major cities around the world in 2019 as the power of the pavement took a definitive step in finding a way to challenge the clout of big money. More and more of us will take the the streets to protest in 2020 and beyond. If we act together we have to believe that our voices can become a tsunami that washes away those who would rather safeguard their next quarter's profits at the expense of the next generations future.

That rising, urgent shout from the streets may claim its first large scalp in 2020. The EU has long been negotiating a trade deal with the bloc of South American countries known as Mercosur, a group which feature Brazil amongst its members. As international outrage at the increasing rate of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest under new President Bolsonaro grows, the EU is considering ditching the agreement instead of ratifying it as a means of showing its unwillingness to be complicit in such environmental destruction. Public pressure has moved the position of President Macron of France in particular on this issue, alongside leaders from Ireland and Austria.

In 2019 the UK burned less fossil fuels for it's electricity than it had for decades. We went weeks without burning any coal at all as renewables become an ever bigger part of our energy mix. This is a real step forward and does show what's possible even as solar panel subsidies for individual households bit the dust. By the end of the decade we could have weaned ourselves off coal totally.

Single use plastic bags continued to disappear from high street shops last year across the western world as more and more countries bought in outright bans or charges to acts as a deterrent. Scotland saw the UK's first meaningful trials of deposit return schemes for plastic bottles. The way forward it out there, we just need to find the right mechanisms coupled with the correct incentives to drive changes in behaviour. The next few years will continue to see shoppers change their habits. It's important to remember that the big supermarkets only sell cucumbers wrapped in plastic because we buy them. A fortnight long, nationwide boycott of wrapped cucumbers would see them removed from our shelves never to be seen again. We have power, and in the next decade we will learn how to use it meaningfully as our knowledge and anger grow.

And therein lies the biggest reason for optimism about the next decade despite all the evidence to the contrary. If we look back at 1929 we have one huge advantage on those who didn't see the great financial crash coming, we have so much information at our fingertips. Ignore those who cry 'fake news' all the time, they merely seek to render all facts as challenge-able opinions. A huge percentage of the knowledge we need to make meaningful changes is out there already. We have agency, we can arm ourselves with facts and information and make the 2020's the decade that real change happened because we learned what it could be. If one Swedish schoolgirl can shout loudly enough to make the world hear her, what's stopping the rest of us?

Here's to 2020, the year we optimistically find our voices and shout for change.