Most of us reading this likely live in what we still call a ‘free world’, and that’s great. But equally, we are jointly and severally responsible for the planet on which we live. So it’s a compelling argument to propose that if we could all change the way we eat and live this can save the planet that’s in desperate straits environmentally, especially. Not only that, there’s broad agreement among scientists and the medical community that the food we eat is one of the strongest determinants of our health. And a lot of it, especially the processed stuff lining our supermarket shelves, is not doing most of us much good.

It’s out of this thought bubble that Veganuary has evolved. If it means cutting out some food groups we love dearly, well, surely we should make this sacrifice to save our planet. Especially if there are health benefits to be had along the way that go some way to filling the gap left by our unfulfilled desires.

But the idea that going vegan will save the planet is a notion we struggle with because it’s so over-simplified. More than this there are no adequate data that can robustly support the idea.

Just a few facts drive a steamroller through the premise that veganism is the only route to resolving our interlinked planetary and health crises:

  • Animal farming, including the often maligned farming of cattle, can be carbon neutral. But it requires that animals are grass-fed and there’s attention given to diversifying the farm landscape. Scotland’s grass-fed beef farms are already carbon neutral and a study of Australia’s intensive sheep and beef farms shows they could readily be made carbon neutral or net positive by planting more trees. It’s not the animals themselves that are the problem. It’s the way they are farmed and fed by the behemoth that’s the pervasive industrial agri-food complex that now dominates food and farming that’s the real issue.
  • Livestock and animals are needed to build healthy, living, organic matter-rich soils that are central to making farming sustainable and turning farms into net carbon sinks, not emitters. Most good farmers will tell you it’s difficult to build rich, organic matter-laden, water-retaining, biologically-active soils without animal manures. This has been demonstrated in numerous studies over decades, including one in Sweden, and another in Nebraska, USA.
  • While large-scale industrial farming contributes to waste, pollution and is a significant contributor to climate change, the same cannot be said of regionally-adapted, agro-ecological farming approaches that are crucial to food security, environmental protection and compassionate animal welfare standards.
  • The view that food security for the projected 9+ billion expected by 2050 requires large, industrial-scale, economic units of production that use intensive, modern, technologically-advanced methods making new-to-nature foods, has no scientific basis.
  • Vegan diets are inherently nutrient deficient, especially for active people. They lack the appropriate balance of amino acids, they are deficient in some fatty acids (e.g. EPA, DHA) as well as some essential vitamins and minerals, notably vitamin B12, zinc and heme iron. They may also expose people to high levels of certain plant compounds, such as certain food-derived lectins (e.g. in beans, pulses, grains), that may damage gut membrane function, reduce nutrient assimilation and contribute to excessive permeability.

It’s therefore not the food we eat that’s the main issue. It’s how we grow and make our food that’s the real, underlying problem. That means Veganuary doesn’t really tackle the fundamental challenges it seeks to resolve. In fact, it may actually act, albeit unwittingly, as a spring board for those seeking to monetise their latest technology with a helping hand from the ever-ready industrial agri-food complex.

That applies especially to lab-grown meatless meat technology which is sold to us on the premise it will save both planet and people when the truth is that we have no idea if it can live up to its promises.

With this backdrop, we think we should consider with a healthy degree of scepticism all proposals for lab-grown meat alternatives that risk damaging sustainable agro-ecological production systems and as well as human health.  

Business as usual is not an option: Alternatives to Veganuary

2020 turns the page on a decade that will be seminal to the nature of future life on planet Earth. Big changes are going to be needed and we know from past experience these won’t come in the right form or won’t come quickly enough if we rely solely on governments. We, the people, need to be the drivers of change.

So while for some, going vegan for the month, and potentially for longer if the experience seemed worthwhile, is a goer, here’s a list of some other things you might want to consider to help turn the tables to the benefit of both people and planet.

  1. Go bar code free. Avoid buying any processed or packaged foods from a supermarket. Eat whole foods, whether it’s fruit or veg. If you eat meat, support local butchers or farm shops that can guarantee they supply meat or dairy from grass-fed animals. You might only manage this for 30 days, but in that time you’ll likely develop some good habits, some of which might be worth sticking with
  2. Go ultra-processed free. Much of the food we eat is processed to some extent. Take even cold-pressed, unfiltered olive oil, for example, which is minimally processed. But it’s a far cry from ultra-processed refined vegetable oil blends, or ready-made meals or sugar-coated breakfast cereals.
  3. Go grass-fed. Don’t buy any meat or dairy unless the seller can confirm the product is derived solely from grass-fed animals. That’s a tough ask in most supermarkets, but it’s much easier to get information about from local sellers, farmer’s markets, the farm gate, food cooperatives or box schemes.
  4. Offer yourself offal. There is massive wastage in the animal food industry and it’s not wrong to say that our dogs and cats often eat the bits of animals that are better for us than those given to humans. The BSE crisis took offal meats off many people’s menus and now many rely heavily on lean muscle-based meats, such as chicken breasts, beef mince or steaks, avoiding organs, intestines and all the other bits that are used in proper nose-to-tail eating. In this vein (excuse the pun), the Public Health Collaboration in the UK have launched Organuary that promotes the eating of organ meats that are a fantastic repository of essential and conditionally-essential nutrients, including nucleotides that are so important for gastro-intestinal and immune health.
  5. Avoid air miles. Don’t eat any food that’s been shipped by plane. Try and avoid exotic foods that have come in by boat if you can. The more local, the better. Transport of food is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and we can all do more to select our food carefully, preferring local and regionally sourced foods where possible.

And if you do Veganuary….

One final note, if you do decide to go vegan in January, follow our Food4Health Vegan Guidelines and take supplements that fill some key nutritional gaps.

We’d recommend at least the following:

  • Branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine, in 2:1:1 ratio): at least 5g daily
  • Algal DHA/EPA, 1-2 g daily
  • Vitamin B12 (as methylcobalamin, hydroxocobalamin and/or 5′-deoxyadenosylcobalamin), 50-5000 mcg/d
  • Vitamin B6, preferably in the bioactive pyroxidal-5’-phosphate form, 25 mg/d
  • Reduced folate, as 5-MTHF (e.g. calcium-L-methylfolate, (6S)-5-methyltetrahydrofolic acid, glucosamine salt), 1000 mcg/d
  • Zinc (avoid consuming alongside cereals or grains as phytate prevents absorption), 15-30 mg daily.
  • Iron (non-heme) (e.g. as bisglycinate, gluconate), 20 mg/d for women, 10 mg/d for men
  • RNA nucleotides (e.g. from Brewer’s yeast [Saccharomyces cerevisiae]), pyrimidine (not purine) dominant, 500-1000 mg/d.

Find out more

ANH-Intl Food4Health campaign

ANH-Intl Special Report: Analysis of the EAT-Lancet report (2019)

Plant-based eating – the ‘diet’ that’s no fad (2018)

Special Report Vitamin B6 – “It’s the Form, Stupid” (2017)

To be vegan or vegetarian, or not to be (2016)

Irish debate: Animals – do we need them in our diets? (2016)