The vegan philosophy: protecting animal welfare, human health and the environment; but battling the corporate lobby
by Elizabath Harrop
Elizabeth Harrop is a consultant in gender and child rights advocacy, with extensive knowledge of international human rights law and the UN system. Elizabeth is a researcher, writer and editor and produces written and creative multimedia materials for UNICEF and international NGOs, from human-interest stories and whiteboard animations, to literature reviews and qualitative analysis. While passionate about human rights, Elizabeth is equally committed to exploring human responsibility – toward fellow human beings, the environment and animal world. www.libertyandhumanity.com
Veganism received a boost in January 2018 with the Veganuary campaign seeing its biggest take-up yet. The number of vegans in Britain has risen by more than 360% over the past decade to just over 1% of the population[i]. There is a similar story in the USA, with 6% claiming to be vegan, up from just 1% in 2014[ii].
The health benefits of a plant-based diet include reducing the risk of numerous diseases including cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, attention deficit disorder, clinical depression, Alzheimer’s, kidney diseases, skin ailments and obesity[iii].
Veganuary was not only aimed at persuading people to become vegan, but to reduce meat and dairy products as “Flexitarians”, a movement which is being embraced across Europe and in the USA. In Germany, 44% of consumers follow a low-meat diet, compared to 26% in 2014[iv] and the country is revolutionizing plant-based shopping across the continent with all-vegan supermarkets[v]. Annual meat consumption per person in the USA has fallen by 15% in the past 10 years, and is down by a third since the early 1970s[vi]. Over seven million Americans are now vegetarian, and an additional 22.8 million are flexitarian[vii].
Picture caption: Veganuary 2018 [viii]
As a result of these trends, the global meat substitutes market is estimated at USD $4.63 billion (2018) and is projected to increase by nearly USD $ 2 billion in the next five years (USD $6.43 billion by 2023)[ix]. The global dairy alternatives market is expected to surpass US$ 34 Billion by 2024[x]. According to Forbes magazine, animal agriculture businesses globally are now buying or investing in plant-based brands, from Danone, a multinational food company with a focus on dairy, which purchased of plant-based pioneer WhiteWave, to the Campbell Soup Company which left the Grocery Manufacturers Association and joined the Plant-Based Foods Association[xi]. The fastest growing market for vegan products is set to be China, with an estimated growth rate of 17% between 2015 and 2020[xii].
Time for sustainable diets
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) supports trends in veganism by encouraging a “substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products” in order to reduce the equally substantial negative environmental impacts meat and dairy consumption creates[xiii]. UNEP observes that animal products, both meat and dairy, require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives, and that more than half of the world’s crops are used to feed animals, not people.
In a recent report assessing national Food-based Dietary Guidelines (FBDGs) which are issued by governments to inform healthy eating, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) urges that food systems jeopardize current and future food production and fail to nourish people adequately, and that if we are to address the multiple associated social, health and environmental challenges, global populations need to move towards dietary patterns that are both healthy and environmentally sustainable[xiv]. Which means less meat and dairy products.
What is a sustainable diet?
The 2010 International Scientific Symposium “Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets: United Against Hunger”, agreed a definition of sustainable diets as
“those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”[xv]
The rearing of livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and utilizes 70% of agricultural land (including a third of arable land, needed also for crop production). Grazing livestock and the production of feed crops are the main agricultural drivers of deforestation, biodiversity loss and land degradation[xvi].
The production of animal products has an inherently low resource use efficiency, due to the limits of the metabolism of the animals concerned[xvii], despite the barbaric interventions used in intensive animal (factory) farming which aim to override this, whereby animals are crammed by the thousands into filthy, windowless structures, are stuffed into wire cages, metal crates, and other torturous devices, which become the only home they know, and are crippled and injured as a result of unnatural weight gain, self-harming from stress, and maltreatment. Cows, pigs, chickens and other animals are denied the ability to meet their basic natural urges such as nurturing their young, rooting around in soil, building nests and even being outdoors. This is despite the fact that according to UNEP “the production of agricultural biomass, especially animal products, is and will remain an inefficient transformation process compared to most industrial processes.”[xviii]
Only four countries have so far included sustainability in their FBDGs – Brazil, Sweden, Qatar and Germany – and all highlight that a largely plant-based diet has advantages for health and for the environment. Sweden provides more detailed advice on which plant-based foods are to be preferred, recommending for example root vegetables over salad greens. UNEP concurs saying that “non-seasonal fruits and vegetables cause substantial emissions when grown in greenhouses, preserved in a frozen state, or transported by air”. This is significant when you consider that one of the main charges levelled against veganism is the environmental impact of cultivating some vegetables. However, this is where conscious dietary choices and dietary diversity play an important role, with over 10 foods and food groups that should be part of a healthy vegan diet[xix]. There are 250,000 to 300,000 known edible plant species, with up to 200 used by humans[xx] – a significant choice.
The food industry however, is homogenizing crop production leading to serious declines in agrobiodiversity. An important feature of a sustainable and healthy diet is diversity yet ’elite‘ strains of high-producing crop varieties cover relatively large areas, with many highly dependent on fertilizers and pesticides which are detrimental to ecosystems[xxi]. According to the FAO, Since the 1900s, 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers all over the world opt for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties. Locally diverse food production systems are under threat along with local knowledge, culture and skills of the food producers[xxii]. In India, for example, varieties of rice grown have reduced from over 42,000 to a few hundred.[xxiii]
The Brazilian FBDGs emphasize the social and economic aspects of sustainability, advising people to be wary of advertising, and to avoid ultra-processed foods that are bad for health but which also undermine traditional food cultures. Brazil positively contrasts with the largely environmental definition of sustainability adopted in other national guidelines[xxiv].
Vegans and environmental and human health
According to a 2014 study published in the journal of Climatic Change, dietary greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are approximately twice as high in meat eaters as those in vegans. Moving from a high meat diet to a vegan diet would reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by 1,560 kgCO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent)/year. To put this into context, an economy return flight from London to New York adds 960kgCO2e to an individual’s carbon footprint; A family running a 10-year-old small family car for 6,000miles has a carbon footprint of 2,440 kgCO2e.
Previous analyses of the same cohort have demonstrated lower BMI and fewer ischaemic heart disease events in diet groups with lower intakes of animal products[xxv].
Industry not science determining what is deemed “healthy”
Scientific studies have noted the correlation between eating meat and cancer. Positive associations are seen between consumption of red meat and cancers of the pancreas and the prostate, and between consumption of processed meat and cancer of the stomach[xxvi].
In 2015, the Word Health Organization’s (WHO’s) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) therefore classified the consumption of red meat (defined by the IARC as all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat) as probably carcinogenic to humans, finding “strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect”. Processed meat (transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes) was classified as carcinogenic to humans[xxvii].
Picture caption: Time magazine infographic from the WHO IARC study [xxviii]
While meat consumption has been relatively static in the developed world, world meat production is projected to double by 2050, most of which is expected in developing countries[xxix]. In 2013, meat and poultry industry sales in the USA totalled $198 billion, and the export value of beef and beef variety meat exports reached a record $807 billion in 2014[xxx].
Despite the research, powerful industry lobbies remain intent on promoting food known to cause ill-health, including dairy[xxxi], sugar and processed meat. Coca-Cola for example, is providing financial and logistical support to a new non-governmental organization (NGO), the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes physical activity to offset a bad diet[xxxii], despite evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight compared with what people consume[xxxiii] or that the relationship between weight and exercise is controversial[xxxiv]. According to a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, between 2011 to 2015, the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo sponsored 95 national health organizations, including institutions whose specific missions include fighting the obesity epidemic. During the same period, the corporations lobbied against 29 public health bills intended to reduce soda consumption or improve nutrition[xxxv].
The USA’s largest trade group of nutrition professionals, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is accused of undermining the integrity of those professionals most responsible for educating Americans about healthy eating due to its links with food companies[xxxvi]. The Academy has failed to support controversial nutrition policies that might upset corporate sponsors, such as limits on soft drink sizes, soda taxes, or GMO labels. Coca-Cola withdrew its financial sponsorship of the Academy after critics accused it of trying to downplay the role of sugary drinks in obesity[xxxvii].
In the UK, the promotion of meat and dairy products by business and government is widespread, including milk in schools, despite numerous studies showing adverse health effects, such as the association between high animal protein diets with liver cancer in children. “If anything, cow’s milk and its products appear to be even more problematic than other animal-based foods”, comments T. Colin Campbell, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University[xxxviii].
Despite many of the studies reviewed by the IARC dating back over 10 years, the US Government’s FBDGs – the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA)[xxxix] – contain no reference to reducing processed and red meats in its key messages and does not explicitly urge reduction of these products in its protein foods section, talking instead about varying protein sources and limiting sodium intake in relation to processed meats[xl]. “We are pretty disappointed the report doesn’t recommend limiting red and processed meat because of the link to cancer,” said Katie McMahon of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network[xli].
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) comments that the 2015 DGA process has been under a major, sustained attack by the meat and other aspects of the food industry and some Members of Congress[xlii]. For example, in assessing the proposed DGAs, one Member of the US Government’s House Agriculture Committee, Glenn Thompson, the U.S. Representative for Pennsylvania’s 5th congressional district, asked “what can we do to remove policies that are hindering milk consumption or promote policies that could enhance milk consumption?” and then “went on to wonder out loud about the impact of the Guidelines on commodity markets”[xliii].
What about protein and vitamin B12?
The vegan diet is criticized for lacking vital nutrients, most notably B12. Indeed, the Vegan Society states that the only reliable vegan sources of B12 are foods fortified with B12 and B12 supplements[xliv]. However, vegans following this advice are much less likely to suffer from B12 deficiency than the typical meat eater: It has been demonstrated that vitamin B12 from fortified foods is better absorbed than B12 from meat, poultry and fish[xlv].
Protein – also assumed to be lacking in a vegan diet – can be found in multiple plant-based sources. Meanwhile, consumers of meat, eggs and dairy products – often eaten on the basis of being the only perceived reliable source of protein and B12 – will also be unwittingly absorbing antibiotic-resistant bacteria, hormones and toxins, which can increase the risk of cancer in humans and lead to other adverse health effects[xlvi]. While organic meat and dairy are healthier (banning routine antibiotic administration for example) and have higher animal welfare standards[xlvii], meat and dairy – whether organic or not – are widely linked to health problems in humans; plant-based diets with protection against those very same diseases.
Industry profits from curing the ill-health it creates
In the face of the obesity crisis, the food industry instead of creating healthy food, created a new market in diet foods which continued to promote unhealthy eating: “By creating the ultimate oxymoron of diet food – something you eat to lose weight – it squared a seemingly impossible circle. And we bought it”, comments Jacques Peretti in the Guardian[xlviii].
Meanwhile in the USA, food companies (whose products may be associated with disease and ill health) and pharmaceutical companies (which benefit from the ill health) were found to be funding health organizations such as American Diabetes Association (ADA), the American Cancer Society (ACS), and the American Heart Association (AHA)[xlix].
In 2000 the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) drafted a report[l] for WHO which defined the global obesity problem as an epidemic and which paved the way for the pharmaceutical industry to create obesity “cures”. Significantly, the IOTF was funded by drugs companies. The author of the report Professor Philip James, commented in the Guardian that “if you have a drug that drops your weight and doesn’t do you any other harm in terms of side-effects, that is a multibillion megabuck drug.”[li]
This lack of transparency around entrenched corporate vested interests is compounded by bias in research studies. Research sponsored by the drug industry is more likely to produce results favouring the product made by the company sponsoring the research than studies funded by other sources. The results apply across a wide range of disease states, drugs, and drug classes, and research types, over at least two decades suggesting systematic bias to the outcome of published research funded by the pharmaceutical industry[lii]. Similar accusations are levelled at the food industry. Between March and October 2015, in research conducted by Marion Nestle, of 76 food industry-funded studies, 70 reported results favourable to the sponsor’s interest [liii].
The opportunity in plant-based diets
Plant-based diets present an opportunity for better health, respect for animal welfare and protecting the environment. They also represent an opportunity to reclaim personal agency in a world in which personal choices about diet and health are made by corporations, without the average person even being aware of it.
The FAO observes that the focus over recent decades has been on improving the environmental efficiency of production. However three additional approaches have been suggested: 1) Addressing power imbalances in the food system such as price and subsidy distortions, supporting and empowering smallholder farmers and landless workers, and agreeing better working conditions (while food production contributes to the economy, many of the world’s 1.3 billion smallholders and landless agricultural workers live on or below the poverty line); 2) Reducing the amount of food that is lost or wasted (one third of all food produced); and 3) the role of healthy and sustainable eating patterns in addressing both health and environmental challenges.
It is this latter point – healthy and sustainable eating patterns in support of positive change for the planet, and human and animal wellbeing – that can be championed by a plant-based diet. In the face of corporate and political opposition, veganism appears to be a tide that is not about to turn.
[i] There are three and half times as many vegans as there were in 2006, making it the fastest growing lifestyle movement, 17 May 2016 https://www.vegansociety.com/whats-new/news/find-out-how-many-vegans-are-great-britain
[ii] Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017: Exploring trends in meat, fish and seafood; pasta, noodles and rice; prepared meals; savory deli food; soup; and meat substitutes, June 2017, Report Buyer https://www.reportbuyer.com/product/4959853/top-trends-in-prepared-foods-2017-exploring-trends-in-meat-fish-and-seafood-pasta-noodles-and-rice-prepared-meals-savory-deli-food-soup-and-meat-substitutes.html
[iii] White Lies, Viva!Health, 2014 https://www.whitelies.org.uk/sites/default/files/white_lies_report_2014_0.pdf
[iv] Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017: Exploring trends in meat, fish and seafood; pasta, noodles and rice; prepared meals; savory deli food; soup; and meat substitutes, June 2017, Report Buyer, https://www.reportbuyer.com/product/4959853/top-trends-in-prepared-foods-2017-exploring-trends-in-meat-fish-and-seafood-pasta-noodles-and-rice-prepared-meals-savory-deli-food-soup-and-meat-substitutes.html
[v] The Rise Of The Flexitarian, Huffington Post, 23 November 2016 http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/amanda-sourry/the-rise-of-the-flexitari_b_13167036.html
[vi] How The ‘Death Of Meat’ Could Impact Your Portfolio, Nasdaq, 22 January 2015 http://www.nasdaq.com/article/how-the-death-of-meat-could-impact-your-portfolio-cm435607#/ixzz3hTziHBn5
[vii] Can’t do vegetarian? How about flexitarian?, Washington Post, 8 July 2016 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/cant-do-vegetarian-how-about-flexitarian/2016/07/07/9d2610aa-3d57-11e6-80bc-d06711fd2125_story.html
[viii] A Record-Breaking Veganuary 2018 https://veganuary.com/blog/a-record-breaking-veganuary-2018/
[ix] Meat Substitutes Market worth 6.43 Billion USD by 2023, Markets and Markets, https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/PressReleases/meat-substitutes.asp
[x] Global Dairy Alternatives Market, Consumption Volume (by Source, Region & Application) and 20 Company Profile – Forecast to 2024, February 2018, Report Buyer https://www.reportbuyer.com/product/5309165/global-dairy-alternatives-market-consumption-volume-by-source-region-and-application-and-20-company-profile-forecast-to-2024.html
[xi] Here’s Why You Should Turn Your Business Vegan In 2018, Forbes, 27 December 2017 https://www.forbes.com/sites/katrinafox/2017/12/27/heres-why-you-should-turn-your-business-vegan-in-2018/3/#11fdf895e09a
[xiii] UNEP (2010) Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials, A Report of the Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management
[xiv] Plates, pyramids and planets: Developments in national healthy and sustainable dietary guidelines: a state of play assessment; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and The Food Climate Research Network at The University of Oxford, 2016 http://www.fao.org/3/a-i5640e.pdf
[xv] Sustainable diets and biodiversity: directions and solutions for policy, research and action, FAO, 2012 http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/9b923bb5-ba2e-5827-86f1-d87cc8913f87/
[xvi] FAO and University of Oxford ibid
[xvii] UNEP ibid
[xix] 11 Foods Healthy Vegans Eat, Healthline https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods-vegans-eat
[xx] What Is Happening to Agrobiodiversity?, FAO http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5609e/y5609e02.htm
[xxi] UNEP ibid
[xxii] FAO What Is Happening to Agrobiodiversity? ibid
[xxiii] UNEP ibid
[xxiv] FAO and University of Oxford ibid
[xxv] Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK; Scarborough, P., Appleby, P.N., Mizdrak, A. et al. Climatic Change (2014) 125: 179. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1
[xxvi] V Bouvard et al. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat, The Lancet Oncology, Volume 16, No. 16, p1599–1600, December 2015 http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(15)00444-1/fulltext
[xxvii] IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat, 26 October 2015 http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf
[xxix] FAO http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/themes/en/meat/home.html
[xxx] The United States Meat Industry at a Glance, North American Meat Institute https://www.meatinstitute.org/index.php?ht=d/sp/i/47465/pid/47465
[xxxi] Viva!Health ibid
[xxxii] Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets, New York Times, 9 August 2015 https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/coca-cola-funds-scientists-who-shift-blame-for-obesity-away-from-bad-diets/?_r=0
[xxxiii] See for example Energy expenditure in adults living in developing compared with industrialized countries: a meta-analysis of doubly labeled water studies, Lara R Dugas et al, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 93, Issue 2, 1 February 2011, Pages 427–441 https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/93/2/427/4597724 and Why do individuals not lose more weight from an exercise intervention at a defined dose? An energy balance analysis, D. M. Thomas et al, Obesity Reviews 2012 Oct; 13(10): 835–847 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3771367/
[xxxiv] Physical activity and weight control: conflicting findings, Cook CM, Schoeller DA, Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2011 Sep;14(5):419-24 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21832897
[xxxv] Sponsorship of National Health Organizations by Two Major Soda Companies, American Journal of Preventative Medicine January 2017 Volume 52, Issue 1, Pages 20–30, http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(16)30331-2/fulltext?rss=yes
[xxxvi] And Now a Word from Our Sponsors, Eat Drink Politics, 23 January 2013 http://www.eatdrinkpolitics.com/2013/01/22/and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsors-new-report-from-eat-drink-politics/
[xxxvii] Coca-Cola Ends Financial Sponsorship of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Wall Street Journal 28 September 2015 https://www.wsj.com/articles/coca-cola-ends-financial-sponsorship-of-academy-of-nutrition-and-dietetics-1443474808
[xxxviii] Viva!Health ibid
[xli] Who’s Mad About The New Dietary Guidelines? Cancer Experts, for One, NBC News, 8 January 2016 https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/who-s-mad-about-new-dietary-guidelines-cancer-experts-one-n492026
[xlv] Viva, B12 and the Vegan Diet https://www.viva.org.uk/b12-and-vegan-diet-fact-sheet
[xlvi] A Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health: What You Eat Matters. Environmental Working Group, 2011 https://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/report_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf
[xlviii] Fat profits: how the food industry cashed in on obesity, The Guardian, 7 August 2013 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/aug/07/fat-profits-food-industry-obesity
[xlix] How the Food and Drug Companies Ensure that We Get Sick and They Make Money, Common Dreams, July 24, 2017 https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/07/24/how-food-and-drug-companies-ensure-we-get-sick-and-they-make-money
[li] Guardian ibid
[lii] Joel Lexchin et al, Pharmaceutical industry sponsorship and research outcome and quality: systematic review, BMJ 2003 May 31; 326(7400): 1167 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC156458/
[liii] Marion Nestle, Corporate Funding of Food and Nutrition Research Science or Marketing?, JAMA Internal Medicine Published online November 23, 2015 https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/med/staff/cappuccio/who/whl_video/jama_int_med_2015_funding_nutrition_research.pdf
© Elizabeth Harrop