It may be Veganuary, but a plant-based lifestyle isn't better for your health and it certainly won't save the planet
Vegan sausages: They look like fried turds so I passed on the taste test (Picture source: glutenfreeragina.com
Canola oil, yeast, acidity regulator, methylcellulose, corn oil thickener, starch, gelling agent. “Hmm, I don’t like agents in my food,” says Jayne Buxton.
We’re in the refrigerator aisle of a well-known, high-end health-food supermarket in Richmond, London, reading the backs of packets of vegan sausages, burgers et al. As far as vegan products go, we’re dining at the Ritz.
Pastrami-style slices, scrambled tofu, vegan chorizo slices, jackfruit rendang, a canister of No-Egg Egg for £4.99. “That’s more than a carton of eggs,” says Buxton as she scans the ingredients. Gum cellulose dextrose, “That’s sugar. Do you want sugar with your eggs?”
You would expect the quality here to be better than anywhere else, but nutritionally, says Buxton, it’s a wasteland of chemicals and oils where nutritious protein should be.
“Someone’s going to arrest us in a minute,” she jokes. It does feel subversive. Like we’re poking around in veganism’s knicker drawer.
In recent years, we’ve been told by Netflix documentaries, vegan activists and companies selling plant-based products that going vegan is the single best thing you can do to improve your own health, the planet’s and the wellbeing of the animals we share it with.
However, four years ago, Jayne Buxton started to question the received wisdom. What she saw in documentaries and news outlets, she says, was at odds with the very few facts she knew. “When the documentary Cowspiracy came out and said 51 per cent of emissions are from livestock, I knew that was not true. I knew that the official global number was 14.5 per cent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. And even that is an exaggerated number.”
Buxton, a former management consultant with an MBA, is trained to look at data critically. She began researching the topic of food, health and the environment (specifically, the impact of meat and plant-based diets on human and planetary health) and she realised the extent of the misinformation around both the health and environmental impact of meat-eating, and that the benefits of plant-only diets were being exaggerated.
“People are trying to do the right thing. And no wonder it’s hard, because they’re being given confusing messages.”
Buxton searched for the answers to these questions: is a plant-based diet better for your health? Will it save the planet? Who is pushing the plant-based diet and why? And how should we eat?
She decided to turn her research into a book: The Great Plant-Based Con. The “con” refers to the gradual conditioning of the public’s thought processes by a constellation of individuals and organisations, “who may well believe in the truth of the views they express, but present things that are far from certain as established fact”.
She’s not oblivious to the hornets’ nest she’s about to poke. However, she feels that hers is one of a growing number of voices pushing back against the “dogma” of veganism, citing the likes of food writer Joanna Blythman and shepherd and author James Rebanks. Many of the scientists she spoke to appreciated what she was doing. “They are often working at a distance from the lay person. There is debate happening at their level, but they can sometimes struggle to reach a popular audience.”
While she’s become known as “the Meat Lady” to friends and family, they have been supportive. Her children, 30, 27 and 23, are part of the generation who are lobbied about being plant-based every day. “I’m really proud of how they ask questions and aren’t set in how they think. “The zeitgeist is such that young people are frightened to stand up and say something different.”
Can veganism save the planet?
In 2018, researchers at the University of Oxford published a study that claimed cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent.
The number was widely reported in the media, with little close questioning. Buxton, however, spent time picking apart the modelling used in the study. It, like other figures, such as those used in Cowspiracy, she says, advocates for plant-based diets by exaggerating GHG (greenhouse gas) numbers, failing to fully account for carbon sequestration, using a methane metric that overestimates the methane from livestock, and downplaying nutritional considerations.
Buxton wrote to Joseph Poore, the lead author of the Oxford study, early on to ask some questions about it. “I hoped it would start a dialogue. He did not reply.” When I approached the Vegan Society for comment about the study, a spokesperson said: “Of course there are many things to consider when it comes to sustainable food. Plant-based diets are consistently shown to be the lowest impact across a range of environmental measures.”
Lumping the UK in with global figures for countries with vastly different farming practices means that some of the good news gets lost. Beef cattle and sheep in the UK account for just 5.7 per cent of all UK emissions, but this is reduced to 3.7 per cent if carbon sequestration (storing of carbon in the soil) is taken into account. While she says it’s a cliché, “It really is the how, not the cow.”
Still, in a complex world, giving up meat can feel like a positive contribution we can all make relatively easily, compared with that more damaging flight to go on our annual holiday.
“This is why people have latched onto the plant-based idea with such vigour,” says Buxton. “It’s a supposedly pain-free way of helping the environment. It’s a kind of virtue signalling get-out clause that stops people from having to think about making more significant changes to their lifestyles.”
Buying less, flying less and doing less could make a more meaningful impact. “Just generally consume less. That’s not a good message in a capitalist economy, though. People don’t like it. They like this one because it drives the economy forward.”
Giving up dairy milk has become the ultimate act of virtue signalling, says Buxton. But if our food footprint is a maximum of 16 per cent of the total individual footprint and milk is a tiny proportion of that, the reduction of GHGs is minuscule. “It allows individuals to keep on with their other carbon-generating habits in a guilt-free way.”
Who is pushing the message?
Harmless hippies versus murdering meat-eaters – that’s the clichéd narrative dichotomy. Yesterday’s lentil-eating free-lovers, though, have been consumed by the big business of veganism.
The plant-based “meat” market alone is expected to be worth more than £25 billion by 2026, according to a study by Stephan van Vliet, of Duke University in the United States.
Conflicts of interest abound. Film director James Cameron was one of those behind the pro-plant-eating movie The Game Changers. He also used to own Verdient Foods, an organic pea-protein company that aims to be the largest pea-protein producer in North America.
Buxton also charts in her book how an anti-meat agenda started with the Seventh-day Adventists’ “Garden of Eden” diet in the 19th century, which advocated vegetarianism. Meat-free proponent John Harvey Kellogg, of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes fame, championed the carbohydrate-rich diet that dominates today. “They have been very influential in the dietary committees and forming the dietary guidelines that have been developed since.”
Buxton wants more people to be aware of how the targeted marketing that we might unwittingly parrot becomes “unquestionable dogma”.
Where do we go from here?
This isn’t a call to forks for you to head to your nearest all-you-can-eat steakhouse. Buxton would like to see everyone reduce consumption of meat from industrial farming and transition towards more sustainably raised meat, “which will likely mean consuming less”.
Before writing the book, she had always been more of a baked-potato-and-salad person, than a steak person. However, researching her book has made her appreciate meat and its health benefits. She now eats some animal-sourced foods (eggs, meat, cheese) alongside a variety of vegetables every day, including having meat for dinner three or four times a week, and a “nice 4oz steak” about once a week.
An ordinary, average British 4oz steak, Buxton worked out from numbers in an FAO report, is about 1.9kg of CO2e. “Estimates of the carbon cost of red meat vary widely. This is not an exact science at all.
So, for example, in Mike Berners-Lee’s book there’s an estimate of 2.9kg for British beef.” A hot bath is 2.5kg. Running a portable heater in your house for six hours is about 5kg. A veggie curry delivered on a scooter – five miles – is between 1.4kg and 2.7kg, depending on whether you’re ordering for one or for four. “It’s all about the choices we make.”
However, meat, the high-welfare kind that Buxton would like to see us all eating, is expensive. “That is because our food system is skewed. If I were designing policies to make it affordable to eat properly, I would tax the hell out of the processed stuff and the empty carbs and the junk and subsidise the regeneratively farmed eggs and meat, and well-raised fish. And I would support farmers with active policies to transition to the best farming practices.”
First off, though, the anti-meat rhetoric has to stop. Encouragingly, diets such as the Keto (high fat and low carb) are growing in popularity for treating an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. In many ways, it and veganism are antithetical.
For Buxton, it’s a sign that as a society we’re rethinking how a healthy diet might be one that is balanced, fresh and unprocessed. “Eventually, I really firmly believe that if we pursue the regenerative path, we will eventually see fully sustainable, healthful meat available for reasonable prices.”
Is a plant-based diet actually healthier?
If you have a lingering feeling that meat, eggs and dairy are bad for you, you might be suffering from a hangover from the demonisation of cholesterol in the 1950s. Today, eggs and dairy in moderation are considered part of a healthy diet, yet the reputational damage to red meat remains, despite there being no studies that conclusively prove it is bad for our health.
“Red meat gets lumped in with processed meat, which some studies have proved to be harmful. However, recent studies in the Annals of Internal Medicine , which conducted a meta analysis of the full body of research, concluded that there was insufficient evidence to recommend reduced consumption of red or processed meat,” says Buxton.
There have been several critiques of the WHO report on cancer (2015), which is responsible for the notion that eating processed meat causes cancer, including one from a member of the committee that produced the report, who felt that it was not evidence based.
“The thing about the data for red meat is that, via epidemiological studies, it has been lumped together with other aspects of an unhealthy diet, such as the excess consumption of processed carbohydrates. Is it the meat producing the results or the bun, fries and cola consumed alongside it?” questions Buxton.
When it comes to veganism, she is concerned that a diet requiring additional supplementation (plant-based diets are deficient in nutrients such as preformed vitamin A, B12 and D, iodine, iron, omega-3, several essential amino acids and zinc) can be held up as healthier than a balanced one that doesn’t.
Plant-based milks require fortification with calcium and other vitamins; breastfeeding vegan mothers are encouraged by the Vegan Society to take supplements of B12, iodine, vitamin D and omega-3, and to increase their intake (requirements are 80 per cent higher than for other adults) by eating calcium-fortified foods and calcium-set tofu. When we approached the Vegan Society for comment, a spokesperson said: “From a health point of view, a well-planned vegan diet can support healthy living in people of all ages, including during pregnancy and breastfeeding.”
A single egg, however, contains omega-3 essential fatty acids in DHA form, vitamins A, B6, B12, E, D and K, calcium, iron, zinc and many other healthy minerals. Take that, No-Egg Egg.
Then there is the higher consumption of seed oils, high in omega-6, associated with highly processed foods, such as those we found in the supermarket refrigerator.
“The amount of omega-6 in our adipose tissue has risen from something like nine per cent to 21 per cent in the past two decades,” says Buxton.
Her research led her to conclude that the belief a vegan diet will make you healthier is a myth. “Plant-based diets provide inferior-quality protein and are deficient in important nutrients while being abundant in potentially harmful compounds. However, if a person eats plant-based foods in the sense of lots of plants alongside small amounts of animal foods, the deficiencies will not be there.”
In 2020, the actor Liam Hemsworth had to rethink his vegan diet after an overload of oxalates (a naturally occurring compound in plants) gave him painful kidney stones that required surgery.
It seems even when a vegan diet avoids the pitfalls of processed food, you can have too much of a good thing. As ever, balance and moderation in all things is key.
The ethical argument for veganism
Animal welfare is the issue that turns many off meat: full disclosure, it’s why I haven’t eaten it for six years. Buxton sympathises: “I understand that people are disgusted by the way we farm meat intensively. I am too.”
She thinks we should all be grateful to animal rights activists, vegans and vegetarians for highlighting these issues. “That’s a positive contribution. The solution is maybe where we part company.”
Buxton supports the transition towards farming regeneratively, which aims to restore soil quality and biodiversity while producing sufficient food of high nutritional quality. “British farming is going well compared with the rest of the world.”
She also questions whether a plant-based diet is cruelty-free, using the example of John Chester, a Californian farmer who was the subject of the 2018 documentary The Biggest Little Farm, who explained he has to kill 40,000 gophers a year to protect his 250-acre avocado crop.
In the UK, meanwhile, as wheat yields doubled between 1970 and today, the number of farmland birds decreased by 54 per cent, according to the National Biodiversity Network.
In New South Wales, Australia, over a five-year period up to 2013, rice farmers killed nearly 200,000 native ducks to protect their rice crops from the birds.
At the heart of this, Buxton says, is the fact that we have to get to grips with the fundamental reality that: “For us to eat, there will be death.”
She would rather that we come to terms with our biology, rather than trying to evolve beyond it by creating lab-grown meats. “You can eat grazing animals that have led a really good life and have been good for the soil.”
The case for UK-produced meat
In an extract from her book, Jayne Buxton says regeneratively farmed meat is what we should aim for:
Meat produced in the UK is among the most sustainable in the world. Taking into account grassland sequestration (the process by which grassland draws carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it in the soil, of which more in a moment), cattle and sheep account for 3.7 per cent of UK emissions. Even excluding sequestration, cattle and sheep account for just 5.7 per cent of emissions.
Very little meat consumed in the UK comes from systems that deplete rainforests and generate large amounts of emissions. Imported meat from Brazil, for example, make up just one per cent of UK beef imports. If the high-level, global numbers for emissions are misleading, so are the various claims about the carbon cost per kilo of beef.
Frank Mitloehner, an air-quality scientist at the University of California, explains this using a car analogy: “If I asked you about the emissions generated by a car, you would have to ask: what car are we talking about? A Fiat or an S-Class Mercedes or an electric car? Is it diesel or gas? How old is it, and who’s driving it? All these questions and more. It’s the same with cows. What breed is she? Where is she? What is she fed? Is there a veterinary system to treat her diseases? There are so many issues to consider. So, when you try to produce a global estimate and apply it to a specific region or farm, you are almost certainly going to be wrong, perhaps by 10, 15 or 20 times.”
The problem identified by Mitloehner goes some way towards explaining why estimates for the carbon costs per kilo of meat vary so widely. Sources I consulted gave estimates ranging from -4kg to +400kg of CO2 per kilo.
The research organisation Our World in Data, for example, has published two different estimates: 100kg and 60kg. The per kilo CO2 cost of beef in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated at 40-50kg CO2e, versus 5-10kg in Europe. A report by the National Farmers’ Union estimates the carbon cost of British beef at 17.2kg (as compared with 46kg for the rest of the world).
The claims in a BBC Horizon programme that aired in early 2021 were (according to the online material provided by the scientist who sourced the data for the programme) based on yet another emissions-per-kilo-of-beef number – 25kg of CO2e.
Clearly, where and how the beef is produced, and what factors are accounted for in the calculations, makes a difference, but it remains a fact that emissions in places such as the UK and the US are dramatically lower than is regularly claimed, and represent a very small part of the emissions pie. Yet the cumulative effect of the arguments put forward by plant-based food advocates is to condition people into thinking that swapping all animal foods will make a significant difference in our quest to reduce emissions and fight climate change.
A 2017 study by Mary Beth Hall, an animal scientist at the US Dairy Forage Research Center, in Wisconsin, and Robin R White, a professor of animal and poultry science at Virginia Tech, concluded that the impact of eliminating all meat consumption would be very small. Modelling a US food system without animals, they found that total US emissions would be reduced by just 2.6 per cent, and this at some considerable cost to nutritional adequacy.
A total of 2.6 per cent is not nothing, but it is not even close to the kinds of numbers that are regularly bandied about. Environmental economist Dr Bjorn Lomborg concurs with Hall and White, asserting that “eating carrots instead of steak means you effectively cut your emissions by about two per cent”. Lomborg, a vegetarian for ethical reasons, says: “There are many good reasons to eat less meat. Sadly, making a huge difference to the climate isn’t one of them.”
Professor Frédéric Leroy, a professor in the field of food science and biotechnology at Vrije University, in Brussels, confirms that the impact on the climate of adopting a vegan diet is very small and becomes even smaller if one also factors in such contextual factors as natural carbon cycles, carbon sequestration and actual nutritional value. Whatever the exact number is, he says: “It’s not big. It’s something, but not much, and what the data from Hall and White also suggest is that there is likely going to be a cost in terms of nutrition.”
Hall and White’s findings have been replicated at the level of the individual. An individual’s annual carbon footprint is about 12 tonnes of CO2, and their food footprint is estimated to be about 16 per cent of this, or two tonnes of CO2 (this number varies greatly by country).
The estimated reduction in emissions generated by a switch to a vegan diet is 0.8 of a tonne, representing a six per cent reduction in the total per capita footprint. When you compare this with the reduction in emissions resulting from one fewer return transatlantic flight (1.6 tonnes) or living car-free (between 1 and 5.3 tonnes), the benefit of switching to a plant-based diet looks relatively inconsequential, particularly when the negative impact on nutrition and health are factored in. Once any unintended consequences – sometimes referred to as rebound effects – are accounted for, the benefit of switching to a vegan diet looks more inconsequential still.
Giving up meat versus giving up flying
These hard truths about carbon savings made possible by different individual actions makes a nonsense out of the frequently heard claim that eating a plant-based diet is “the most important contribution every individual can make to reversing global warming”.
For someone who regularly flies, forgoing just one transatlantic flight that they would otherwise have taken would make a far bigger contribution. (The data in Sarah Bridle’s Food and Climate Change: Without the Hot Air makes this abundantly clear: the emissions from a single transatlantic flight are 50 per cent more than those from an entire year’s worth of food consumed by the average individual.)
For someone who drives a car, ditching the car or driving it less often also constitutes an important contribution. Do both of these things and you could wipe 6.9 tonnes of carbon off your total footprint.
The comparison between the amount of CO2 saved by giving up all animal foods as compared to that saved by forgoing a single flight makes a mockery of publicity stunts such as that of Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Airlines, who declared that beef would no longer be served on Virgin flights. Let’s look at the carbon costs of a serving of beef (say, 112 grams). Estimates range from -0.4kg (for grass-fed, regeneratively produced beef) to 11kg of CO2e.
Even if we take the highest estimate, the CO2 cost of a serving of beef is utterly dwarfed by the per-person CO2 cost of the flight (1.6 tonnes, or 1,600kg, for a one-way flight). Equally specious is the concept of the Hollywood elite demonstrating their commitment to combating climate change by taking meat off the menu at the Golden Globes while travelling to the awards ceremony by private jet.