The Global Food Security programme’s Sian Williams decided to cut all meat and animal products from her diet to see how difficult it would be to eat more sustainably.

Sian Williams

Never one to shy away from an experiment, I took on the challenge of changing my previously omnivorous diet to become vegan for a month, hoping to better understand what challenges this might bring.

With the global food system as a whole currently responsible for around 30% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions, it is clear that the agri-food sector must adapt in order to meet the Paris Agreement. Especially given estimates that food-related emissions could account for the entire carbon budget for a 1.5°C temperature rise by 2050.

Season’s vegan greetings! Copyright: Kelly Garbato on Flickr by CC 2.0.

A number of studies have explored the relative environmental footprints of different diets and show that the greatest environmental impacts come from meat and other animal products.

This has led some to recommend a more plant-based diet with reduction in the consumption of animal products. As well as lowering environmental impact, such dietary changes have also been shown to provide other benefits, potentially improving health and decreasing burden of non-communicable diseases. But how realistic would it be to expect consumers to follow these diets?

My vegan experience

Since joining the GFS programme, I‘ve started thinking far more seriously about the food I eat. While it’s very easy to bemoan the problems with our food culture – from large portion sizes, to fad diets, and junk foods that do our health no favours at all – it’s quite another thing to act against this culture and seriously shake up our diets; dietary behaviour is notoriously hard to influence.

Modern times have seen the advent of vegan options for many more foods. Copyright: Josefine Stenudd on Flickr by CC 2.0.

So when the suggestion of a vegan challenge came up, I was really keen to give it a go – with all the information on climate change and sustainable food I’ve recently been working with, I felt obliged to see if I could actually practice what I preach and eat in a more sustainable way. Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why people are vegan, but this was my starting point.

Honestly, I loved my month as a vegan. Though I must admit it wasn’t necessarily as significant a challenge for me as it may be for others. My 2016 new year’s resolution had been to try more of a ‘flexitarian’ diet [a plant-based diet with the occasional addition of meat], so I was only occasionally buying meat or dairy by the time my vegan month came around.

Due to this, my dash round the supermarket on the first day of the challenge didn’t look too dissimilar to any other shop, other than the loss of my favourite food – fish – and addition of soy-based yoghurt, a mass of dried fruit and nuts to quash the hunger pangs I expected (but that never materialised), and about twice my bodyweight in pulses and beans to boost my protein intake.

I began to see the benefits of my new diet very quickly. Whether a placebo effect or not, I felt much healthier, lighter and more energetic within the first week. Buying mainly vegetables and preparing the majority of my own meals saw my weekly food budget drop significantly, despite some of the branded ‘alternative’ products I switched to. And as a keen cook I had a great time testing out some new recipes, not all of which were successful, but at least eating was never boring!

There’s a growing interest in veganism (and various forms of vegetarianism) that are food and environment/climate related. Copyright: Nikki Bensted-Smith on Flickr by CC 2.0.

However, it is worth pointing out that other colleagues who also attempted going vegan had very different experiences to me. One in particular found her new diet very uninspiring, struggling to find both the recipes and time to cook vegan foods she actually enjoyed alongside the pressures of work and family life, and stopped when she began to feel physically worse-off. It is important to remember that a healthy and nutritious diet is highly dependent on our own individual needs.

But even for me it wasn’t all plain sailing. The hardest thing I found about being vegan, and currently the one thing stopping me from committing to this kind of eating long-term, is the social element of food. Eating out was invariably very tricky, only a sub-set of restaurants catering for vegans, with even fewer offering anything more than one or two options on the menu. Then there are all the other occasions where food means so much more than just nutrition – trips out for coffee with friends, the office birthday cake, family Sunday lunches – changing of any of these time-honoured social rituals being a very difficult thing indeed.

A new food culture?

That isn’t to say we can’t change. Just because food culture is the way it is, doesn’t mean that’s the way it should stay. With nearly 800 million people globally chronically undernourished, more than two billion suffering micronutrient deficiencies, and another 600 million obese, our food system isn’t delivering what it needs to. Clearly, if we are to successfully feed the growing population, all while honouring the Paris agreement and conserving planetary resources, something has to give.

Now, who wouldn’t want to eat that?! Pictured at the West Midlands Vegan Festival 2013. Copyright: Nikki Bensted-Smith on Flickr by CC 2.0.

Then again, while food is necessary, it should still be enjoyed. Going vegan will not be an option for everyone, and it’s definitely a very difficult change to make in the context of modern food culture. But the options out there are growing, and honestly, the benefits can be great if you’re able to put in a little time and effort.

As someone pointed out to me when I told them about my challenge, isn’t it just a law of diminishing returns? And yes, of course it is. Big differences can still be made just by doing a little bit – maybe moderating your total calorie intake, increasing the proportion of low-impact pulses in your diet, or going meat-free for just one meal a week. These approaches won’t lead to an unrecognisable change in lifestyle, but they can add up to a huge change in the environmental impact of our food.

So if you’re still looking for an alternative Christmas food experience, or New Year’s resolution, why not give it a go for yourself. Like me, you might be surprised by what you could be eating this time next year!

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About Sian Williams

Sian studied Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge before taking a Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College London. Sian is currently Analyst and Review Writer for the Global Food Security programme.

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