After looking into the environmental and economic sustainability, this final instalment of the series considers the true affordability of veganism and whether a nutritionally balanced, yet sustainable vegan diet is achievable.
Let’s bring the argument closer to home and ask whether the push for veganism is realistic for all sectors of Western society. Not including those who directly make a living through livestock agriculture, is veganism affordable? Some would argue not. Many of the ingredients on the carefully presented plant-based Instagram meals rely on foods well outside a student or low-income budget (anyone else forget to pick up their goji berries from Whole Foods today?). And I’m sure most vegans are familiar with the depressing skim through restaurant menus to identify the elusive – or non-existent – Ve sign that decides their meal for the evening.
But let’s assume your ordinary average-income vegan isn’t searching for the newest fad health food to spruce up their morning oatmeal. Fruit and vegetables bought in season are quite obviously cheaper than meat and dairy products, as are beans and rice and many popular meat alternatives. UK high street chains are making huge strides in their vegan offerings as Ask, Zizzi and Prezzo all add plant-based options to their menus and supermarkets rush to expand their meal deals to accommodate the new trend. At several coffee shops milk alternatives now come at no extra cost. So perhaps the affordability and accessibility issue is a time-limited obstacle as companies find their feet.
Nevertheless, improvements in the offerings at restaurants don’t necessarily resolve the accessibility issue. There’s now a vast array of vegan offerings in most major supermarkets, but only if you can get to them, and even then it tends to be only the bigger shops that will stock them.
If you live, say, in a rural village in Devon with access only to a corner shop or perhaps a Co-op at a nearby petrol station, the pickings are rather slim. Or perhaps you’re a stressed-out parent with about 3 spare seconds a day to prepare the dinner and no time to go and buy more fresh veg two or three times a week. Perhaps you’re on a very low-income and your evening meal is decided by the reduced section at a local Tesco Express, or what’s in the food bank.
In these cases, is it more sustainable to hop into the car and drive however many miles to the nearest large supermarket (racking up a carbon footprint in the process) to find a nutritious array of vegan food, or to rely on what they can access easily and within severe time and money constraints? Trying to stick to a vegan diet in these conditions may certainly be possible, but in order to ensure the diet is actually healthy and not just, I don’t know, never-ending variations of rice and beans, a degree of planning is necessary.
The NHS stresses the need for vegans to ensure their diet doesn’t omit crucial nutrients such as vitamin B12 and calcium that most people get from meat and dairy intake. B12 in particular is typically only found in animal products and vegans are advised to take yeast extract fortified with the vitamin, or else buy a supplement. In these cases it seems the accessibility of vegan diets can still largely be determined by geographical and individual economic factors.
As for the social sustainability, it’s difficult to say whether veganism in these cases – such as the rural villager hopping into the car to get their hummus – is more or less sustainable a lifestyle choice than if they chose to shop locally and get eggs and cheese from the farm down the road, avoiding a carbon footprint and sustaining a local economy but also propping up the very industry they aim to avoid.
Sustainability isn’t just decided by what you pick on the menu. The vegan option does not guarantee a lower carbon footprint nor the healthiest option. The real impact of going vegan, if your aim is to help the environment, is sending a message to food and drink industries that you are willing to change your lifestyle and consumption choices for your values. Sustainable change has to occur on all stages of the food chain, from the field to the plate (and what’s left on the plate afterwards).
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) outlines criteria for sustainable food. The list encompasses not just consumers choosing a healthy sustainable diet but also a need for research and innovation to reduce the greenhouse gases of the food production process and making better use of food waste.
These articles aren’t trying to dissuade anyone from any particular dietary lifestyle. The reasons for which people choose to go vegan, or not go vegan, can be as complex and varied as the impact these choices have. Personally I began this article sitting on the fence, swayed by both vegan and omnivore arguments, and after doing extensive research I feel I know even less than before.
Maybe what I want to conclude is that, in an age of outrage media, shock headlines and an increasing tendency to polarise issues into ‘us vs them’ scenarios, we could all benefit from taking a step back from our soapboxes and recognise that answers to global issues are never simple. Veganism isn’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ it’s a lifestyle choice and the way that many consumers are choosing to express their values, so maybe we should stop arguing about the details and focus on the message: our society is unsustainable and we want to change, we just need the system to allow us to do so.