Can we really expect everyone to embrace a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet.

It’s a scary idea to many, but a necessary push for anyone concerned about their carbon footprint. Luckily, everyone’s plant-based diet will look different depending on your dietary needs, access, location, and a whole host of other personal choices.

This post explores our problem with meat, the impact of a switch to veganism or vegetarianism, and take a look at why anyone claiming just one way of eating is just plain wrong.

I have a personal ethical stance on the treatment and consumption of animal products. This is a more practical, data-driven look at the issue that only briefly talks ethics re: cultural differences. I understand ethics are central to most people’s beliefs around meat, but I ask you keep an open mind and make any and all dialogue respectful.

Our problem with meat

The modern Western world and its industries have an unhealthy relation with the animal products we consume. Here the focus is on meat, as I’ll talk more about the relative impact of vegetarianism (ie. some animal products) below. Here are just a few of the issues coming from our out-of-control consumption:

  • We’ve distanced ourselves from our consumption. Any time we do this, it’s a dangerous precedence for consuming without awareness. When we’re dealing with living beings, the results are horrific. We all know the horrible practices going on to get our meat and animal products. Still, it’s very easy to ignore when we’re not physically involved with the gross bits.
  • Our practices are environmentally dangerous.  All aspects of large-scale commercial farming are highly unsustainable. “A lifecycle analysis conducted by EWG that took into account the production and distribution of 20 common agricultural products found that red meat such as beef and lamb is responsible for 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as common vegetables and grains” (source). This comes from the range of factors needed to sell as much meat as we consume. Growing their food, destroying swaths of land for farms, pesticides, fertilizer, etc.
  • We’re consuming unhealthy amounts. Drawdown tells us the unfortunate truth behind this. On average, people from the USA and Canada consume almost twice as much protein daily than is recommended. “Eating too much… can lead to certain cancers, strokes, and heart disease.”

So we know meat and the way we process and consume it is a problem. What’s the answer – and is it really worth it to make a switch to a plant-based diet?

Can we really expect everyone to embrace a plant-based diet? - Green Indy Blog

The global impact of vegetarianism and veganism

From an environmental perspective, making the swap toward a plant-based diet is one of the best ways you can reduce your carbon footprint!

A University of Oxford study found that veganism beat out vegetarianism in its emissions-reduction ability. But maybe not as much as you think. Based on a worldwide transition to a different diet between 2016 and 2050, the study suggested a 70% reduction of food-related GHG emissions, while a vegetarian diet followed closely behind with a 63% reduction.

For me, this is all great news. Sustainable veganism (more on that below) is clearly the answer, but while veganism is accessible and possible for many, for others it isn’t. Knowing vegetarianism has a similar impact (ethics aside) is important when we consider the negative implications of global veganism. You can read the full article about it here, but it boils down to foreign demand making staple crops really expensive. Plus, the travel miles around food is a huge source of carbon emissions!

In the end, though, a plant-based diet is the obvious answer. A very rough estimate from Drawdown* (it’s hard to pinpoint such a broad, ever-changing set of data) says we could expect 66.11 gigatons of reduced CO2 by 2050. That’s “if 50 percent of the world’s population restricts their diet to a healthy 2,500 calories per day and reduce meat consumption overall… at least 26.7 gigatons of emissions could be avoided from dietary change alone. If avoided deforestation from land use change is included, an additional 39.3 gigatons of emissions could be avoided.”

why veganism isn’t the only answer

The plant-based/vegan/vegetarian diet conversation is often a very white, western-centric argument. Food is such a culturally-specific, tightly-held notion that proclaiming all meat consumption is unethical, immoral, and unsustainable is dangerous. Is the modern, Westernized overconsumption of animal protein through factory farms and ecologically-destructive practices really the same as the holistic farming experience of Indigenous people who live and depend on the land much more literally than most?

Can we really expect everyone to embrace a plant-based diet? - Green Indy Blog

This whole post called Decolonizing Veganism is so worth a read. It touches on disability, race, socio-economic status and all the ways those intersect to make veganism more or less possible. If we’re focusing specifically on Indigenous culture (as otherwise this post would turn into a literal book), this quote really spoke to me:

Without recognizing the role settler colonialism plays in the lives of both Indigenous communities as well as animals, veganism often fails to address the role colonization plays in animal mistreatment. A fight for decolonization is vital in the struggle to dismantle systems of oppression, and vegans must reconcile with that instead of choosing to target Indigenous communities for their supposed “cruelty.”

Pre-colonialism, many cultures formed around the practice of animal consumption in a respectful and necessary way. Is it our job to eradicate culture based on our subjective ethics and our learned cultural responses? Is it our right to make unsustainable choices for others based on racist, ableist, classist ideas?

No. Still, creating access to fresh, local non-meat options is incredibly important, particularly in places where that option doesn’t exist. But force must be removed from the equation.

final takeaways
  • A massive switch toward plant-based diets is necessary. It’s one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions and halt our destruction of the planet. To me, it’s an almost impossible issue to tackle. It would start with education (teaching people the impact of meat as well as great local alternatives to supplement a plant-based meal) and forcing the accessibility issue (read more about how you can help improve food access in your community).
  • Reducing animal products is one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon emissions. People who ate an average amount of meat had a diet that produced 5.63 kgCO2e/day, while a vegetarian diet on produced 3.81 kgCO2e/day. Veganism?2.89 kgCO2e/day. Check out more info from this study.
  • As always, nuance and sensitivity is key.  Has anyone shoving a pamphlet at you on the sidewalk ever actually changed your mind about anything? No! Of course not! Being open to other lived experiences, cultural differences, and all the other ways we’re very unique is important. Open, respectful dialogue and a kindhearted desire to educate those willing to learn is the way to go.
  • Make your own swaps based on what’s local and seasonally available. Importing exotic produce from thousands of miles away isn’t a sustainable practice either, so make sure your plant-based diet relies heavily on local (or near local) food whenever possible. If you have any space to grow food or could become involved in a local community garden, that would be a great place to start!



  • Hey Polly! Always love your posts and happened to stumble upon this one. Definitely agree that the world doesn’t need to go vegan, we all have different ethics and that’s okay. But I think the independent article you quote about why veganism isn’t sustainable uses a grabbing tittle about a post that really has nothing to do with veganism. The tips on that post about how to eat more sustainably (buying local produce, eating less imported foods) is great, but I think it has absolutely nothing to do with veganism – vegans aren’t the only ones who eat avocados and I don’t think there is any evidence to suggest they are the majority? I think that comes down more to an obsession with health than with veganism, which are different. Many people can be vegan and eat local produce. Just wanted to point this out because I feel as though it isn’t a strong argument for why veganism is not sustainable, we know that most livestock in the US eat imported grains anyways, and overall evidence seems to suggest that the current way we mass produce animal products is unsustainable. We also currently produce food in the world to feed 10 billion people, yet so many are starving and a lot of it goes to landfill. I don’t believe in global veganism but I wouldn’t go all the way to say that it would be worse for the environment than most current diets.

    Nothing personal against you, just thought I’d add this opinion to the post as personally I think that independent article wasn’t well researched. Also wanted to add some interesting dialogue on culture & ethics. I always bring up the example of this practice in Nepal where women (and young girls) were traditionally kept in outdoor dog houses whilst menstruating as it was deemed unsanitary and shameful. This practice became illegal around this time last year, but it always brings me back to the argument of culture and ethics. According to western ethics this is (generally) morally incorrect, but who are we to say that they can’t continue a culture practice that goes by their ethics? Just an interesting idea, I don’t think there is any concrete answer either!

    • Thanks for your comment! Re: the Independent article, it’s definitely not a problem totally relegated to the vegans but a lot of the issue with plant-based food is the assumption that if you’re eating like that, your diet has zero room for improvement regarding sustainability. I think that’s the larger point the article – and I – was trying to make. Black and white “vegan is the best answer always” isn’t accurate as there are many factors that go into what makes a diet sustainable.

      As for your second point, I’m not particularly keen to engage on “whataboutism” regarding cultural ethics so I won’t comment on that.

  • I couldn’t agree more with this post! There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet, so we certainly can’t expect everyone to turn vegan. Being encouraging and diplomatic is always more effective than trying to shove information in someone’s face. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Rebecca |

  • That is so true! Not everyone is the same. Some people need more calories that they can’t get it all from plants. For example, body builders and athletes.

Polly Barks Green Indy

Welcome to Green Indy! I’m Polly, and I’m here to show you that zero waste can be more accessible than you think. Ready to get started? Head this way.