Anti-vegetarian argument misunderstands the vegetarian diet

Are these veggie sausages killing the earth? A British study may suggest that they are...

Recently, a number of articles have been circulating online, questioning some of the central ethical claims of vegetarianism. For example, consider this piece from Daily Mail science correspondent Fiona Macrae. Citing a Cranford University study, the article appears to claim that plant-based protein sources are worse for the environment than animal protein such as beef and lamb.

Cites Macrae, “[a] switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu and Quorn could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK.”

This quote appears damning to the vegetarian project. It’s not cattle causing deforestation, but rather the vegetarian alternatives. If there is no environmental benefit to the vegetarian diet, then a major pillar of the argument is gone, leaving only animal welfare and personal health as the angles to recommend a meatless lifestyle, both of which must now be weighed against these newly-revealed environmental concerns.

However, the quote misdirects the reader. The study did not conclude that a meatless diet is worse for the planet. In fact, the quote is not even from the study’s conclusion. It is from the summary and is meant to frame the relative costs and benefits of different vegetarian dietary choices, as per their analysis. Here is the quoted sentence, along with the one which follows:

“A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu and Quorn could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK. In contrast, a broad-based switch to plant based products through simply increasing the intake of cereals and vegetables is more sustainable.”

Note the key phrase “livestock product analogues.” These are products made to imitate meat and dairy, such as veggie dogs, soy milk, and vegan "cheese". But this merely affirms that highly processed foods are generally bad for the environment and we already knew that. Fortunately, vegetarians have plenty of other sources of protein available.

So this quote, bandied across the internet, often held up as a scathing indictment of vegetarianism, is in fact nothing of the sort. And what’s more, appealing to it clearly betrays a writer’s failure to understand the vegetarian diet.

An omnivorous diet tends to rely on a standard idea of a plate. At its center is a protein, surrounded by starch, vegetables, and usually some kind of sauce. But the dish is really all about the protein.

So when an omnivore thinks about a vegetarian’s diet, it is only natural that he or she would think in terms of meat substitutes (tofu or Quorn), since he or she will naturally struggle to think about a dish which is not all about the protein.

But an experienced, thoughtful vegetarian will not gravitate towards these things. Instead, the experienced vegetarian gravitates towards things like beans and other unprocessed plant-based protein sources, of which there are many. These foods are not only more nutritious, they are more sustainable, cheaper, and often much tastier than the processed stuff.

Understanding this means adopting a different idea of what makes a complete plate. For example, protein will often be spread around the plate, rather than concentrated in one component. I know, this is all a bit abstract, and I cannot expand upon it here. That is a topic for another time. For now, it suffices to say that protein is widely available in a whole range of unrefined cereals and vegetables.

Looking at the Cranford study in this light reveals that nothing the authors have said claims that the vegetarian diet is worse for the environment. In fact, if Fiona Macrae had bothered to read the entire study, she would likely have seen how the study’s authors actually conclude that the best approach to realizing Britain’s emission reduction target for 2050 includes a “66% reduction in livestock products.”

Overall, vegetarian diets performed predictably well within their study. The comment about “livestock product analogues” merely says that not all vegetarian alternatives will lead to the desired emission reduction targets. Again, this is no surprise.

So yes, relying heavily on tofu or highly processed imitation meat products will not save the planet. What remains unclear, however, is whether anyone was claiming that in the first place.

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