Go dairy-free. This is the plea of the Veganuary movement who are asking South Africans to choose a plant-based diet for the month of January. This, the organisers say, will help to create a kinder, more sustainable world. But is dairy really that bad, and what can we do to minimise our food-related impact on the planet?
Veganuary references the in-depth research by Joseph Poore, an Oxford University researcher. He studies the environmental impacts of different foods and made quite a startling discovery: the least sustainable soya milk was still better for the planet than the most sustainable dairy.
The organisation believes diary is harmful for a number of reasons. This includes methane and climate change, deforestation, river and lake pollution and so-called dead-ocean zones.
What are the challenges?
As well as the animal cruelty involved in dairy farming, there are environmental consequences of keeping cows in captivity, says Veganuary on its website. Methane is a powerful climate-altering gas, which over a 20-year period is 84 times as warming as CO₂. The United Nations says that reducing methane emissions is vital for tackling climate breakdown, but where do we start?
Around 27% of all human-related methane emissions come from animal agriculture, and through no fault of their own, cows are by far the biggest contributors. The first issue is that cows are ruminants, and their digestive process creates methane. The second problem is that there are just so many of them.
Because of methane emissions and other climate-destroying processes, the 13 largest dairy firms in the world have been found to have the same combined greenhouse gas emissions as the whole of the United Kingdom.
Veganuary furthermore describes animal agriculture as “wasteful”. It says animals eat a lot more calories than are returned in their meat, milk or eggs. And this means far more land is needed to grow food for them than if we just grew plants to eat ourselves.
In all, 83% of all available farmland in the world is used for animal agriculture but it gives us just 18% of our calories. And while the number of farmed animals continues to rise, the amount of available farmland does not. Instead of living within our means, we take the land we want from nature.
So, what’s the solution?
Veganuary believes the solution is rather simple: we all have to go dairy-free. The organisation says we can make small changes to our diet that will have a big impact in the world. Since dairy milk produces three times as many emissions as soya milk, they believe it is easy to see why one simple switch can have a massive impact.
And plant milk is not always made of soya. There are many readily available varieties including oat, almond, cashew, hazelnut, hemp and coconut milk, which can be used in tea or coffee, on cereals, in milkshakes, in baking or just on their own. Also look out for plant-based yoghurts, cream, cheese and ice cream.
Hold up, says Dewald Olivier, chief executive of the South African Feedlot Association. The local red meat fraternity is a member of the International Meat Secretariat (IMS), a global body that promotes the sustainable supply of safe, health, high-quality and nutritious animal protein.
Olivier furthermore warns that statistics can be easily “justified or argued, depending on what you want to achieve. Some of the figures mentioned [in this article] needs to be placed in perspective”.
“According to the FAO, livestock supply chains account for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Through improved management practices it could reduce emissions from livestock systems by about 30%. One cannot take a blanket approach on the research done by a scholar in the UK who has not put a foot on African soil.”
“Veganuary is a boycott on a certain portion of the agricultural sector without engaging in dialogue, without understanding what has already been done by the industry to negate negative effects and how the industry approaches sustainable agriculture. This has to be brought into balance with the global food security rating of South Africa,” says Olivier.
He believes that the agricultural sector in South Africa “fully understands the responsibility of producing food ethically without compromising food security.”.