Ever wondered what the sudden hype surrounding vegan food in January is all about? Ever wanted to reduce your animal product consumption? Or ever wondered, despite all the hype, but what actually is the point? Here’s what you need to know.
Veganuary is a non-profit organization which started its mission to encourage a vegan world in 2014. Through its 30-day challenge to switch to a vegan diet throughout January, it aims to encourage more vegan food consumption, while raising awareness about animal suffering and the detrimental environmental impacts resulting from animal and dairy consumption. At the same time, Veganuary works together with an ever-growing number of brands, supermarkets, and restaurants to encourage steps towards more vegan products and menus – throughout January and beyond1.
… but does it work?
Committing to 31 days without meat, fish, eggs, and any kind of dairy products is – let’s face it – a daunting task. You might find yourself wondering, is it really worth the effort? Is one person opting for oat milk, soy yogurt, and the feeble attempts at vegan feta instead of their dairy equivalents going to change the world? Let me burst your bubble right there: clearly, it will not. However, your food choices – even just for one month – may have considerably more impact than you might think.
Firstly and most simply, by consuming vegan products, you send a signal to brands, indicating through your consumption patterns the growing demand for vegan alternatives to dairy, meat, and fish. Brands, in turn, respond by increasing the variety and availability of vegan products. In 2022 alone, over 1540 new vegan products and menus were launched for Veganuary. A (random, non-exhaustive) list of examples includes McDonald’s rolling out McPlant, Lindt launching two vegan chocolate bars, Starbucks including new plant-based drinks in their menu and cutting the extra charge for dairy free milk, and Aldi launching 40 new vegan products in January1. Who knows, they might even come up with a tasty vegan feta one day…
Secondly, committing to Veganuary might mean bringing your own vegan food to work, complaining about the lack of oat milk at coffee machines, or proudly telling anyone who will listen that the cake you made for your friend’s birthday is completely without eggs – inevitably leading to conversations about veganism and your motivations for going dairy-free. In short, you lead by example and raise awareness among the people around you. You thereby contribute to the movement’s growth, which has led to over 2 million people officially taking the pledge since the start of Veganuary in 2014. In 2022 alone, over 629’000 people signed up, from virtually every country in the world (except those in which the internet is banned)1.
I can practically hear you think – this may all sound good and fun on paper, but what does this mean in the grand scheme of things? This, of course, is a tough question to answer. What can be said, however, is that the 350’000 expected Veganuary participants in 2019 were estimated to save “as much greenhouse gas emissions as moving 160’000 cars from the road, or about 400’000 to 500’000 single flights from London to Berlin”2. Bear in mind that the number of Veganuary participants has doubled since this estimate.
For those still wondering why a vegan diet is better for the environment – here’s a short (non-exhaustive) refresher. According to a 2021 study, food production, processing, transport, and consumption (in short, food systems) are responsible for over one third of human-related global greenhouse gas emissions3. While this number includes all food, 60% of the greenhouse gas emissions from food stem from meat – in fact, plant-based food production causes half the emissions compared to meat production4. Ever heard of the problem with farting cows? Their digestion and waste releases methane, the second most abundant greenhouse gas emission which traps 30x more heat than carbon dioxide5 (for those whose interest is sparked, see here for excellent graphic representations of cows’ digestive system). Methane causes 35% of food system greenhouse gas emissions – though let’s not blame it all on the meat industry, rice cultivation accounts for a big part of it too6. Next to avoiding farting cows and related problems, a vegan diet also has the lowest land and water use. In fact, animal farming uses 70% of all agricultural land7.
Put in other numbers, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that 14.5% of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to livestock emissions8. According to the BBC, that is “roughly equivalent to the exhaust emissions of every car, train, ship and aircraft on the planet”2. It comes as no surprise then, that a 2016 study finds that if we all switched to more pant-based diets, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 29-70% by 20509.
Some hiccups, however, should be acknowledged. While a vegan diet may have the potential to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, vegans must still consider the production, transportation, and packaging of the food they consume. Just like a vegan diet is not automatically healthy (sorry), it is also not automatically super sustainable. To achieve that goal, you should opt for sustainable, local products to reduce the impact of transport, for instance7. You should also keep in mind that not every dairy alternative has the same environmental impact in its production – almond milk for example needs a lot more water than other types of dairy free milk.
What else is in it for you?
Next to the good conscience and positive environmental impact you can have by joining Veganuary, taking part in the challenge may help you move towards more longer-term changes. If you’ve been wanting to reduce your animal product consumption but have been struggling to find the means and motivation to actually do it – Veganuary might be the kick-start you need. Veganuary’s follow-up survey from 2021 found that 6 months after the challenge, 82% of participants who were not already vegan kept up a significant reduction in their animal product consumption, with 39% still following a fully vegan diet1.
Next to the environmental benefits, switching to vegan food might also benefit you personally. Many have hailed the health benefits of a vegan diet, and 68% of Veganuary participants reported health benefits such as increased energy, better mood, or clearer skin1. Of course, how your vegan experience impacts your body depends on how you go about it, and you must be careful to get your B12, proteins, and all other essential nutrients. Ultimately, there is only one way to find out how a vegan diet would work for you – join the challenge!
How to participate
If you’ve been convinced to join the challenge but aren’t sure how to go about it, worry not! There are plenty of resources to help you on your way. Start by taking the pledge on the Veganuary website (here). Veganuary will send you a free celebrity cookbook (if you’ve ever wondered what Venus Williams likes to have for breakfast, this is your chance). Throughout January (or any other month of your choosing), Veganuary will then fill your inbox with daily emails containing recipes and nutritional advice. Next to these, their website already features hundreds of easy vegan recipes you can explore right away.
To help you throughout the month, SFSA is there for you too! We will provide weekly vegan recipes on our Instagram page. We would also love to hear stories and see pictures from your experience. At the end of the month, I will be back with a wrap-up of recipes, experiences, and official Veganuary reports.
Until then, if Brian May can do it… what are you waiting for?
1. Veganuary (n.d.). Try vegan this January. https://veganuary.com
2. Allen, P. (n.d.). Is a vegan diet better fort he environment? BBC Good Food. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/vegan-diet-better-environment
3. Crippa, M., Solazzo, E., Guizzardi, D., Monforti-Ferrario, F., Tubiello, F. N., & Leip, A. (2021). Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions. Nature Food, 2(3), Article 3. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00225-9
4. Milman, O. (2021, September 13). Meat accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production, study finds. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/13/meat-greenhouses-gases-food-production-study
5. Okshevsky, M. (2020, March 15). Cows, Methane, and Climate Change. Let’s Talk Science.https://letstalkscience.ca/educational-resources/stem-in-context/cows-methane-and-climate-change
6. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (n.d.). Food systems account for more than one third of global greenhouse gas emissions. https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1379373/icode/
7. Chai, B. C., van der Voort, J. R., Grofelnik, K., Eliasdottir, H. G., Klöss, I., & Perez-Cueto, F. J. A. (2019). Which Diet Has the Least Environmental Impact on Our Planet? A Systematic Review of Vegan, Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diets. Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), 11(15), 4110-. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11154110
8. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (n.d.). Key facts and findings.https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/
9. Springmann, M., Godfray, H. C. J., Rayner, M., & Scarborough, P. (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(15), 4146–4151. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1523119113