A growing number of people are conscious of their impact on the planet and want to reduce it. Polling shows more people than ever before, especially among younger generations, are aware of their carbon footprint and harbour a desire to make a difference in their lifestyle choices to help protect the environment. Sometimes, though, our well-intentioned choices can make things better, not worse.
There is a risk that we take short-sighted decisions in an effort to avoid buying products which cause pollution, without checking whether the new products we replace them with are actually better for the planet. For example, veganism is a growing trend. There are more vegans than ever before, especially among the young, largely driven by a desire to be more eco-friendly.
It is certainly true that the production of meat and other animal products causes greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn fuel climate change. Animal farming alone, driven by global demand for meat, milk, and other dairy products, is responsible for more than half of all food-based climate emissions. Avoiding beefburgers and dairy milk therefore seems, on the surface, to be a great way to lower our contribution to climate change.
However, young vegans might unwittingly be making the situation worse, not better, for the planet by switching to plant-based products which have an even greater environmental impact than animal farming. By dodging meat, as well as other animal-based sources of protein like eggs and cheese, they leave a gap in their diet for protein. There are some plant-based sources of protein, such as lentils and beans, but inevitably, people want variety in their meals, so they seek out other plant-based sources of protein. That often leads to them turning to one product in particular: soy.
Soy is ubiquitous in vegan diets. It crops up in leading plant-based meat substitutes tofu and tempeh and soya milk is one of the most popular alternatives to dairy milk. This does allow those eco-conscious young vegans to escape contributing to greenhouse gas emissions from cow farming, and it is true that the emissions from soybean production are lower than those from cows. Unfortunately, though, soybean production causes various environmental problems which cows do not.
In fact, when considered holistically, the environmental impact of making soy is arguably far greater than that of any dairy farmer. The soil used to grow soybeans is generally not protected by vegetation, which means soy production causes soil erosion. That destroys the topsoil, resulting in the soil being much less conducive to plant growth. Because soybean growth demands so much water, it has been known to contribute to droughts, too.
Perhaps the worst environmental consequence of soy production is deforestation. Soy is one of the least land-efficient products to grow in its category. That means it uses up a lot of land, so in order to clear enough land to produce it, soybean farmers have to deforest a very large area. Soybean production is therefore a significant contributor to deforestation, which is destructive for biodiversity and natural ecosystems, as noted by the World Wide Fund for Nature.
This does not mean we should give up on helping to tackle climate change caused by food production. It is certainly true that the level of greenhouse gas emissions from cow farming is unsustainable. There are already some solutions on the horizon. For example, one start-up based in Australia, which has already won the support of Bill Gates, is working on a new seaweed feeding technology to help cows emit less methane.
Whatever the solution turns out to be, whether it is feeding cows seaweed or something else, there is little doubt that before long, some enterprising entrepreneur will come up with a way for food manufacturers to do business without polluting the atmosphere. In the meantime, we should be careful not to fall for false flags and unintentionally put the natural world in a worse situation by lunging for other products like soy which have hidden environmental impacts.