How giving up meat could save the world

Turning your back on tucking into other creatures is not simply the morally correct choice, it could also go a long way to saving the world says Suzanne Harrington

Vegan is the new vegetarian. There are three big fat reasons – environmental, medical and ethical. So overwhelming are the arguments in its favour, people are ditching animal products for plant-based alternatives so that what was once the hard to find is now supermarket mainstream. There are already 542,00 vegans in the UK – and while there are no figures available for here, anecdotally it’s spreading faster than avocado on sourdough.

From Moodley Manor’s Badass Bacon in Dublin to Dee’s Wholefoods vegan sausages and Miam vegan bakery in Cork, plant-based food sources are popping up overnight like, well, mushrooms. Except tastier. Events like Vegfest continue to attract record numbers, and menus are beginning to offer vegan options as standard. What used to be the preserve of Brooklyn and Berlin has gone mainstream, and what used to be considered almost special needs twenty years ago is being normalised. 2016 was a bumper year.

Sarah Murphy, who owns Miam vegan bakery
Sarah Murphy, who owns Miam vegan bakery

But why? Simple. People are starting to realise that getting a cow to eat your plants for you is hideously inefficient environmentally, not ideal for your own health, and not much fun for the cow either. By cutting out the middle animal and ingesting the plants directly yourself, you do your health, the planet and the animals a massive favour. Not ideolog, but fact.

According to Oxford researcher Dr Marco Springmann, if we all ate a plant-based diet by 2050, the savings from health care costs and environmental damage would be $1.6 trillion, or 3% of the global GDP. Going vegan by 2050 would also result in 8 million human lives being saved from diet-related diseases, and greenhouse gas emissions being cut by two-thirds.

And that’s before you ever consider an end to the daily animal armageddon, involving both farmed and wild animals. A 2015 study published in Science of the Total Environment tells us how “human carnivory — and its impact on land use — is the single biggest threat to much of the world’s flora and fauna”. In other words, eating a steak correlates directly to the destruction of wildlife habitats. Amazonian parrots, Madagascan lemurs.

“We would need four planets to continue eating as we do,” says Karin Ridgers, the vivacious founder of online station Veggie Vision. Karin has been vegan for 18 years and realising there was no media outlet catering specifically for vegetarians and vegans, she set up Veggie Vision as a forum to share stories, clips, recipes, information, and news. There’s even a dating site. She currently advises organisations like the Daily Mail, Centre Parcs, the Intercontinental Hotels, as well as MCing at Vegfest, giving talks in schools, fund raising, and generally doing everything she can to raise awareness around what she calls “the healthiest diet of all”. Ah yes, health. More than a third of us, according to Dr Adam Wishart’s book One In Three, will develop cancer during our lifetime. Dr T Colin Campbell, a biochemist at Cornell University in the US, has been studying the link between health and diet for over 50 years. In his book The China Study, he monitored the long-term health of 6,500 people – 100 people from 65 different regions in China with differing diets.

Deirdre Collins, Dee’s Wholefoods.
Deirdre Collins, Dee’s Wholefoods.

The results were stark. Those who ate animal-based foods were far more likely to develop ‘Western’ diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Animal protein, says Dr Campbell, contrary to popular belief, is not good for us – it stimulates cell division. He rejects terms like vegan and vegetarian as too emotive and value-laden, but he and his entire family follow a vegan diet purely as a result of his findings.

Many vegans eliminate animal products from their diet for ethical reasons - meat is murder and dairy is scary – and because of this, veganism has long been viewed with suspicion by the meat-eating majority. This, however, is changing. “I want to turn people onto plant-based food, not off,” says Karin Ridgers. “I work towards a vegan world, where we reach out to pre-vegans and say, this is the day you could make the most important decision of your life.”

Karin, a TV presenter, would like to see Veggie Vision on terrestrial television as well as the internet so that more people can learn about going plant based. Because where do you start? Isn’t it all a bit difficult/expensive/overwhelming? Do you have to live on lentils? What about eating out? Will you always be the awkward dinner guest? Always fielding questions about B vitamins and protein sources? The endless butt of ‘plants have feelings too’ jokery? What if you get drunk and eat a cheeseburger?


Karin Ridgers on the VegFestUK stage with World Champion vegan athletes Patrik Baboumian, Kate Strong and Tim Shieff.
Karin Ridgers on the VegFestUK stage with World Champion vegan athletes Patrik Baboumian, Kate Strong and Tim Shieff.

Relax. It’s – to use that hideous term – a journey. Here is some pointers from Karin at Veggie Vision, the Vegan Society, and the collective wisdom of vegans everywhere:

DO know what vegans eat and don’t eat. Basically, nothing animal related – so no meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, butter, yogurt, cream, ice cream or honey. Which might sound impossible – and for vegan pioneers it must have required serious dedication – but these days there are delicious, healthier plant based versions of just about everything, from chocolate cake to haggis, pouring cream to ‘fish’ fingers. You won’t go without, believe me. Vegan food has come a long way since Arthur Ling, the founder of Plamil, first created soya milk in 1965. Talk to your local wholefood shop, or go to friendly inclusive online places like Veggie Vision. And if you detest soya milk, there’s almond, oat, rice, hemp and coconut alternatives. Try everything until you find your favourite.

DON’T try to do everything at once. Going from omnivore to vegan overnight may not be entirely realistic. One thing at a time – it’s a process of discovery. Take it slowly and mindfully, and give your taste buds time to readjust.

DO be aware that some animal ingredients are not so obvious, although labelling is much better now. Whey powder (from cow’s milk), gelatine (boiled bones and skin), rennet (from calf stomachs) and cochineal (squashed beetles) are not vegan.

DON’T get too vegangelical. It’s hard not to, once you’re into it, but try to remain measured.

DO be prepared for hostility from others as well as encouragement. Until very recently, vegan was almost a term of abuse, signifying freak, crank, puritan.

DON’T worry if you do not maintain perfect consistency. Set your intention, and explore. Engage with new cooking and new flavours.

DO seek out like minded people. If none of your friends are vegan, don’t worry. Stick with it. They’ll get used to it, and who knows, may even join you. When eating out, plan ahead – don’t be shy about ringing the venue and requesting a vegan option if there is none. This is how change comes about.

DON’T give yourself nightmares by watching slaughterhouse footage – unless you need convincing, in which case the 2005 US documentary Earthlings should do the trick.


According to The Economist, one third of all global crops and fresh water are fed to animals, but animal products account for just 17% of global calorific intake.

So 1kg of chicken needs 2kg feed, 1kg of lamb or pork needs 4-6kgs of feed, and 1kg of beef needs 5-20kgs of feed.

A single kilo of beef needs 15,500 litres of water. Farm animals create more greenhouse gases than planes, cars and all other transport put together. And while free range is immeasurably better for animals, it’s worse environmentally.

A year’s food production would feed five vegans but just one meat eater. If the world went plant-based, there would be food for all, less dietary related disease, less environmental destruction and zero animal suffering. Which is why more and more people are making the switch.


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