With 'Veganuary' the buzzword of the month, organic farmer and journalist Stuart Oates, from Rosuick Farm on the Lizard, explains why turning vegan for January may not be the best way to save the planet.

Veganuary has gotten everywhere and it’s starting to bug me that even my workplace is thrusting it down my throat as I try to enjoy my lunch in the canteen. Let’s be clear, I am very conscious about the environment and I was completing my degree in organic agriculture long before the world started to lethargically wake up to the realities of a stressed planet and factory farming techniques.

Going vegan does have huge benefits in many ways if you look at it simplistically. It takes less energy and land space to grow plants than it does animals. Animals produce large amounts of natural gas emissions as they fart away, enjoying their own vegan diet and there are always ethical questions about killing, whether for food of not.

So why the issue?

January is quite simply the worst time of year to be trying to find all of the nutrients needed to replace what you might find in meat and dairy. The UK can grow legumes and other plants which contain protein, iron, fats and all of the other vitamins and minerals you need to be healthy, but our season is quite short. By the time we get to January, we’re only harvesting brussels sprouts, spring green cabbage, savoy cabbage, carrots, cauliflower and kale. The rest of what you’d need to eat to be vegan would have to either be dried, tinned, frozen and most probably imported. So if you must do this, at least think about doing it over the summer.

Next comes the blanket assumptions about how much impact meat and dairy farming has on the environment around the world. It is a hugely sliding scale. If you eat the budget bacon and chicken you find in every supermarket, those animals will most likely have had miserable lives, kept in sterile environments, without a ray of natural light hitting their skin or feathers in their entire lives. They will probably be fed on high protein density feeds such as soya beans which are produced in an equally intensive way somewhere halfway around the world.

Soya beans don’t grow well in the UK, so we import them all from countries such as the US, who normally suck untold amounts of water from environments already suffering from terrible drought. They’re also very susceptible to weeds and disease, so they’re sprayed with huge concoctions of chemicals which wipe out entire ecosystems, creating vast swathes of land which are unliveable for the bugs and bees which we need to sustain life on earth.

But soya is normally seen as the best replacement protein source for meat too, and food-grade soya needs to be more weed and disease-free than any other, so that needs even more use of pesticides and herbicides. Add to this that GM crops are so prevalent in the US now that it’s almost impossible to find non-organic soya can be guaranteed to be GM-free, even though they’re apparently not supposed to be able to breed, and things start to unravel more.

If you were to have chosen organic pork and chicken, let's be clear, it’s likely that they still would have been fed organic soya from the US, but it would have at least been grown on an organic farm which would have been less destructive to the local habitats.

The same rules apply for eggs. However, pound for pound, eggs are far more efficiently produced by chickens than meat, so their carbon footprint is much lower. Compare that to the devastating environmental impacts of the production of almonds, avocados or palm oil to name but a few, and there really is no contest.

Now beef and lamb are very different. On paper, they look terrible for the environment, but the normal calculations are based on worldwide production. In the UK, we have ideal conditions to grow sheep and cattle, so the levels of carbon emissions are totally different to the standard figures touted about. There are exceptions to the rule, but a huge percentage of cattle and sheep are allowed access to the outdoors all year round and fed on grass which grows on the farm where they live and grains which come from the UK.

They are also essential in a sustainable farming rotation even if the land would be suitable for growing crops. The nitrogen, organic matter and nutrients that they put back into the land through their eating, pooing, eating and pooing technique can’t be beaten by any chemical fertilisers, particularly in an organic system.

Sheep are even better. They require almost no extra feeding, so they can just graze freely on the upland land in the UK where no crops could ever grow and actually help the biodiversity in so many ways. Take for example the hill farms in Wales, where sheep have grazed for centuries. The action of them grazing the longer grasses and their feet breaking the surface of the ground allow rare heathers and other plants to grow. It also suppresses the growth of highly flammable and invasive gorse. The action of them eating and pooing out seeds spreads those plants across larger areas.

But silly me, I’m forgetting gas emissions, which is what veganuary has been sold on.

Many would say that the uncroppable land should be returned to forest as that would be a better carbon store. Well once again a simplistic look at this and it makes sense, but carbon sinks aren’t always obvious. Our grasslands are an enormous store in themselves and the humble upland peat bogs, which are protected and maintained through a mixture of controlled burning and grazing, are actually a bigger store of carbon in the UK than all of the forests combined. They also have the added benefits of purifying water, often mitigating flooding and providing a home for rare species. In fact, they beat nearly every system when it comes to carbon storage.

The health of the earth is about a huge amount more than gas emissions and trying to tackle the issues one thing at a time is clearly not going to work. Therefore, we need to be cutting down greenhouse gases, improving habitats to increase biodiversity and protecting species on the brink, while reducing our impact on the earth through the production of waste, whether plastic, glass, metals or chemicals.

We need to stabilise population growth and limit the creation of new man-made environments, such as cities and farmed areas. And all this while also looking ahead to what is coming next, whatever it may be.

That’s clearly all a bit much to think about while choosing what type of bean you should put in your vegan chilli, so what’s the answer?

Well for me it’s #organuary and moderation. If you really care about the future of our planet you need to think about every part of our delicate ecosystem. Organic agriculture still has a long way to go too (there are big issues with plastics being used heavily on organic products at the point of sale), but it’s a set of standards which are constantly being developed to reduce our impact on the earth.

So why not be a little less extreme and simply:

- Lower the amount of meat you eat to just a few times per week and make sure it's organic.

- Switch as much of the rest of your food as you can afford to organic, particularly your fruit, veg, milk and eggs.

- Try to eat more seasonal local produce from the UK and Europe. The closer to home, the better.

- Don’t buy flowers: The vast environmental impacts of growing something simply to look pretty for a few days are terrible in the UK and around the world.

- Cook your own food rather than eating pre-packaged so that you know what’s in it and to waste less packaging.

- Try to waste less of what you do make and freeze leftovers. This is important; wasted food in the UK has about the same carbon footprint as all plastic waste.

I imagine if you’re well informed you will have said ‘yeah but…’ to many of the things I wrote, but that’s my whole point. The whole argument is nuanced, it’s not in any way as simple as cutting out whole food groups and not expecting massive repercussions. It’s about being as informed as possible, particularly if you’re going to start waxing lyrical about things and trying to affect others.

So next time you mash your deforestation causing avocado on your GM wheat toast, after your orangutan killing palm oil and olive spread, to have on the side of you starvation causing quinoa salad and drought causing almond milk smoothie, have a thought for those peat bogs in our uplands and the ancient hay meadows of the Westcountry, and maybe just eat your roast dinner.