Plate up for the planet

Last week I signed up, as over 10,000 people have this summer, to the Plate Up for the Planet campaign. It’s a 7-day pledge to try out a vegan diet, and the idea got a few of us in the Green Group interested. As today is the last day of my pledge, I wanted to get a few thoughts down on how I’ve found it and what, if anything, it might change for me.

Of course some people seemed to have contempt for the idea. After all, Greens were called “lentil munching, sandal-wearing watermelons” not so long ago. No prizes for guessing which party the first cynical remarks came from!

But there’s a strong case for a shift away from meat and dairy toward a plant-based diet.

For some people there’s an absolute moral principle – that it’s just always wrong for us to exploit animals. But animal agriculture is also a major source of carbon emissions, producing as much as the entire transport sector. Just in climate terms alone, going vegan can cut the impact of producing your food by as much as 50%. It’s also about the efficiency of the food system – growing crops to feed animals only produces a fraction of the food value as meat and dairy compared with growing crops to feed people.

However, there’s no doubt that giving up all meat and dairy completely is a really big commitment for most people. It’s tricky too, with so many animal ingredients hidden a long way down the ingredients lists.

A plant-based diet can be far healthier than the typical western diet, with all the saturated fat, refined sugar and processed food that’s marketed at us all so aggressively. Which isn’t to say that every vegan eats healthily (more chips please!) or that meat and dairy can’t be part of a balanced approach.

But I’ve found that this experiment has made me much more aware of what I’m eating and of how I was getting the balance wrong before.

I’ve had to think ahead more, planning what I’ll cook and eat. I’ve also been much more physically aware of what I’ve been eating, of how full I am and the way food changes how I feel. But I’ve also noticed how a lot of what I was already eating didn’t really need the meat and dairy. I’m not a big fan of “substitutes”, presented as fake meat or cheese, but in most of what I’d normally cook it only takes a little thought to turn out a version based on plants alone.

There were a few unexpected treats too, like the sweets and snacks being made by @veganburd in Glasgow, and the sheer range of food I’d previously been walking right past in the shops as I just loaded up with familiar stuff.

So will this week’s experience change my food choices for good? Well I’m not about to suddenly become an absolutist. I respect the view that it’s simply morally wrong for people to eat other animals, but I don’t share it.

For me the best approach to environmental impact, animal welfare and healthy eating is still about balance. I know I’d be healthier eating less meat and dairy and I’ve realised this week how much I can enjoy doing that. When I do buy animal products, I want to know that I’m buying them from responsible producers, local ones when possible, instead of supporting the intensive meat industry. And if that means viewing them as a bit more of an occasional treat, it probably means I’ll enjoy them more.