Climate change is fuelling vegetarian and vegan diets in youth
The climate crisis is now top of mind for many young people concerned about their future, and they are speaking out and trying to do their part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Best known are the FridaysforFuture strikes, led by Greta Thunberg. The Swedish 17-year-old, that has famously chosen not to fly, is cautious about what she buys, and encourages a vegan diet.
Other youth and student-led initiatives are targeting meat and dairy products for their contributions to climate change and other environmental impacts. As a result of these movements, for example, several British universities have recently implemented a ban on beef across campuses.
Canadian kids are increasingly making the link between their diets and climate change, with more and more turning towards vegetarian or veganism. According to a Dalhousie University study, people under the age of 35 are three times more likely to consider themselves vegetarians or vegans than people over 48.
These dietary choices also have important implications for human health. This includes planning non-traditional diets for growth and development, and potential changes in projections for health conditions such as heart disease.
“A lot of my friends are taking a bigger interest in climate change, and they know that eating less meat will help,” says Nelson Oser-Small, 17, from Wakefield, Quebec, referring to his recent decision to become vegetarian.
“I’ve always loved animals, as I think most children do,” says 13-year-old Josephine DeBellis (Josie), from Washington D.C. She has been vegan since the age of eight and has since made the connection to the climate crisis.
“It’s really the best thing you can do to help animals and save the climate,” she says and touts social media and local climate-strike groups as ways to spread the message.
“After all, kids listen to other kids,” she says.
The Dalhousie study, led by its Agri-Food Analytics Lab, has been monitoring trends in the diets of Canadians using survey data and also produces projections of food trends through its annual Food Price Report.
“Almost two out of every three vegans in Canada are millennials or from Generation Z,” says principal investigator, Dr. Sylvain Charlebois.
And these numbers could grow over the next few decades if young people end up passing their diets down to their own kids, he says.
“Things are changing really fast, faster than ever really,” he says, adding that changes are mostly being driven by the younger generations.
“2019 was a peculiar year, because the narrative around climate change really shifted from ‘how to deal with the effects of climate change’ to ‘this is a climate crisis. So, this really got people to think differently about food, and I think they’re beginning to see the planet on their dinner plate.”
About 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to livestock, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). And these numbers will grow in parallel with the sharp increase in worldwide meat consumption. The FAO projects that global demand for livestock products will increase to 70 per cent by 2050, as emerging economy incomes rise.
Raising livestock is much more resource-intensive than plant-based foods. And ruminant animals like cows, goats and sheep emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they digest grasses and plants in a process called “enteric fermentation.” Methane is also produced from animal manure, along with nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas. Farm energy use and transportation related emissions also add to the problem.
Most importantly, raising ruminant animals requires pastureland, which is often acquired through land changes including deforestation. The livestock industry is the single largest driver of habitat loss worldwide.
Last year’s special report on Climate Change and Land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cited reduced meat consumption and shifts to plant-based diets as opportunities for mitigating climate change.
“We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, in a media interview with Nature shortly after the report was released. “But it would indeed be beneficial for both climate and human health.”
Although the report stopped short of explicitly advocating going meat free, it emphasises that global meat consumption must fall to curb climate change and reduce strains on land and water resources. This could include partial meat-restricted diets (“flexitarians”) but even choosing meat less often would help.
Of course, meat and dairy alternatives are not always guilt free. For example, almond milk is a popular alternative to dairy milk and proven to have a smaller carbon footprint. However, almond milk leads to other environmental challenges through heavy water and pesticide use (though still not as much as dairy cattle). And regardless of what you eat, food waste is cited as a significant contributor to climate change.
The Canadian Paediatric Society says that a well-balanced vegetarian diet can provide for the needs of children and adolescents. But it cautions that strict vegan diets may need vitamin and mineral supplements, such as calcium and iron fortified food.
Brooke Bulloch, a Saskatchewan-based spokesperson for the Dietitians of Canada, says that she has seen a huge spike over the last year in the number of kids at her practice that are looking to switch to a plant-based diet. She believes that many of these kids have been influenced by social media and documentaries linking animal agriculture to environmental issues including climate change, but also notes that animal welfare, health, and religion are other reasons that are sometimes given.
“These kids are pretty passionate about the reasons why they’ve chosen a vegan or vegetarian diet,” she says.
But she also notes that kids and teens need to be screened carefully to ensure that they are not taking on a vegan diet as a way to lose weight. “If we’re seeing a teen that is interested in more plant-based eating, part of my screening is to ask them the questions behind the ‘why’ to rule out things like eating disorders […] where a vegan diet is not going to help,” she says.
Bulloch notes that a well-planned plant-based diet can provide all the protein that kids and adolescents need for healthy growth and development, but emphasizes that the “well-planned” part is really the key. This includes making the right decisions around shopping, meal planning, recipe development, and supplementation. “There’s a lot of moving parts,” she says.
She notes that infants and young children following vegan diets would need to ensure an adequate intake of vitamin B12, which can include supplementation for breastfeeding mothers. Vitamin D is always an issue in Canada she notes, regardless of diet.
Dairy restricted diets, such as vegan diets, will also need to consider calcium. Calcium fortified foods or natural sources such as almonds, tahini or broccoli are important.
Iron is also central to planning for plant-based diets, where sources could include tofu, beans, nut butter or iron fortified foods such as cereals. Pairing these with foods rich in vitamin C would also help with absorption.
Finally, parents need to ensure that young children are getting enough fat by adding canola oil, coconut oil, nut butters or other natural sources to the diet of young children. Omega three supplements might also be needed.
While the Canadian red meat industry was worth $21.1 billion in 2018, the meat alternative market is projected to increase considerably by 2025. Canadian companies, such as Maple Leaf and Cargill, are embracing the movement towards meatless alternatives, with more vegan protein options available each year in grocery stores.
From vegan fish sticks to pseudo chicken nuggets, the alternative meat industry is making it easy to choose a vegan or vegetarian diet. But dietitians are also cautioning over the increasing availability of highly processed vegan foods on the market. While these options can be a good source or protein and may offer vitamin and mineral supplements, they often also have high amounts of sodium and sugars and are not typically as healthy as eating unprocessed vegetables and beans.
“Just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthier,” says Bulloch.
Meanwhile, Canada’s new Food Guide now encourages choosing plant protein more often, including beans and nuts.
Various studies have linked red meat consumption to a variety of non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, lung disease, and kidney disease. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified processed meats, including ham, bacon and salami as Group 1 carcinogens, while red meat was classified as Group 2A probable carcinogens.
Diets higher in healthy plant-based foods (such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes) are associated with lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and better long-term outcomes including heart disease. If young vegans and vegetarians are able to stick with their new diets, it could be good news for related public health indicators as well as the environment and climate change.
“Honestly, it’s so easy and healthy to be vegan,” says DeBellis, “but I do take a supplement just to be cautious.”