Jayne Buxton - The Great Plant-Based Con


Why eating a plants-only diet won't improve your health or save the planet

My new book, The Great Plant-Based Con, argues that the widespread uptake of a plants-only diet will not improve human or planetary health. In the book, I attempt to dismantle the engine of plant-based advocacy, covering topics ranging from the diet-heart hypothesis and nutrition through to methane emissions, soil health and the motivations of corporations and other organisations that are promoting a plant-based future.

In this extract (from chapter 9), I focus on some of the misconceptions that we have about so called planet friendly, vegan foods. The reality is, there are no good foods and bad foods, only better and worse ways of producing foods. And both plant and animal sourced foods can be produced in ways that enhance soil health, carbon storage and biodiversity; our goal should be to ensure that they are.

-Jayne Buxton

Book Exceprt from Chapter 9: The Secret Life of Vegan Foods , and Why a Plants- only Diet Isn't Necessarily Green

'The single biggest thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is to eat a plant-based diet', said virtually every mainstream article on the subject of food and the environment published in recent years. The claim that a plant- based diet is intrinsically best for the environment has taken on the quality of an irrefutable fact. And when the emissions from different foods are compared, meat and dairy are invariably shown to be off the scale. Taking this information at face value, you might easily be persuaded to give up eating animal foods, or to feel extremely guilty about continuing to eat them.

Simplistic comparisons can produce nonsensical results, however, and those results threaten to lead us down a slippery slope towards some bad food choices. This was aptly demonstrated by Dr Zoë Harcombe in her analysis of a 2020 paper (published in the BMJ) that claimed that adherence to the Eatwell Guide could lower your environmental footprint.1 If you were to take your cue from the paper, basing your diet on the least offending foods in terms of emissions and water use, you would end up on a diet of manufactured buns, cakes and pastries, chocolate, pasta, liqueurs, spirits and wine, bread, bananas, soya milk, salad, soft drinks, sugar and sweets.

Moreover, although the paper claimed that adherence to the Eatwell Guide would enable you to reduce your environmental footprint, it failed to consider other aspects of the environment. The growing of plants impacts not just emissions and water use, but also soil health, biodiversity and pollution levels, and many foods that we think of as being squeaky clean are the worst offenders, whereas grass- fed beef might be the greenest item in your shopping trolley.

Beef versus plant favourites: how they really stack up

If the aforementioned BMJ paper is to be believed, the worst thing we can do is eat beef and lamb. But when the nutritional profile of different foods is taken into account, the matter is much less clear. Let's compare beef and beans, for example, as Diana Rodgers and Robb Wolf did in their book, Sacred Cow. They showed that in order to obtain the same amount of complete protein (containing all essential amino acids) as in 112g of steak, you'd have to eat 336g of kidney beans and 130g (a cup) of rice.2 The carbon cost of the serving of steak from the UK is around 3 kilos. (As we saw in Chapter 7, there are a wide variety of estimates, some lower and some higher. I've used the number for a UK steak listed in the latest edition of Mike Berners- Lee's How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything.) The beans-rice combination comes in at around 1 kilo. This makes the beans-rice combination look three times more carbon efficient than the steak.

Taking the White Oak Pastures estimate for grass- fed beef, however, the beans-rice combination looks less carbon efficient. Moreover, there are things to consider in addition to emissions. According to Rodgers and Wolf, the beans-rice combo comes in at 628 calories and 122g of carbs, whereas the beef comes in at just 181 calories and no carbs. And gram for gram, the beef delivers many more vitamins and minerals than the beans. The 112g serving of beef delivers four times the vitamin B3, three times the vitamin B6, one- and- a-half times the zinc and almost nine times the selenium as a 336g serving of beans. It also delivers vitamin B12, which beans do not contain at all. Taking a list of twenty- two important nutrients, beans deliver lower amounts than beef, on a gram per gram basis, of all but six.3 Then you have to factor in the bioavailability issue with beans: the anti- nutrient content of beans means that many of the nutrients in both the beans and the foods eaten alongside them will not be fully absorbed.

Not only does the beans-rice combination deliver less nutritional value but its lower carbon cost must be set against a potentially higher cost in terms of soil health and biodiversity. When all these factors are taken into account, the plant- based combination looks less certain to be the winner in the competition for most environmentally friendly meal.

If beans and rice aren't all they're cracked up to be, nutritionally or environmentally, what about some other plant foods? Let's start with almonds, the most popular nut in the world, with over a million tonnes being produced every year. The average American eats almost 1 kilo of almonds annually, more than the residents of any other country.4 Growing a single almond requires 5 litres of water,5 so a handful (about twenty- five almonds) would require 125 litres. Compare this with the 25 litres required to produce a small serving of sustainably raised grass- fed beef (based on the estimates discussed in Chapter 8). As for almond milk, the average litre requires 158 litres of blue water, nearly twenty times as much as dairy milk.6

Then we need to consider how growing almonds impacts on biodiversity. In California, for example, bees are dying in record numbers due to habitat loss, exposure to pesticides and the reliance on industrial agricultural methods, and a large part of the blame is being attributed to the almond industry.

Almond growers deploy a monocrop- style of production, and almonds are doused with greater quantities of glyphosate - known to be lethal to bees - than other crops. According to the Guardian, 'More bees die every year in the US than all other fish and animals raised for slaughter combined.'7

Tree nuts in general require enormous amounts of water - Joseph Poore estimates that about 4,000 litres of water are used to produce one kilo of nuts. Avocados, too, are water guzzlers. It's estimated that growing a single avocado can take anything from 140-272 litres of water.8 In water- stressed regions such as California, Chile, Mexico and Spain, avocado crops put enormous stress on the local environment. And avocados aren't the only thirsty fruit. Mangoes require 686 litres per kilo and plums require 305 litres. In the UK, we import 42 per cent of our vegetables and 89 per cent of our fruit, predominantly from water- stressed countries.9

Factory- farmed fruits and vegetables

Some of the fruits and vegetables that we import are grown in giant greenhouses jammed side by side, dominating the landscape. From the air, they resemble a tight arrangement of concrete slabs laid flat, scarcely a patch of soil or a blade of grass between them. It's a stark contrast to the image we might carry in our minds when we think of plant- based agriculture - fruits and vegetables growing in rich soil, open to the air and the sun and presided over by free- ranging birds and insects. A factory- farming operation that produces plant foods can be as much of an insult to the soil, and to the eye, as a factory- farming operation producing meat is an insult to the animals (of which more later in this chapter).


Now let's look at soya, a staple of the plant- based diet that the Sacred Cow authors have labelled 'a horror show to nature'.10 Over 300 million tonnes of soya beans were grown in 2019, the vast majority of them in the US, Brazil and Argentina. Over 99 per cent of the soya grown in the US is non- organic.11 In 2019 the New Food Economy (now called The Counter) noted that in Iowa, the second largest soya-producing state in the US, the expansion of farmland had driven a steep decline in native grasses, which in turn had depleted the quantity and variety of food sources for honey bees, causing bee colonies to decline much earlier than usual.12 This is to say nothing about the detrimental effects of soya and other industrially produced monocrops on soil health or the greenhouse gas emissions produced by any crop grown with artificial fertilisers. (The production of synthetic fertiliser accounts for 3 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.)13

An estimated 75 per cent of the soya grown goes into animal feed in the form of crushed bean cakes or whole beans.14 Soya is consumed by humans in the form of foods such as tofu, edamame, soya milk, textured vegetable protein (TVP), soya lecithin (which is added to many processed foods as an emulsifier) and soybean oil. Soybean oil, which accounts for 25 per cent of global vegetable oil consumption, is a byproduct of the crushing of the beans, with the crushed matter going into animal feed. This means that even though more soya (by weight) is consumed by animals than by humans, the amount that is consumed by humans has a direct impact on the amount of soya that must be grown. Increased consumption of soybean oil by humans - directly or via processed foods - is therefore a direct driver of deforestation and damage to soil via the use of industrial farming practices and chemical inputs. (It is very difficult to find organically grown soya.) If you choose to eat soya, in whatever form, you have to face the fact that you are contributing to environmental harm. It's also important to recognise that grass- fed animals consume very little soya, and that by far the largest proportion goes into pork and chicken feed, which makes the scapegoating of beef in this context senseless.

What about tofu, a commonly consumed soya product? A study by Dr Graham McAuliffe found that tofu could be more harmful to the planet than chicken, beef or pork. McAuliffe said 'if you look at tofu, which is processed so there is more energy going into its production, when you correct for the fact that the protein in it is not as digestible [bioavailable] compared to meat- based products, you can see that it could actually have a higher global warming potential than any of the monogastric animals'.15 (Because the protein in tofu is limited and less digestible than that found in meat, you would have to eat far more tofu than meat to get your daily protein allowance.) In addition, much of the tofu consumed in the UK comes from Japan and the US, with the attendant transportation emissions. Ask yourself, could a plate of tofu flown in from Japan really be better for the environment than a small serving of grass- fed beef from a local farm?

Pollution is another concern. It turns out that some of the tofu made in Indonesia (in the region of a village called Tropodo) involves burning a mix of paper and plastic waste, some of which is shipped from the United States. The smoke and ash produced has far- reaching and toxic consequences; for example, eggs laid by chickens living close to the tofu production sites studied were found to contain several hazardous chemicals, including dioxin, a pollutant known to cause cancer, birth defects and Parkinson's.16 If the tofu you're eating is from Indonesia, it may not warrant being labelled a clean, green food.

Alternative meats

Great claims are made about these products; primary among them is that they have a much smaller environmental footprint than real beef. But do these claims stand up? In Chapter 7 we saw that well- raised beef has a lower carbon footprint than the Impossible Burger. And real beef, if grass fed, is also undoubtedly better for soil health. As one commentator points out:

If we are to replace meat with plant- based alt- meat, we still need to grow those plants. Whether to make the sugar syrup used to grow mushrooms in vats or the soya and potato proteins that form the basis of the Impossible Burger . . . [and] if we abolish livestock farming altogether and rewild the hillsides, we remove livestock from the farming equation. That means no manure for the fields. How are we to fertilise all the soya, pea, grain and potato crops that form the raw inputs for alt- meat? It's not at all clear that swapping industrial beef feedlots for nitrogen- fertilised plant monocultures will do much to ensure long- term soil and ocean health and biodiversity.17

Farmer Will Harris of White Oak Pastures has stressed the environmental harm caused in the production of one brand of alternative meat which relies on monocrop farming for its key ingredients:

Industrial monocrop agriculture utilises tillage, and chemical fertilisers and pesticides which harm our environment in many ways: degrading the soil; killing off the life-giving microbes; allowing top soil to erode; causing flooding; releasing greenhouse gases; leaching chemicals into our streams, rivers, and oceans; and I'm not even getting into carcinogenic impact and other unintended (and unnoticed) consequences of their use.18

Even Marco Springmann, the vegan environmental researcher who rarely declines an opportunity to promote the plantbased cause, has gone on record to say that the environmental claims being made by plant- based meat companies might not stand up to scrutiny. 'Beyond and Impossible need to better assess their carbon footprint,'' he said. 'These companies make claims about sustainability that they do not sufficiently back up with data.'19

In 2021, the New York Times reported that serious questions about the environmental credentials of plant- based meat companies remained. 'One investor tracking firm gives Beyond Meat a zero when it comes to sustainability measures. Another rates it a "severe risk", the paper reported. The problem, say the critics interviewed, is that 'neither Beyond Meat nor Impossible Foods discloses the total amount of greenhouse gases emissions across all of its operations, supply chains or consumer waste'. (Beyond Meat said that it would release its greenhouse gas analysis in 2022; Pat Brown of Impossible Foods admitted that current accounting and reporting standards for emissions and other climate data 'doesn't reflect the total impact of a company like his'.)20

Plant milk

Like plant- based meat substitutes, plant- based milks are not the environmental heroes that their producers would like us to think they are. (And, as we saw in Part One, many doctors and nutritionists don't rate them as nutritional heroes either.)

Some advertisements for Oatly claimed that by drinking oat milk you could save 73 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions.21 Seeing these advertisements - and without seeking out the more detailed explanation on the Oatly website - many people might think it possible to reduce their entire personal carbon footprint by 73 per cent just by drinking oat milk.22 In fact, the claim seems to be based on Oatly's estimate that their milk generates 0.44 kilos of CO2 per litre compared to 1.58 kilos for dairy milk. Therefore, yes, if their calculations are fully accurate (which, one could argue, they are not, since they do not account for carbon sequestration by livestock on pasture and are based on methane metrics that have been shown to be biased against animal foods - see Chapter 7), you might be able to reduce the emissions from the milk you drink by 73 per cent. Given that emissions from all the food you eat amount to 10-16 per cent of your footprint, and milk represents a fraction of that food footprint, it would be more accurate to say that drinking Oatly instead of milk could reduce your personal footprint by 1 per cent or less. But that wouldn't make for very persuasive advertising copy. As it stands, the copy is very persuasive indeed. As one group of brand commentators pointed out, Oatly have cleverly distilled their climate advantage into a nine- word claim - 'Swap to oat drink and save 73% in CO2e'. They ask us to imagine where Oatly would be right now without this simple claim.23

The GHGs/kilo metric used by Oatly oversimplifies what is a complex picture still further. The metric fails to account for the higher wastage level associated with the processing of plant proteins (that is, more raw material is needed to get the same amount of protein) or for the fact that plant milks are inferior in terms of protein quality (as represented by their DIAAS scores) and micronutrient content. When these factors are taken into account, dairy milk suddenly looks more sustainable than most plant milks. For example, when the carbon footprint is calculated in terms of kilo of CO2/kilo of available protein, dairy milk has a similar footprint to soya milk, a third of the footprint of almond milk and a quarter of the footprint of oat milk. When the metric used is CO2/ micronutrient content, the footprint of dairy milk is similar to that of almond milk, half that of soya milk, and less than a third of that of oat milk.24

Another Oatly claim (made in a tweet accompanying an advertisement), that 'the dairy and meat industries emit more CO2e than all the world's cars, planes, trains, boats, go- carts, etc., combined',25 is patently incorrect, as we know from the evidence presented in Chapter 7. Farming UK News reported that the Country Land and Business Association had joined 'a chorus of criticism, slamming the marketing campaign for "misusing statistics" '.26 My guess is that few Oatly drinkers will have been aware of the criticism or been inclined to fact- check the company's claims. Oatly CEO Toni Peterson hasn't been deterred from reiterating the erroneous claim, telling The Times Magazine, in November 2021, that 'the impact of animal- based agriculture is higher than all transportation combined'.27

Palm oil

No discussion of the environmental impacts of different plant foods would be complete without the mention of palm oil. This oil, the popularity of which originally soared on the back of the campaign against saturated fats, has found its way into almost every processed or packaged food- plant- based or otherwise - on supermarket shelves. (It is estimated that palm oil is found in half of all packaged foods in the US.28) Just try to find a box of crackers or a packet of biscuits that doesn't list palm oil as an ingredient. It's a particularly important one for plant- based packaged foods because it's the only hard fat that's not animal based.

OWiD statistics put palm oil as the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions after red meats, chocolate, coffee and prawns.29 Given that the OWiD number for beef is likely overstated (because it does not account for the effects of the biogenic methane cycle or the full effects of carbon sequestration), palm oil could be a bigger emissions offender. Then you need to factor in the nutrient density of products made with palm oil versus that of animal foods; the emissions- tonutrients ratio of animal foods emerges as vastly superior to that of this ubiquitous oil.

Palm oil production also has devastating effects on land and biodiversity. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that an area equivalent to three hundred football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to create space for palm oil production, endangering habitat for orangutans and Sumatran tigers.30

There's a human impact, too. Children carry heavy loads of palm fruit, suffering injuries and heat exhaustion.31 The problems associated with palm oil production are such that Unilever - which uses palm oil in many products such as Hellmann's mayonnaise and Ben & Jerry's ice cream - is now using a tracking system to detect mills that are sourcing from plantations on land illegally deforested or owned by companies linked to deforestation.32

Food waste

When thinking about how our diet impacts the environment, we must think about the food we waste as well as the food we eat. Previously, it has been estimated that we waste almost 40 per cent of the food produced, accounting for around 3.3 GT (gigatons) CO2- eq33 (6 per cent) of annual global emissions and 2 per cent of emissions in the US.34 A recent report by the WWF and Tesco suggests that the problem of food waste could be even bigger than previously estimated, contributing 10 per cent of all greenhouse gases.35 In the developing world, most wastage happens at the production stage, caused by problems such as drought and poor refrigeration technology, whereas in the developed world it occurs mainly at the consumption stage.36 Cereals and vegetables contribute 34 per cent and 21 per cent of food waste emissions respectively, with meat contributing 21 per cent and other animal- sourced foods contributing 12 per cent.37 Whether we eat all plants, mostly plants or an omnivore diet, we generate significant emissions via the food we waste, but the biggest source of waste is plant foods.

Book excerpt by Jayne Buxton
Published: July 16th, 2022

Social Media links:
Twitter: @JayneReesBuxton
Website: thegreatplantbasedcon.com
References Chapter 9