How to Make Your Vegan Diet More Sustainable

Kicka här för hela inlägget på svenska: En guide till klimatsmart veganism

Mike and I aren’t outspoken vegans, and we might never become ones either. We like to say that “we eat mostly plants”, and that is indeed very true – I would say that over the course of a year, roughly 95% of our energy intake is plant-based. Perhaps most would call themselves vegans if that’s what their record looked like, perhaps not. Perhaps some think we’re hypocrites for not going “all in”, labeling ourselves vegans and being done with it. Regardless, we believe that for the greater good, it will be of positive influence if people see and hear about a slightly less rigid approach to food. We think we have a much greater chance of inspiring others to eat more green and eco-friendly if they don’t feel as if they need to convert completely. And so, that’s what we try to do! We will never in a million years shame someone for their choice of diet, but instead hope to cook and spread recipes that look so darn good we’ll attract vegan devotees and carnivores alike. The bottomline is – for us – that it’s better to be including than excluding, that all green meals count even if you eat those that aren’t and that there are a bunch of positive changes to make without having to go completely cold turkey (I’m not sure that would even count as a pun – but hey, none intended!).

all things plant-based can’t be assumed to be fault-free

This brings us to the actual topic of today, and that is of veganism and eco-friendliness. Are these two the same? Does eating plant-based mean a smaller environmental footprint per se, or are there two sides to this coin too? Well, yes and no. Generally, eating plant-based is the best option for our planetary health, as plants typically generate a significantly smaller carbon footprint than animal-based products. The intention behind this piece, however, is not to explain why eating plant-based is good, to be preferred or even could – heck – save the world. No, that’s already been said and proven, hence we’ll try to shed light on some lesser-explored topics instead.

Because however awesome it would have been, all things plant-based can’t be assumed to be fault-free. There are, in fact, a few plants that we should be quite restrictive with – and some of them are common turn-tos for those going plant-based. And no, let’s not get into the comparisons of a “bad plant” vs. a “good piece of meat” – there are often more variables than we can count to the equation, and that’s not the point. The point here is to learn a bit about a few crops that we maybe shouldn’t munch too much on, 365 days out of the year – for ethical and environmental reasons alike – and what alternatives we have. In other words, this is a little guide to making your plant-based diet as eco-friendly and planet-aware as you possibly can, without having to sacrifice flavor, texture or eating pleasure. As per usual, we base our suggestions on the options that can be sourced locally here in Sweden, and trust that you all know what counterparts are available if you’re located in a different part of the world. If not, please ask and we’ll be happy to help figure it out! Ok, let’s begin.

Almonds

Problem: Almonds require a lot of water, however the majority of the world’s total yield (~80%) is being grown in draught-ridden California and therefore needs irrigation. In fact, in order to keep up with the ever-growing demand in a region not exactly spoiled with rainfall, farmers are drilling for groundwater at a high pace, tapping into a more or less finite resource. Groundwater is water that has accumulated over long periods of time, and has only been able to do so thanks to enough precipitation to infiltrate rock and soil. Considering the state of California’s climate, it won’t come easy to replenish these groundwater reserves. In other words, reducing the demand for almonds is key. We can’t go on casually consuming a product that comes at such a high price for our planet, but need to turn to other, more sustainable alternatives instead.

Better alternatives: Many use almond milk in their coffee, and while an alternative with a lower carbon footprint than, let’s say, regular cow’s milk, there are other options worth exploring. We will vouch for oat milk as by far the best plant-based milk option out there. With more and more brands developing a barista edition, there’s really no reason to not give it a go in your morning cup of joe. Oats – being a grain and not a nut – is a plant needing relatively small amounts of resources, and it can also be grown in bulk here in the north. (We did an barista edition oat milk taste test a week back, which you’re more than welcome to read.)

If we look beyond almond milk, and focus on the actual almonds instead, the most sustainable and readily available alternatives are sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. Seeds are, in general, more eco-friendly than tree nuts (that is, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts etc.), much thanks to their significantly smaller demand for water. Nutritionally, they have similar profiles, and they can be used in much the same way in cooking. Out of the tree nuts, hazelnuts can also be regarded a slightly better alternative than almonds. Even though they require lots of water too (about 50% of what’s needed for almonds), they’re far more drought-resistant and can grow in harsh soil types, where many other plants would fail. In Sweden, we can get European-grown, organic hazelnuts – and we’ll have to agree that seems a far better choice than almonds all the way from bone dry California. But before we wrap up, we also need to mention peanuts*. Peanuts are – contrary to the name – a type of legume and not technically a nut. Its water demand is similar to that of seeds (in other words, fairly low), and as with all legumes, peanuts help fixate nitrogen in the soil. This, in turn, reduces the need for applying fertilizers and leaves the microbes underground undisturbed, able to to do what they do best: promote a healthy soil. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that if we can get our soil back on track, we can literally save the world (if you haven’t already, watch The Need to Grow – it’s fantastic). In other words, ditch the (often very expensive) almond butter and go for peanut butter instead, and don’t hesitate making peanuts your snacking nut either. Nutritionally, there seems to be a belief that almonds are “healthier”, but that’s not quite true. They both contain monounsaturated fats, which can reduce the risk of heart disease, a good amount of protein (20% in almonds, 26% in peanuts), and a range of vitamins and minerals. Therefore, calling one healthier than the other is definitely a stretch. Go for peanuts.

Asparagus (out of season)

Problem: Unless they’ve been sourced locally, asparagus will have been transported by airplane, turning its CO2-emissions into something of a horror story. Because asparagus is best enjoyed shortly after harvesting and is a fairly delicate vegetable, it’s all about getting it from the field to the consumer as quickly as possible. In other words, when you’re shopping at your local store here in Sweden and see asparagus from Peru, stay far away from it.

Better alternatives: Well, there’s nothing that quite resembles asparagus, we’ll happily admit that. But going from that statement to saying we need to have access to it all year round is a big jump. We urge you to view, treat and appreciate asparagus as the very short-season, late-spring delicacy that it is, and go all in when we have beautiful Swedish asparagus on hand. Yes, it’ll be a little more expensive – but it’ll taste a million times better, and leave your climate-conscience sparkly clean. For the home grower or those who can lay their hands on chard, using the stems as asparagus replacement is excellent. Slices of broccoli stem (i.e. the part we often throw out but should hold on to) can also work as a perfect substitute in e.g. quiches, tarts and pasta dishes.

Avocado

Problem: The sky-rocketing demand for avocados is causing large-scale deforestation, robbing thousands of animals and plants of their native homes and wrecking havoc in once stable eco-systems. Biodiversity is key to a healthy planet, but as monocultures are becoming more and more the norm all over the world, large areas of land are left in a poor state. Degraded soil quality, struggling pollinators, increased proneness to pests and diseases (which in turn means increased usage of harmful pesticides) and less ability to withstand extreme weather are some of the negative effects, and those aren’t to be taken lightly upon. In addition to deforestation, the avocado tree is also a thirsty crop, as somewhere around 2000 liters of water are required per 1 kg fruit. And last but not least, there are also social implications to consider. With the rise of demand and increased profits for avocado farmers, the industry has gotten the (unwanted) attention of Mexican drug cartels (Mexico is the largest producer of the crop, providing about 45% of the world’s avocados). Reports tell stories of how these criminal groups demand part of the profit from the farmers, threatening to damage their land or cause harm to their families unless they comply. Basically, we have many reasons to cut back on our avocado consumption, which should be viewed much more like a once-in-a-while-splurge and not a commodity-item.

Better alternatives: How do we typically enjoy our avocados? Mashed on toast, for sure. Turned into delicious guacamole, absolutely. Sliced and served nicely as a part of a “bowl”, definitely. Cubed in a salad, added to a smoothie – yes and yes. What can we rely on instead, that won’t harm planet and people alike? For the toast and the guacamole, try substituting green peas instead. Adding a bit of tahini will boost the creaminess. It won’t taste exactly the same, but not too far off – and think about the service you’ll do the world at the same time! For all the other applications, no – there won’t be a perfect alternative, but we’ll give you some ideas anyway. For your smoothie, try greens (spinach or kale, for example) + peanut butter for a similar nutritional boost and texture. If you buy rescued bananas (that otherwise would have gone bad – that’s the only time we buy imported fruit), you can throw these in the freezer and then use them in smoothies for that ultra-smooth, thick touch. In salads and bowls, shoot for cubes of creamy, roasted starchy veggies (potatoes, butternut squash and celery root are all excellent), marinated beans (preferably the larger varieties) and – again – slices of steamed broccoli stem. Adding toasted pumpkin seeds means you get some good fats into the meal as well.

Fresh berries (out of season)

Problem: Imported fresh berries have most likely been transported by airplane, due to their fragility and short “life-span” as fresh. That’s really all there is to it – so when you see those little cartons with fresh berries at the store, remember how they made it there. Does it really make sense that we indulge in blueberries from across the world in the middle of the winter, when our planet has to pay such a high price?

Better alternatives: If you check out the frozen food section, you’ll find Swedish + organic berries right there (blueberries, lingonberries and cloudberries the last time we checked). Better yet, you grab a bucket and pick your own as if life depended on it during the summer, and freeze for later! Besides frozen berries, shoot for locally grown apples and pears during the winter.

Cashew nuts

Problem: Here, the issue goes beyond that of water usage and involves a (highly) problematic processing stage. Cashews contain an oil on the inside of the shell which is caustic, meaning it will cause severe skin burns on the hands of those shelling them. Women make up the majority of the (often underpaid) workers, and because gloves will slow you down when you shell – and your payment depends on how much you can shell in a day – protection is a rare sight. Unless you purchase organically grown, fair-trade labeled cashews, please leave them alone until the industry has been cleaned up properly. A Human Right’s Watch report came out on the subject already back in 2011 (coining the term “blood cashews”), and since the problems still remain, it’s time for us consumers to step up our game. We had no idea this was an issue until quite recently, which is surprising to say the least. It goes to show how little we know of what’s going on behind the scenes – and the importance of trying to stay informed.

Better alternatives: Cashews have risen to the sky as a popular ingredient in vegan cooking and baking – soaked and then blended, they make for smooth desserts and sauces without the addition of dairy, and they’re commonly the main ingredient in vegan “cheese”. Cashews have also traditionally been the nut to sprinkle on top of various types of Asian dishes. Does this still feel alright to do, given the circumstances of the processing? Not quite. Sunflower seeds are great soaked and blended, and can be used in desserts, sauces and “ricotta”-like vegan cheese alike. For sprinkling on top of for example a curry, we go for peanuts all the way.

Fresh legumes (out of season)

Problem: The issue here is the same as for berries – unless grown locally, fresh sugar snap peas, snow peas, haricot verts etc. will have been flown in from afar (it often says Kenya on the back of those little plastic bags we see here at the Swedish grocery stores). The reason is the same for legumes as for berries: they’re fragile and will go bad quickly.

Better alternatives: To begin with, the season for Swedish-grown legumes available at the supermarket is very short. Here, a farmers market will be a much, much better bet – and while you’re at it, buy a lot and freeze yourself! Most legumes grow very well in the Swedish climate, and if we all show that there is a high demand for them and that we care about where our food comes from, maybe we can create change. If farmers markets aren’t your thing, the frozen food section will be your friend when you want to lay your hands on a more sustainable option than those well-travelled snow peas from Kenya. As far as Swedish-grown, frozen vegetables available, we’ve so far only seen green peas – but they’re delicious and affordable to say the least, though. If you expand to Europe, you’ll find haricot verts, spinach, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, based on our most recent investigation. It’s always encouraged to flip the package over and read where the food comes from. Even though transportation typically makes up a relatively small part of the climate footprint of a food item, it’s still worth considering. And in terms of fresh legumes with lots of air miles, we simply have to take a stance and say thanks, but no thanks. If we look for other types of alternatives, adding green cabbage and kohlrabi is a great idea. These crunchy yet light types of vegetables resemble snap and snow peas quite well, and the flavor is mild enough. If the dish is more of a cold salad and not a cooked meal, add apple slices (provided you use a crispy variety) to the list of substitutions.

Rice

Problem: Rice fields emit large amounts of both methane and nitrous oxide. Methane is a greenhouse gas roughly 30 (!) times more potent than carbon dioxide (albeit shorter-lived), and is a major component in global warming. The exact number as to the total of methane emissions from rice fields is not one easy to find, but many reports point to rice farming being responsible for up to 20% of all man-made methane emissions. Considering the fact that the urgent task ahead is to significantly decrease greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the constantly growing demand for rice can’t be looked past. However, there’s another aspect that can’t be looked past either: the fact that rice is a necessary staple ingredient in large parts of the world, where many depend on it for survival. In other words, to those with alternatives – try to decrease your rice consumption and shoot for more sustainable options most of the time.

Better alternatives: While white, fluffy rice can be downright amazing, there are endless other grains that fill more or less the same purposes in cooking, without causing harm to our planet (or bringing a serving of arsenic to the dinner table, which some would say is much appreciated). Here in Sweden, our go-to grains could easily be for example whole spelt (hel dinkel) and pearled wheat (matvete), both deliciously nutty substitutions with high fiber content, among other things. Cook these according to package instructions, and add some bouillon powder towards the end, and the result will be amazing. Not as fluffy and “light” as white rice, but both can be used in much the same way. If we broaden the horizon a little bit, couscous, bulgur and risoni also qualify as more eco-friendly options than rice – but remember that the lesser the product has been processed, the lesser the energy used. All of those certainly come across as little more like indulgences, as opposed to the more wholesome feel of spelt and pearled wheat. Risotto can successfully be made with pearled wheat (we have a recipe for a delicious Winter “Spring” Risotto – and actually one for Wheat Berry “Fried Rice” as well), and also lentils, for the more elaborate home cook. Last but not least, yet another alternative is to try cauliflower rice. It’s not as filling or energy-dense as a grain-option, but nonetheless delicious – and of course, you’ll get a lot of micro nutrients as a bonus. And if those alternatives can’t get us to reduce our rice consumption, then we’ll throw a last one out there: the loyal potato. Not one bit resembling rice, but certainly a crop synonymous with Sweden and Swedish cuisine. Swedes consume more and more rice, pasta and exotic carbohydrate sources and simultaneously turn our backs towards the staple of staple ingredients – for no good reason. More potatoes to the people, we say. (Just make sure they’re organic, since pesticide-usage is widespread in conventional potato farming).

Quinoa

Problem: The intense demand for quinoa has pushed prices so high overseas (the bulk is grown in Peru and Bolivia) that the local population can no longer afford to buy what has been a staple food for centuries. Junk food has sadly become cheaper, and traditional farmland has been expanded and pushed out other crops, leading to a decrease in biodiversity, soil depletion, erosion etc. In other words: let’s not take what’s not ours to have. Quinoa has been peacefully farmed in the Andes for the past 6000 years, able to both provide a nutritious food source for the local population and exist in harmony with the environment. Can we take action in order for things to return to what they once were?

Better alternatives: Quinoa rose to the sky as a “healthy” alternative to other carbohydrate sources about 10-12 years ago – it’s high in protein, gluten-free and overall hyped as a “superfood”. It’s used as a grain in cooking, but actually categorized as a seed (much like amaranth and buckwheat – and these are all referred to as “pseudo-grains”). While we can’t argue quinoa isn’t a nutritious product, we can certainly present multiple other alternatives that will cause significantly less harm to our planet but fill the same purpose in cooking. But before we get into any of that: did you know that there’s Swedish quinoa? The company Nordisk Råvara (no affiliation) sells Swedish and organically grown quinoa through selected retailers but also through a web shop, meaning anyone who’s craving quinoa can actually go buy some, without feeling the slightest bit guilty. Isn’t that awesome? Turns out quinoa likes our colder, Nordic climate! If that somehow doesn’t intrigue you, whole spelt and pearled wheat are two excellent quinoa alternatives (as mentioned under “Rice”), nutrient as well as energy dense, and grown here in Sweden. Those two contain gluten, however, but buckwheat does not – and that can be grown in Sweden as well, and prepared in a similar way. For other grains and carbohydrate alternatives, see the “Rice” section above.

*A note on peanuts, peanut butter and it’s bad reputation: there have been cases of aflatoxins (a toxic agent produced by mold) being present in peanut products, and that’s of course problematic. However, studies show that these problems typically exist in the developing world, where peanuts is a staple crop and food regulations few and far between. Plenty of studies claim that buying peanuts/peanut butter where the nuts were grown in more controlled ways – and the actual butter produced in the West –  is perfectly safe. We feel 100% comfortable consuming peanut butter, but we make sure it’s been responsibly sourced in a regulated part of the world, and that it’s from a recognized, well-known brand. For those interested, we buy ours in 1.5 kg buckets from Kung Markatta through bodystore.com (no affiliation with either Kung Markatta or Bodystore). It’s organic, lasts us a long time and comes out far cheaper than buying the small containers at the store. It comes unsalted, however, so we just stir in 1 1/2 tsp salt into each new bucket we open and that’s that.

Resources

  • 88 Acres: https://88acres.com/blogs/news/water-footprint-of-seeds-vs-nuts
  • Climate News Network: https://climatenewsnetwork.net (various pages)
  • Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org (various pages)
  • Livsmedelsverket: https://www.livsmedelsverket.se (various pages)
  • World Wildlife Foundation: https://www.wwf.se (various pages)
  • You Matter: https://youmatter.world/en/benefits-avocados-production-bad-people-planet-27107/

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