A knife and fork sit next to a selection of vegetables including an onion, yellow pepper, mushroom, and garlic, all part of a vegan diet.
A knife and fork sit next to a selection of vegetables. Credit: Engin Akyurt / Pixabay Credit: Engin Akyurt / Pixabay

Vegans had the highest pro-environmental norms and lowest GHG emissions, followed by non-car owners, non-flyers, and apartment dwellers, according to a 2023 Swedish study. On average, vegans drove and flew less and used less household energy. Their average food expenditures were neither higher nor lower than non-vegans.

The study examined 715 individuals and households (pre-selected for pro-environmental views) who were cutting their GHG emissions in four ways: by not owning a car, not flying, not living in a detached house and having a vegan diet. Study participants fell into multiple categories. Eighty were vegans.

Researchers measured participants’ personal norms by having them rate their agreement with statements such as, “For the sake of the climate, I feel a moral obligation to…Restrict my flying/Eat vegetarian or vegan/Consume less/Repair things instead of buying new/Choose sustainable means of transport/Limit my energy use.”

Social change through veganism

What motivates people to become vegans? Besides mitigating climate change, vegans care about animal welfare, public health and forest conservation.

A 2022 study found that vegans had stronger moral convictions, greater collective efficacy (a belief they can make a positive difference), more anger (about the state of the world) and stronger identification with other vegans and with animals.

Veganism can be a form of collective action that is key to a broader societal transition.

The environmental significance of food consumption habits cannot be overstated. A comprehensive meta-analysis of the benefits of dietary change was published in the journal Science in 2018. It drew upon 570 previous studies, yielding a dataset including nearly 40,000 commercial farms in 119 countries.

The authors concluded that  a shift to diets that exclude animal products — but still provide adequate nutrition – could have “transformative potential.” They found that plant-based diets could reduce the land used to produce food by three-quarters, cut GHG emissions from food production in half, and reduce nutrient pollution of freshwater by half.

The authors acknowledged that most of the area devoted to livestock grazing is unsuitable for row crops. However, allowing natural vegetation to reestablish and soil carbon to re-accumulate on pasture lands could remove the equivalent of 8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year over a 100-year period.

Vegans may have science on their side, but they are bucking a global trend. A 2021 review predicts a moderate increase in global meat consumption, driven by rising incomes in low- and middle-income countries.

The current ratio of animal to plant-sourced protein in human diets varies widely across regions, ranging (in 2017) from 0.29 in Africa and southeast Asia, to 0.88 in the Americas, and 1.08 in Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union.

However, the potential for transformative dietary change is far higher in countries like the United States, where per capita meat consumption remained at around 124 kilograms per year between 2002 and 2017, far higher than the global average of 34 kilograms per year.

Canadians’ meat consumption showed a gradual decline over the same period, from 108 to 83 kilograms per year.

Transforming food systems

Speakers during a recent policy seminar emphasized the urgent need for food systems transformation. Hunger and food insecurity remain widespread. Forty-five per cent of childhood deaths are linked to malnutrition. Over 3 billion people lack access to a healthy diet.

Poor food quality leads to epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes, while huge quantities of food are wasted. Food price spikes, drought, conflict and refugees (from 40 million to 100 million over the last five years) are exacerbating these problems. Canada is not immune to these issues.

Chief scientist for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Ismahane Elouafi, suggested that a resilient food system needs thousands of companies rather than a few multinationals such as Unilever and Nestle, but banks resist investing in smaller-scale enterprises.

Other speakers called for increased recognition of the innovations of local and Indigenous producers, noting that farming practices must be site-specific.

The shift in terminology from “agriculture” to “food systems” is broadening the dialogue about food and environment. It highlights the importance of the food choices made by consumers in urban areas – many of whom are switching to plant-based diets.

The world is in crisis. We should be grateful for the leadership shown by vegans.


From April 16–22, rabble staff is participating in #2023VeganChallenge and we encourage you to come along with us for the ride!

Are you joining us this year? We’d love to hear from you! Share your vegan recipes and creations on social media with the hashtag #2023VeganChallenge – and we’ll do our best to reshare! If you’re interested in receiving an email at the end of our challenge with includes all the recipes we’ve shared as part of our #2023VeganChallenge, please sign up here

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.