Vegan? Local? Organic? The Sustainavore’s Dilemma.

Photo by marcusjroberts | flickr.com

Photo by marcusjroberts | flickr.com

My New Year’s resolution was to adopt the most sustainable diet I could. I was already eating local and already on a mostly organic vegetarian diet, but taking one dramatic step forward, I stepped into the realm of veganism.

But lo-and behold! Making my diet a sustainable one wasn’t going to be that easy. Being an organic vegan-locavore didn’t come with its challenges. I often had to turn to research to answer environmental dilemmas that I had never thought of before.

For example, is imported cane sugar more environmentally-friendly than local honey? Is soy milk from Quebec (made with imported beans) really more sustainable than cow’s milk from my area?

Here are the answers that I’ve found so far:

SUGAR VS. HONEY (VEGAN VS. LOCAL)

A 2003 Swedish study of lifecycle inputs showed that honey (both local and imported) is by far more environmentally-friendly than sugar. Growing sugar cane is energy intensive, erodes soil, and uses an enormous amount of water.

For example, cane farmers in Queensland, Australia use 40% of the total irrigation water in the state. According to the Canadian Honey Council, beekeepers make little impact on farm ecosystems. In fact, honey typically comes from crops or from wildflowers that occur naturally in nature.

LOCAL MILK VS. NON-LOCAL SOY MILK (ORGANIC, LOCAL VS. ORGANIC, VEGAN)

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (2008) showed that “food miles” are actually less significant than most people think. While greenhouse gases (GHGs) are released during transport, it pales in comparison to the amount of GHGs released during the production stage of most foods (83% of the average household’s footprint for food consumption).

Research showed that a shift in dietary habits from a dairy and meat-based diet to a plant-based diet was more effective than “buying local”. The amount of GHGs released during the production stage of meat and dairy products far outweighed the GHGs released during the transport of imported products.

An entirely localized diet was shown to reduce GHGs by an equivalent to 1,600 km of driving/year. Shifting to a vegan diet even once a week reduced GHGs by 1,860 km/year and shifting to a vegan diet completely reduced GHGs by 13,000 km/year (more than eight times the amount of an omnivorous local diet). This is not to undermine the other benefits that local food brings.  Contributing to the local economy and community-building are two very important contributions of this market.

I guess what I am trying to say is that eating sustainably doesn’t mean fitting into distinct categories. Honey might not be vegan, but it sure is sustainable. Organic soy beans may not be local, but they are more sustainable than local cow’s milk. Eating sustainably does take work. It means empowering yourself to eat both nutritionally and consciously. When choosing between an organic mango and a conventionally grown local apple… tough luck. Time to do some research.