How green are meat substitutes?

This time last year, over 350,000 people partook in Veganuary. They gave up all animal products for the duration of January (yes, that includes cheese). It has been widely accepted that an animal free diet can greatly reduce an individual’s carbon footprint. However, others have argued that vegan alternatives are just as environmentally damaging as their meat counterparts. What is the true impact of soya milk and coconuts, and more importantly, how does it compare to dairy milk and beef?

Animal Ethics and Deforestation

One of the main reasons people are choosing to turn to a vegan diet is the treatment and slaughter of animals in the farming industry. On top of animals that are slaughtered for the consumption of meat, every year around 95,000 male dairy calves are shot as simply a by-product of production. 

Yet some have pointed out that the production of soya (a key component of many vegan alternatives) is possibly having a detrimental effect on animals outside of the farm. The WWF found that soya bean production is one of the largest agricultural drivers of deforestation, second only to beef, and the majority of cultivation takes place in and around the Amazon Rainforest

Surely this suggests that we should be avoiding soya-based products? At first glance you’d think yes. But quick delve into what exactly all this soya is used for paints a different picture. Only 6% of all soya produced is directly consumed by humans, in products like soya milk and tofu. The rest is used to support the meat and dairy industry. 

So, in fact it is the meat and dairy industry that is responsible for the majority of deforestation caused by soya production. When you remove this factor, the effects of soya are actually much less. This is another reason to move away from meat and dairy, helping slow the continued destruction of a habitat so important to biodiversity. 

Soya is responsible for a large portion of deforestation, although may be linked more to animal rearing than alternative products… Image: Pixabay.


Everything we buy and consume has a carbon footprint. This includes the CO2 released during the production and transportation of products. Some worry that the growing demand for vegan staples, the components of which are grown predominantly in sub-tropical regions such as South America, will lead into an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from aeroplanes, trucks, and lorries. University of Oxford researcher, Joseph Poore, warned that what we consume can have unexpected impacts, stating that “air-transported fruit and veg can create more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram than poultry meat.”

However, in a 2021 list compiled by, 9 out of the 10 foods with the highest carbon footprints in the UK market were animal products. In fact, Poore described meat and dairy products as being “in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment.” 

It was found that the amount of CO2 released in the production of 1kg of beef was the equivalent of driving a car 158 miles. Soybean oil on the other hand had a “relatively low carbon footprint,” only releasing the equivalent of 4.25 miles. Tofu was even less, at 1.75 miles.

Counting Calories? Count Your Carbon, Too | Columbia Public Health
CO2 emissions of different foods. Image: Public Health Columbia.

So, do claims that vegan diets damage the environment really hold water? It would seem not. In fact, the impact of products like soya and tofu seems negligible when compared to that of meat and dairy. It seems that every dietary choice comes with its own set of advantages and drawbacks but if you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint, a reduction in beef, lamb and dairy is a good place to start.

By Catherine Upex

Header image: Live Kindly