January is generally the time to guilt-trip yourself into making new year’s resolutions, promising this time you’ll be a better human.

This often means giving up drinking or giving up sugar; and the latest craze, “Veganuary”, means going vegan for the month of January.

The movement has more than 370,000 people formally signed up worldwide, which made Crikey wonder: just what would happen to Australia’s economy if every resident suddenly gave up meat, eggs and dairy? 

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Exactly how much would it benefit the climate, and how much would it hurt the collective hip pocket?

What would happen to the farmers? 

Farming is big business. The agriculture sector represents around 3% of gross domestic product and is worth around $59 billion (crops and livestock have almost equal value).

So if we decided to ditch the burgers, sausages and steaks, what would happen to the cows and the money that they bring in? According to Deakin University research fellow Dr Michalis Hadjikakou: nothing much. We’d just ship it abroad.

“The agriculture sector is export-driven, with 65% of what is produced exported rather than consumed domestically,” he told Crikey. A good price in the global market, coupled with high demand in Asian markets for Australian livestock, means “there’s still an incentive to continue livestock production”. 

And as Australian production isn’t overwhelmingly huge, there’s little risk of flooding the market and lowering the price. 

Would farm unemployment increase? 

Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing employ 2.5% of the workforce, with most working as livestock and crop farmers/workers. There are 78,700 livestock farmers alone. 

Farmers aren’t likely to give up their livestock just because domestic demand drops. But what if there was some incentive to stop farming animals — say, if the government put a cap on livestock to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Farmers’ focus would have to shift. 

“We still need to meet the demand for food,” Hadjikakou said. “There’d be more demand for other products such as plant-based protein.”  

But it’s not as simple as switching from cows to crops. “Land quality and suitability differ tremendously,” he said. A paddock might not have fertile soil, and farmers could find themselves unemployed if their land isn’t suitable for anything but grazing. 

Equally importantly, a farmer might not have the skills and resources to switch from one product to another. “There’s training costs, infrastructure such as irrigation and changes in the main inputs to production,” Hadjikakou said. “The agricultural system is so complex with so many intertwined flows and processes. Taking livestock out of the equation means everything would need to be reconfigured.” 

What about the nation’s health?

Let’s not sugarcoat it: almost everything we eat is coated in sugar. Two-thirds of Australian adults are overweight or obese. It’s a key risk factor for preventable disease, and one factor (of many) which contributes to this is how much meat we eat. 

The average Aussie eats 95kg of meat each year, well above the OECD average of 69kg. Given that a lot of this is in the form of high-calorie and carcinogenic processed meat, it’s not good for our health. 

But, according to Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Newcastle Clare Collins, the entire country turning vegan would actually be worse for public health. From osteoporosis to anemia to terrible immunity, Collins said the health costs would skyrocket. 

“You’d need to check people more rigorously for [nutrient deficiencies in calcium, iron, B12 and iodine],” she said. Calcium deficiencies lead to low bone density; a lack of the others leads to lethargy, impaired brain function, muscle weakness and low immunity. 

“If you’re going to go vegan, do it amazingly well,” Collins said. But, given Australians can’t even stick to the Australian Dietary Guidelines (which let’s be honest, are pretty straightforward), there’s no way most of us would be able to successfully navigate a healthy vegan lifestyle. 

Would the earth benefit?

This is a tricky one. Generally yes, cutting meat is good for the environment. Some studies estimate that vegan diets would cut food-related emissions by 70%, and the CSIRO found that eating vegan proteins generated $3.1 billion in environmental savings to emissions, water and land use in Australia in 2018.

But if we’re replacing meat with rice, almond milk or even cereal, we’re not doing the planet any favours. Rice farming is a major contributor to climate change, using ludicrous amounts of water and producing methane and nitrous oxide. It’s estimated that global rice farming has the same effect on global warming as 1200 coal power plants.

Popular vegan butter brand Nuttelex uses palm oil in most of its products, the procurement of which often involves mass deforestation and the endangerment of orangutans; one litre of almond milk requires 6098 litres of water to produce; in-demand products like quinoa are shipped in from around the world; and wheat fertiliser produces a huge amount of greenhouse gases.

But meat is worse. Livestock decimates the soil, crapping out all the chemicals and antibiotics fed to them; trees are razed to make room for them, exterminating local wildlife; and a single cow farts and burps out between 70kg and 120kg of methane a year.

So, yes, going vegan is good for the planet — provided you’re eating plenty of locally produced fruits, veggies and legumes. But real, lasting change isn’t quite as simple as everyone going cold turkey.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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