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Sustainable Veganism: Are These Plant-based Staples Truly Sustainable?

By Elizabeth Kovacs

The statement that a plant-based diet is better for the environment is one that is no longer easily disputed. A plethora of evidence-based research supports the claim that plant-based foods require far less resources to produce and in turn, generate a fraction of the greenhouse gases and environmental pollutants that meat, eggs, and dairy products do. Over 50% of carbon dioxide emissions and 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are attributed to the collective animal agriculture industry. From a sustainability standpoint, making more plant-based food choices may be one of the most helpful things an individual can do to reduce their impact on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint. With the sustainability and health benefits of plant-based diets becoming more widely known and accepted, more and more individuals are making vegan and plant-based meals a regular part of their diets, with many going completely plant-based. But are some popular plant-based alternatives doing more harm than good for the environment? 1-2

One of these alternatives is palm oil. Palm oil is not found exclusively in vegan products, but it is a commonplace ingredient in vegan and dairy-free alternatives for ice cream, butter and margarine, cheese, cookies, and spreads. It is also found in many “accidentally vegan” products such as Oreos as well as beauty and cosmetic products. It has gained popularity in many foods, especially plant-based, for its lack of trans-saturated fat which seemingly makes it a healthier alternative to other vegetable oils. Because of this increased demand, many farmers looking to cash in on the growing industry in Southeast Asia are cutting down tropical rainforests and replacing them with plants that will be harvested for palm oil. The removal of these trees is alarming for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that the removal of crucial species of trees will increase amounts of carbon dioxide in these areas. 3

Southeast Asia is filled with tropical rainforests, which account for a huge percentage of the earth’s total biodiversity. Not only are the Southeast Asian tropical rainforests home to a wide array of diverse and economically valuable plants, but they are home to many endangered species as well. The palm oil plantations that are replacing tropical rainforests are unsuitable environments for many species, causing habitat fragmentation and resource scarcity for the animals whose natural habitat is within these forests. There is no doubt a link between the increase of palm oil production in Indonesia and the decrease in orangutan population, which has shrunk by 50% in recent decades. Palm oil production has been named by numerous scientists and evidence-based studies as the leading cause for rainforest deforestation and subsequent loss of biodiversity in Southeast Asia, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Until laws protecting tropical rainforests become more effective and corporations are held accountable for their unethical palm oil usage, vegans and non-vegans alike should avoid products that contain palm oil. 3-6

Another issue of ethical consumption concerns the avocado, a food that is certainly not exclusive to a plant-based diet but is a staple in many vegan and plant-based recipes and meals. Avocado is commonly used as a replacement for cheese or dairy-based sauces in recipes as well as a stand-alone favorite for vegans on toast, sandwiches, burritos, and numerous other dishes. The demand for avocados has skyrocketed within the past few decades, as it has been dubbed a superfood due to its healthy fat content, although this is only due in part to the expansion of plant-based diets. Because of this massive increase in avocado demand, many farmers in Mexico are clearing out land, quite like in Southeast Asia, to make room for this promising money crop. 7

The rapid destruction of temperate Mexican forests in order to integrate avocado orchards comes with various complications. Intensive crop systems such as avocado orchards utilize large amounts of fossil fuels and have a much higher carbon dioxide output than the majority of temperate region crops. They are also highly dependent on nitrogen-rich fertilizers, which lead to runoff and groundwater saturation, algal blooms, and eventually the Gulf dead zone. Nitrate concentration, which can influence human hemoglobin concentration, is significantly higher in land that is used for avocado orchards than it is for temperate forests. Because of the monumental increase in avocado demand, fossil fuels are being used, and soil quality is being compromised at an alarming rate. While the avocado industry is an important output for Mexico, the rate at which avocados are in demand can be detrimental to their agricultural systems and contribute to tremendous loss of biodiversity in their temperate forests. 7-8

Another crop that has expanded with the rise of plant-based diets are nuts, specifically the cashew. Cashews are very commonly used as a substitute for vegan cheese and in vegan cream-based sauces, as they produce a similar texture and flavor when soaked in water and blended with seasoning and spices. A quick internet search for ‘vegan cheese’ turns up copious amounts of results for cashew-based cheeses, and restaurants and manufacturers of dairy-free cheese are familiar with the concept. Cashew consumption has gone up 35% just from 2012 to 2016, and with the rise of dairy-free and plant-based diets this number is only expected to grow. Cashew nuts are grown in a shell, although the vast majority of individuals who buy cashews are probably only familiar with the unshelled variety sold in grocery stores. Deshelling the cashews is a job that is done by hand, mostly by underpaid women in India and Vietnam who sustain chemical burns on their hands from the constant contact with the shells. While there seems to be little evidence that cashew farm workers suffer poor working conditions and pay such as these in Africa, another large exporter of cashews, it is important to understand where the nuts are sourced. 9-10

In conclusion, a vegan and plant-based diet is undeniably more ethical and sustainable than a diet that contributes to animal agriculture in its current state. However, care should be taken to ensure that plant-based products of choice are sustainable and ethically sourced regarding human lives, endangered animal species, and preservation of natural biodiversity. The most sustainable diet is one that favors plant-based foods, but that is also rich in local foods and free of palm oil. Use of avocados and nuts such as cashews should be limited, and the individual consuming them should be conscious of where these products are sourced and whether they are sourced ethically. Individuals who want to consume a sustainable diet should continue to educate themselves on issues related to food security, ethical farming, and deforestation in order to truly make a difference through their food choices.



  1. “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options” The Livestock, Environment, and Development Initiative. Web. 2006.
  2. Hickman, Martin. “Study Claims Meat Creates Half of All Greenhouse Gases.” The Independent. 2009. Web.
  3. “Is Harvesting Palm Oil Destroying the Rainforests?” Scientific American. 2019. Web.
  4. Fitzherbert, E. B.; Struebig, M. J.;  Morel, A.;  Danielsen, F.; Brühl, C.A.; Donald, P. F.; Phalan, B.; “How Will Palm Oil Expansion Affect Biodiversity?” Trends Ecol Evol. 2008; 10; 538-4.


Cite this article: 

Kovacs, E. (2019). Sustainable Veganism: Are These Plant-based Staples Truly Sustainable? D.U. Quark, Contest Submissions.

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