It takes 4650 liters of water to produce a single beef steak. While getting a soy burger onto your plate will only cost the world 200 liters. Scientists everywhere warn that we need to dramatically change our diet, to replace meat and dairy with plant-based food. Not necessarily because of animal welfare, but because that appears to be the only way to sustain our planet. Faced with all this, becoming vegan sounds like a logical choice. Inevitable almost. A moral duty, one might say. But after trying to be strictly vegan for one week, I can also tell you that it’s a struggle: physical, mental and a social battle that – at times – can feel like going against the very nature it aims to protect.
I’m a meat eater. And a dairy eater. A fish eater, a vegetarian, a vegan. I love food. All of it, steaks and salads included. I do not plan to give any of it up. So why try to go vegan for a week? Because I genuinely believe – no, let me correct that - I know (based on evidence supplied by much brighter minds) that reducing our consumption of animal products is one of the most important things we can do to protect this planet, the place I plan to live in in the foreseeable future. The place I assume your children will plan to live in.
I wanted to know to what degree it is possible to give up meat and all other animal products. And to know precisely how much it helps our the environment. That’s why I asked the world’s leading expert on water footprint, UT Professor Arjen Hoekstra, to help out and calculate exactly how much water I save if I eat only vegan for one week – and how much water it would save if we all did it. The answer? If you are an average Dutch consumer, by becoming a vegan you could save about 1300 litres a day. Well, it turns out I’m not an average Dutch consumer, (makes sense, I’m not Dutch), but I still saved about 600 liters a day. ‘A large number. It was a bit of a struggle, but I reached the moral high ground. It was totally worth it.’ That is what I thought it would feel like. The issue is, it did not. It didn’t feel worth it to me.
I started off strong. I had vegan dinner recipes at the ready. I shopped for all other supplies, making sure I had enough soy yoghurt for breakfast and soy milk to replace my regular coffee milk. Together with a ‘support group’ at the UT, I ate vegan lunches at various places on campus. All tasted well enough and (except for not being able to order coffee with soy milk at some places) I didn’t encounter any practical issues. Then the third day hit…
On my third day of a fully vegan diet I began to feel tired and irritable, despite of sleeping and eating more than enough. I was craving meat and chocolate, even though neither of those is something I eat on daily basis. I was annoyed that I couldn’t just go to a regular restaurant and enjoy a nice meal with my husband. I was annoyed that I couldn’t select most of the snacks offered in the cinema kiosk. I was annoyed that I had to carefully plan my lunches and snacks, because most shops don’t have a large vegan selection. I managed to work around it - I found an Indian restaurant with several vegan options, I carefully read labels to make sure that these particular gummy bears didn’t contain any pork fat – but I felt annoyed anyway. All the regular enjoyment I get from eating out and going to the movies was clouded by all the hassle of ‘being vegan’, by having to prepare, research, refuse.
On day five, after having stomach ache and feeling as if I haven’t had any coffee for days, I gave up. I ate meat. And it felt glorious! I expected to feel guilty, but my body was too happy to bother with ethical dilemmas. And how bad could it be to have one fish for dinner? Or some gummy bears? Or a piece of milk chocolate? Now, when I had all of those again (and steak), surely I realized what a horrible thing I did, giving up so easy. Actually, no.
Eating more vegan? By all means. Only vegan? Absolutely not. It might be more sustainable for the planet, but it does not seem to sustain my body. And I believe that many of my meat and milk bred countrymen would feel the same. Although I’m not a philosopher or an anthropologist to argue about the ‘human nature’, it doesn’t seem to be in our nature to never eat meat (or at least animal produce) – based on history and various cultures around the world. It is too strict and almost inhumane to deny yourself what your body is asking for.
If your body truly does not desire animal products, congratulations. You must belong to a more evolved, less self-involved species. The one that this planet needs.