do you have to be vegetarian to eat green?

Bacon and eggs – A day’s work for a chicken; A lifetime commitment for a pig (Anonymous)

I was various breeds of ‘vegetarian’ for over thirteen years, mostly because I wanted to eat sustainably. When people asked why I was vegetarian it was easy to explain, and people respected me for it- cows fart-out greenhouse gases, our oceans are overfished, and surely chicken is bad too… But after a while started to feel that the ‘green’ label I got by being vegetarian wasn’t necessarily deserved.

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There’s no doubt that eating meat is energy and resource intensive- it’s scientific fact. As energy moves up in the food web- from plants to herbivores to meat-eaters, only ten percent is harnessed at each step. Being vegetarian means cutting out the middleman- a vegetarian meal will use one tenth of the energy and resources to produce than a meat-dish.

Kerbing climate change is one very good reason to reduce your meat and dairy consumption. A University of Chicago study found that a vegetarian diet produced far less greenhouse gases than an average diet- the same as downgrading from an SUV to a small sedan (about 1.5 tonnes a year). The main reason for this is the methane emitted by livestock, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In Australia, livestock are the third largest source of greenhouse pollution- nearly equal to all transport emissions!

However, eating green isn’t all that black and white. A WWF report on greenhouse emissions from food found that a vegetarian diet could actually increase the one’s ecological footprint. Switching from beef and/or milk to highly refined products like tofu and meat-imitation products such as ‘Quorn’ could actually result in a higher impact, with more arable land required than a regular diet.

The way I see it, it’s all about making better choices- getting the balance right. A study by Cornell University found that while vegetarian diets needed the least amount of agricultural land to support, diets with a small amount of locally sourced meat and dairy (56 grams per day, equal to about one egg) were slightly more efficient in terms of land use.

So it’s not that simple. But the good news is that you don’t have to be a vegetarian or any other ‘arian’ to reduce your impact. Decreasing your meat and dairy consumption will decrease your ecological footprint, but it’s definitely not an ‘all or nothing’. Likewise, if you’re vegetarian and you care about your environmental impact you can’t expect to have a low impact just by not eating meat, you need to think about your diet as a whole. If you replace meat with the wrong stuff, you might actually increase your impact. And lets not forget, its not just about reducing greenhouse emissions, there’s lots more to it than that- native stocks, land use, pollution, water use and waste all need to be considered in making the right dietary choices for the environment.

I personally have moved away from a strictly vegetarian diet. Not because eating meat is good for the environment (it’s not), but because I’ve made the choice to think about my diet holistically to lower my ecological footprint while keeping myself healthy. For me this has meant keeping a largely vegetable-based diet, but once or twice a week eating either kangaroo, (a high-iron, low fat and low environmental impact meat), sustainably caught seafood or organic free-range chicken. In turn, I am trying to decrease my dairy consumption (while I used to omit meat from my diet I generally consumed a lot of dairy and soy-based products) and I no longer buy soy-based products (more on that later). I still don’t eat beef, or meat from hooved animals in general. But its not just meat or its substitute that I think about- I’m trying to make better choices from all parts of the food triangle (whichever way it stands these days!). My diet is no longer a title, it’s a way of thinking. It’s liberating. It’s by no means the most environmentally friendly diet possible, but I’m trying.

And let’s admit it- any excuse to devote head-space to eating must be worth a shot. As George Bernard Shaw said:

There is no sincerer love than the love of food.

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has your food seen more of the world than you have?

‘Food miles’ is a concept that has been picking up a big following over the last few years. It’s a simple way to choose food based on the greenhouse gases generated by its transportation- food miles are the distance that an item of food has travelled from production to your plate. Food grown locally will generally have a much lower carbon footprint, while food shipped or flown from overseas will have much greater emissions.

A report by CERES estimates that the average basket of food purchased in Melbourne will have been transported a total of of 70,803 km, nearly two times the circumference of the earth. That’s some big greenhouse emissions. No wonder the environmentally conscious among us have started counting their food miles. There’s some nice secondary benefits to this too- strengthening local economies by supporting small farms, local jobs and local shops.

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Become a locavore

It’s easy. Read the labels on food you buy to see where it’s produced and choose products that are made locally, particularly those that are refrigerated as these require even more energy. Source food from your community; such as from local farmers markets, box schemes, community gardens, food co-ops and Community Supported Agriculture groups (such as Food Connect). Better still, source food from your own backyard if you have one, and share and swap with friends. Where possible, eat foods that suit the local climate and are in season, it means they’re less likely to have travelled far to get to your shopping bag. Why not get some exercise and ride your bike to the markets? And when you do need to use your car, save some time by planning for bigger, less frequent shopping trips.

Is there more to it than that?

Of course, like any concept that challenges people to think about what they eat, the nay-sayers have come out to play. Having had a long stint as vegetarian, I have on many occasions been shocked by the reaction that people have had to my own personal choice on what I eat. People get really worked up when you suggest they put more thought into what they eat, even if you’re just quietly leading by example. These food-mile nay-sayers do have some good points though, triggered by some selected life-cycle assessments on certain food products, some that even showed that locally grown products could have a bigger carbon footprint than imported products, you know, like tomatoes grown in a heated greenhouse producing more carbon emissions than those imported to the UK. (Mind you, these case studies were spruiked by agricultural and trade ministers and others with a vested interest in free trade).

Measuring food miles doesn’t take into account all of the greenhouse emissions involved in getting that food to your plate. There are other things to consider, such as such as the energy used in seeding and harvest, processing, packaging, storage, shopping and even food preparation. These sorts of things can be accurately assessed in a life-cycle assessment of a product, a rigorous method of assessing all of the resources and energy that go into producing a particular product, essentially giving us its environmental footprint. When we’re shopping at our local shop or market, we can’t exactly carry out one of these life-cycle assessments, can we? Of course we can’t. But we can make some informed choices based on the basic information that is available to us.

It’s common sense really

I’ll give these more attention in later posts, but some obvious things to think about when considering the whole life cycle of the food you buy, in addition to the distance it has travelled are:

  • Packaging – the less the better. Less energy to produce it and less waste when you’re finished with it.
  • Processing – again, the less the better. Locally grown fresh garlic is going to have a lower carbon footprint than that packaged, preserved and refrigerated garlic from the supermarket.
  • Locally suitable. This might require a few questions to your local grower at first, or a little bit of background of research, but basically the harder it is to grow in your backyard the bigger the footprint its likely to have. Think fertilisers, pesticides, water consumption, and energy.

At the end of the day, it’s about comparing apples to apples. That is, fresh, locally grown, organic, in season apples versus imported, genetically modified, dehydrated, packaged and preserved apples. It’s not a hard choice, is it?

welcome to eat your green!

We’re very excited to launch our blog ‘eat your green’! The purpose for this blog, is to discuss ways that we can make better choices for the environment in terms of what we eat.

It’s not meant to be a manual, and its not about allocating yet another category to the human food web. It’s just about making better choices.

Most of us are getting pretty good at being global citizens in our every day lives. We recycle our rubbish, we take shorter showers, switch off the light when we leave the room and try to drive a little less. However, that little thing we do every day to keep us living doesn’t quite have the same straightforward rules to it yet, and it probably never will. But by sharing the things we’ve learnt when trying to lesson our food-footprint, we can help make sure that we as a planet don’t eat ourselves out of house and home.

Stay tuned for coming blog posts- to start with we’ll be covering food miles, vegetarianism, and more.

Enjoy!  You can ‘like’ us on facebook and follow us on twitter, and don’t forget to share with your friends, because afterall,

“Knowledge is the food of the soul” (Plato)