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.
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.