If you’ve been starting to think about ways to reduce your environmental impact, you’ve likely come across suggestions that moving towards a plant-based diet makes a big difference. In fact, avoiding meat and dairy has been touted in some headlines as the single biggest way to reduce your impact on earth.
One of the most compelling arguments for consuming less meat, is the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the present time, scientists are suggesting that we need to reduce emissions by 80% before 2050, if we are going to save the future of the planet. In 2006, an investigation (by the FAO) concluded that animal agriculture was responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse emissions. In context, that’s more than the entire transport industry. It has even been suggested that the meat and dairy industry is currently on track to surpass the fossil fuel industry, as the world’s biggest polluting industry.
Meat focused diets may also demand unnecessary consumption of natural resources. According to Greenpeace, the energy found in animal products is highly inefficient because “For every 100 calories of crops fed to animals, we get 40 calories in the form of milk, 12 calories of chicken, and just 3 calories of beef.” The argument is that, in terms of efficiency, it would be better to cut out the middle man and have humans directly consume the calories from plant based products. Similar concerns exist around water consumption. When compared to pulse-based proteins, animal proteins demand 1.5 times more water.
Land is another resource that is disproportionately used by animal agriculture. As much as 1/3 of the earth’s ice-free land surface is used for thispurpose. In particular, the beef industry has been pointed to as a leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The knock on effect of this is a reduced planetary capacity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, as well as threatening animal habitats and biodiversity. Soil erosion is another inevitable result.
Reducing meat consumption in favour of plants may have benefits beyond the environment. Vegetarian and vegan diets are widely praised as having a positive impact on individual health. Plant based foods also generally cost less than animal products, so may save money in the average grocery budget.
Although the benefits of eating plant based are generally accepted, many people shy away from making the change in practise. The reality is that meat and dairy are a significant portion of the average person’s diet. Changing that completely, overnight, is bound to be challenging. The scale of the challenge is off-putting for many.
Being strictly vegan for a week, then throwing in the towel entirely, doesn’t make a huge environmental impact. Taking a more gradual approach, and adopting smaller changes that are sustained long term, has a higher chance of success. It should also be noted that, for those who already have to avoid some food groups due food allergies and intolerances, putting further restrictions on diets for ethical reasons can become unmanageable. So there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach.
What’s needed isn’t a small minority of people making extreme changes and eating perfectly plant-based diet. What’s needed is for the majority to significantly reduce their meat and animal product intake. For those who think a vegan diet can be sustainable for them, it’s a great step to take. For others who would find such a change hard to maintain, it doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing’.
Just cutting out meat or animal products, one day a week is better than doing nothing at all. It takes very little adjustment, but there’s still a significant environmental gain over the course of a lifetime. What’s more, eating plant-based one day per week can lead to discovering enjoyable meat free alternatives, and plant-based recipes. This opens the door to gradually reducing meat consumption over time. Another alternative would just be to reduce your meat product portions by 15%, which would equate to a similar reduction in meat consumption through the week. You can also focus on selecting meats which have a lower environmental impact when you do choose meat products. Red meat generally has a much greater impact than poultry, for example.
Cutting out meat while still eating other animal products can still see an individual’s environmental footprint significantly reduced. It’s generally less restrictive than going vegan, and some people will take a period of eating a vegetarian diet, as a stepping stone towards a fully plant-based lifestyle.
If it’s achievable, and sustainable for you, there’s never been a better time to go plant based. Supermarkets and restaurants are increasingly catering for vegan diets, a trend that will inevitably grow if there’s more demand. In the age of social media, finding vegan recipes and tips has never been easier. As with any major diet and lifestyle change, it is important to make sure that a new diet is nutritionally complete and balanced, so it’s necessary to do research about how to meet your nutritional needs. The Vegan society website gives a lot of information about the nutritional make up of a healthy vegan diet. You may also wish to consult a nutritionist or dietician before taking this step.
Resources to get started:
Guest author: Cheryl Edwards
This article is designed to give an overview of different resources available to help you with the Every Little Step Climate Initiative. Neither Inner West Mums or the author can personally endorse the products and services mentioned, and we always encourage you to do your own research before deciding if a product or service is right for you.