The Food We Eat Impacts the Planet
A succession of recent media reports have highlighted that there may be a problem with the way we eat. Scientists and conservation groups are saying that if we’re going to feed a rising global population and tackle climate change, then we need to drastically reduce our consumption of meat and dairy, and eat more plant-based food.
But why? What’s so bad about meat and dairy? What does our diet have to do with climate change?
The short answer is greenhouse gas emissions. If the world’s cattle formed their own nation, it would have the third-highest emissions on earth (behind only China and the United States). That’s partly because cattle produce methane in their digestive systems – a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. But it’s also because of the vast amount of land cows require – 160 times more than potatoes, wheat or rice. As the human population continues to rise, the demand for meat increases. This means clearing forests to make way for more cattle farms. The bad news? Deforestation accelerates climate change. It releases greenhouse gases and removes the natural carbon sinks forests provide. Think of it as adding fuel to the fire, while simultaneously doing away with the extinguishers.
Meat production is inefficient
Currently, livestock occupy 80% of global farmland but produce just 18% of the calories we consume. What if that same land was used to grow plants instead? According to one study in the US, that would mean producing up to 20 times more food. In other words, enough to feed the world several times over.
But don’t plants have an environmental impact, too? Sadly, yes. But the difference is, their footprint is less severe. Research has shown that the greenhouse gas emissions of a vegan diet are half that of a meat-eating diet. Some experts have even said that eating plants instead of meat and dairy would be a better way for consumers to reduce their emissions than giving up their car! That’s a pretty bold statement, and one worth thinking about.
It’s not just the planet scientists are worried about. There’s a wealth of research telling us that consuming too much animal protein is also bad for our health. That’s because meat, dairy and eggs all contain cholesterol and saturated fats: the main culprits in the rise of obesity. Eating more than the recommended amount of red and processed meats is also linked to increased risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Equally alarming is the risk of food poisoning. In intensive farming systems, animals crammed together into filthy, overstocked sheds create the ideal breeding ground for dangerous bacteria and viruses. And, to make matters worse, factory-farmed animals are routinely fed a steady diet of antibiotics to stave off such infections, even if they’re not ill. This increases the chance that drug-resistant ‘superbugs’ will develop. If you eat meat tainted with these drug-resistant germs and subsequently become ill, there’s a risk that the antibiotics we rely on to treat infections will become useless.
The numerous health risks associated with meat and dairy consumption have led to an increasing number of nutritionists and medical practitioners championing plant-based diets. A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet contains all the nutrients our bodies need, while also being low in saturated fats. Vegan diets are linked with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and less risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Not to mention that plants are far less likely to carry those nasty germs. All food-borne diseases – from Salmonella and swine flu to Nipah virus and BSE – originate from animals.
For some people, the decision to cut out meat and/or dairy is motivated by ethical concerns. Is it moral to incarcerate billions of animals so that humans can consume their flesh, milk and eggs? Over 2,000 peer-reviewed studies into animal sentience that have shown mammals and birds experience the same complex emotions as we do: jealousy, rage, empathy, fear and distress, to name a few. Scientists have found that pigs are smarter than dogs, and can solve puzzles just as well as chimpanzees. So why don’t we treat them the same way we treat our pets?
Animals on industrial farms have little or no freedom to express their natural behaviours. Pigs and cows will spend weeks in stalls that prevent them from turning around or taking more than a few steps forward or back. Many won’t ever feel the warmth of the sun on their backs or breathe fresh air until the day they are loaded onto lorries headed for the abattoir. Animals transported for slaughter may be forced to endure long, stressful journeys, often in extreme temperatures and without access to food, water, or veterinary care.
And then there is the slaughter process itself. Many countries have laws which state that animals must first be effectively stunned. But there are exemptions under certain religious circumstances and stunning (when used) is not always effective, meaning that some animals remain conscious when slaughtered.
The good news is, calls for better animal welfare are on the rise, and the industry is taking notice. More and more supermarkets and restaurants are going ‘cage free’. People are recognising farm animals as sentient beings with the right to a life free from hunger, thirst, pain and disease.
What Can I Do?
If we’re going to have a sustainable future where people, animals and the planet can all flourish together, it seems like meat consumption will need to go down. For some people, veganism is the answer. It’s a lifestyle that’s currently advancing at an incredible rate, even in some of the most meat and dairy-loving countries on the planet. But do we all have to go vegan to make a positive difference?
Well, no. The world’s diet is unlikely to ever become 100% plant-based. Meat plays an important role in culture and traditions, providing income and security for many people. Meat and dairy is not all created equally, either. You can still make dietary choices that nurture your health and support environmental sustainability without having to give it all up. For example, choosing chicken over pork or beef. Choosing meat, milk and eggs with higher welfare standards. Looking for organic produce that hasn’t been subjected to the routine use of antibiotics. You can buy grass-fed instead of grain-fed meat. And if you want to take a bigger step, cutting down your meat intake will vastly reduce your carbon footprint. Eating a little less is arguably more important than eliminating meat entirely. Try introducing ‘meatless Mondays’ or sampling some of the plant-based alternatives (such as Beyond Meat, which tastes, looks and feels remarkably similar to the real stuff).
By making better-informed choices, we can reduce the environmental impact of the food system. While it may seem as though individual actions won’t make a difference, sustainable eating is about the food choices each and every one of us can make in our daily lives. Even the smallest personal decisions can add up, over time, to significant positive impacts.
Chew on This
If you’d like more food for thought, tuck into our in-depth photo story
You can also view a gallery of more images here. Bon Appétit!