Why Going Vegetarian Isn’t Just About Animals – It’s About the Planet

From the day I visited a dairy farm in Year 8, I felt uneasy about eating meat. This day, I discovered what veal was and promptly decided that it wasn’t for me – it didn’t seem fair to me that a young calf barely got the chance to live a few weeks before ending up on a plate for us. This annoyed my Mum a little as she liked to cook with veal sometimes, but as I’d always been a fussy eater, this was just another hurdle for her to deal with.

I admit to the contradiction here of only eliminating veal – there is no difference to lamb, and chickens hardly get a chance to enjoy themselves either. But it wasn’t presented to me the way veal was – I didn’t see it at a farm, so it wasn’t real. I blissfully went about eating lamb and chicken through those years, but still to this day, have not knowingly eaten a single piece of veal since that farm visit.

I tried to go vegetarian some years ago and struggled through two arduous weeks before succumbing to a dodgy chicken roll from a fast-food chain. What an inglorious ending! I clearly wasn’t ready for it at that time and reconciled the theory that we needed the protein from meat to get adequate nutrition to avoid the guilt I felt about cutting out veal, but no other forms of meat.

Things started to click when I happened to stumble on a conference on food sustainability in late 2015 (Festival 21 – learn more at http://festival21.com.au/ if you’re interested). I sat there listening to various speakers all detailing the pressing need for us to think more about where our food is coming from and more critically, what it takes to produce it. Put simply, the way most food production currently occurs is not sustainable for years to come and is having such a significant impact on the environment, that animal agriculture is now said to be more of a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (18%) than all forms of transportation (13%). Yes, more pollution from producing meat than planes, trains and automobiles produce. That fact astounded me and drove me to learn more.

cows
Some wandering cows I encountered on a road trip around the South Island of New Zealand

I found more compelling evidence from the documentary movies Cowspiracy and later on from Food Choices – both currently available on Netflix, while Food Choices is also available online at http://www.foodchoicesmovie.com/.

Cowspiracy is a confronting, but fully-researched presentation of the many reasons why the current process in animal agriculture can’t continue without consequence. Some of the most surprising facts (to me) are (note: all of the following facts can be verified from http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/ with full citations of the studies used. Further facts are listed at the end of this post):

  • Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and which stays in the atmosphere for 150 years.
  • 2,500 gallons (9,463 litres) of water are needed to produce 1 pound (453 grams) of beef.
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for 20%-33% of all fresh water consumption in the world today.
  • Livestock covers 45% of the earth’s total land.
  • 75% of the world’s fisheries are exploited or depleted.
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction.
  • World population in 1812: 1 billion; 1912: 1.5 billion; 2012: 7 billion. We are currently growing enough food to feed 10 billion people.
  • 70 billion farmed animals are reared annually worldwide. More than 6 million animals are killed for food every hour.
  • Worldwide, at least 50% of grain is fed to livestock.
  • 82% of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals, and the animals are eaten by western countries.
  • Land required to feed 1 person for 1 year: Vegan: 1/6th acre; Vegetarian: 3x as much as a vegan; Meat Eater: 18x as much as a vegan.

Now, that’s a lot to digest (yes, the pun is intended). Each one of these facts is a significant issue in its own right, but when combined, it paints a troubling picture. I would strongly question why we need to be growing enough food for 10 billion people when the current global population is 7 billion (and it’s growing at an alarming rate compared to the previous 100 years). I’m also highly troubled by the fact that there are starving children in countries where food that could be fed to them is instead given to animals being produced for western consumption. The sheer waste of our most precious resource – water – is astounding to say the least. The destruction of land and rainforests to clear the way for yet more livestock is totally unnecessary, as is the fact that there are people on this planet who don’t have enough food to eat while we produce enough food for 3 billion more people that don’t actually exist.

So, I’ve gone vegetarian. I’m lucky that I love legumes, beans, chick peas and quinoa – all protein and fibre-rich foods. These are my meat replacements, along with increasing the types of vegetables I eat (it’s time to truly test my fussiness!). The transition will require some organisation and seeking out new recipes, while also getting a little creative with leftovers (like turning a lentil soup into veggie burgers for the next day). Protein shakes before the gym are also helping provide that extra push while my body transitions through this change.

I’m not going to demand that you stop eating meat, cheese and eggs, or that you stop drinking cow’s milk. These are choices you need to be comfortable with. Full disclosure here – I’m not about to give up milk or eggs just yet until I can satisfy myself that I’ll have adequate amounts of protein to maintain my current training regime without these two forms of animal protein. I’m fully aware that the process used to get cow’s milk is highly questionable from a moral standpoint and the confusion around what “free range” actually means in relation to eggs is a concern too, but unless you’re fully committed to eliminating foods from your diet, it won’t work. I wasn’t ready for vegetarianism all those years ago, but I’ve now gone three weeks without meat of any kind and feel driven to continue this momentum. I’ve been at two BBQs in this time, and also sat across from a friend eating what looked like an incredibly delicious chicken parma at the pub a few days ago, and I didn’t give in at any of these times. But I’m also not going to be silly enough to suggest that I’ll never eat meat again (seriously, that chicken parma looked so good!), so I think it’s important to allow yourself the flexibility to listen to your body if you decide to try this and don’t punish yourself for having some meat one day here and there, especially at a family gathering like a Christmas lunch. Any reduction you make to the global demand for meat can only be a good thing for our sustainability.

I feel ready to be a vegetarian now and I feel compelled to do this – both from a moral view and an environmental sustainability view. Morals are personal, so you really need to want to do this for it to work long-term. I understand that this isn’t for everyone, but if this makes you at least think about your food and its impact on the planet, and you maybe cut back one piece of meat each week, it’s a small win.

 

Further facts from Cowspiracy:

  • Emissions for agriculture are projected to increase 80% by 2050, while energy related emissions are expected to increase 20% by 2040.
  • Californians use 1,500 gallons (5,678 litres) of water per person per day. Close to half is associated with meat and dairy products.
  • 477 gallons (1,805 litres) of water are required to produce 1 pound (453 grams) of eggs.
  • Almost 900 gallons (3,407 litres) of water are needed for 1 pound of cheese.
  • 1,000 gallons (3,785 litres) of water are required to produce 1 gallon (3.79 litres) of milk.
  • 5% of water consumed in the US is by private homes. 55% of water consumed in the US is for animal agriculture.
  • For every 1 pound (453 grams) of fish caught, up to 5 pounds (2,268 grams) of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill.
  • As many as 40% (63 billion pounds) of fish caught globally every year are discarded.
  • Scientists estimate as many as 650,000 whales, dolphins and seals are killed every year by fishing vessels.
  • 1-2 acres of rainforest are cleared every second. The leading causes of rainforest destruction are livestock and feed crops.
  • 5 acres can produce 37,000 pounds (16,783 kg) of plant-based food.
  • 5 acres can produce 375 pounds (170 kg) of meat.
  • A person who follows a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th oil, 1/13th water, and 1/18th land compared to a meat-lover for their food.
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