When I was a kid, I decided I was going to become vegetarian.
While scanning through an encyclopedia for a school project, I discovered rainforests were being cut down for land to graze cattle, meaning less trees converting carbon dioxide and upsetting the balance of greenhouse gases.
I presented a thoroughly engaging piece I can assure you, but one I was told to go back and re-write in neater handwriting. My excuse at the time had been that I felt so much passion for the topic, it ultimately affected my handwriting.
No dice. It was promptly re-written and given a mediocre mark.
Regardless, I had found my cause, but it was not without its setbacks.
Growing up on a farm, the announcement of my new vegetarian lifestyle was met with much laughter and amusement. Every night, dinner consisted of meat and three-veg following up the next day with leftover meat sandwiches for lunch. There was also the slight problem that I didn’t actually like the three-veg component of the meat and three-veg, so my new vegetarian diet consisted entirely of… Vegemite sandwiches.
Remember, this was the pre-internet era (yes, there was such a time…) so there was no jumping on the computer to find delicious recipes for myself or Googling ‘So You Want to Become a Vegetarian’. The mere thought of vegetarians conjured up images of hairy-arm-pitted hippies who lived on mung beans and farted a lot. It’s hard to imagine with all the information we have at our fingertips these days but it was a concept so removed from the life we led that it seemed impossible.
Overwhelmed, I ultimately gave up.
But now I find myself more-than-twenty-but-less-than-thirty-years later, still worrying about rainforests being cut down and wondering what I can do.
While I have since made friends with vegetables and salad, I still have a fairly meat-laden diet. I have meat on my sandwiches every day, we have a meat-based dinner most nights of the week and a dose of bacon and eggs for breakfast Saturday mornings.
Wow, just writing it down makes me realise how much meat I do actually eat. I’ve thought about this regularly over the intervening years but obviously haven’t achieved much in terms of action with a subject that was once so close to my heart.
Cue blushing and inner cringing.
The good news is as Australians, we have come a long way with our eating habits and there is far more encouragement and awareness around the benefits of eating less meat than there once was.
Plus it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Big changes can still be made to the environment and to our health just by reducing our meat intake if we’re not quite prepared to embrace a full vegetarian diet.
So what are the facts?
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
According to the UN, raising animals for food is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. It has also been claimed that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally (source: Livestock’s Long Shadow Report 2006). Some say this is more than what is produced globally from all the planes, trains and automobiles put together (but I also have to point out that others say that comparison is crap). Regardless of whether it’s more or less, the 18 per cent figure is correct and that is a lot.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions generated from livestock production can be broken into three main areas:
- Emissions from the production of food for the livestock
a. Production of chemical fertilizers for feed crops
b. Deforestation for pasture and feed crops
c. Cultivation of feed crops
d. Transport of the feed and
e. Soil organic matter losses in pastures and feed crops
- Emissions from animal production
Enteric fermentation and methane and nitrous oxide emissions from manure. WTF? Fancy words for something otherwise known as farts, pop-offs, fluffs or bottom coughs coming directly from livestock, cattle in particular.
- Transportation of livestock for processing
Beef in particular is a water intensive animal to raise. Cows love to eat, that’s a fact, but if you don’t get the rainfall you need then water for the crops needs to come from other precious water sources. The production of 1 kilogram of wheat requires about 1,000 litres of water, whereas for meat-based foods about 5 to 10 times more water is required (source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare ‘Australia’s Food & Nutrition 2012 Report’).
This is partially covered in the greenhouse gas emissions point but there’s so much more involved when it comes to deforestation. Not only are we losing plant life which help us process our own CO2, but the loss of habitat for native animals, and in some countries native people, is something we will never get back once it is gone. It is estimated that animal farming uses 50% of the Australian continent but is responsible for over 90% of land degradation (source: CSIRO).
Over 500 million land-based animals are slaughtered in Australia every year (source: Australian Bureau of Statistics). Jay-sus that’s a lot! Think about it, 500 million animals! The real problem is the conditions in which many animals are being held in is appalling. Reducing the amount of meat we eat reduces the demand on the consumer chain and therefore the number of animals forced to live in these conditions.
If we keep consuming meat at the rate we are, meat production is expected to nearly double by 2050 (source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by at least 40% globally to avoid dangerous climate change. This increase in meat consumption could therefore negate any reductions from other positive changes we make like switching to renewable energy etc.
What Can I Do?
It’s time to take a long hard look at that meat laden diet and come up with some meat-reducing goals to ensure another twenty odd years don’t pass before I say, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I was going to cut back on my meat…”
I have signed up to the Meat Free Mondays Movement, an easy to follow website with great tips on how to get started and recipes to entice us over to a more veggie laden lifestyle.
What steps do you take to reduce the amount of meat in your diet?