The fact that eating meat contributes to the climate crisis is now as indisputable as the fact that the Earth is round or it revolves around the Sun or the fact that the Sun is not at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy.
Currently, methane is driving about 25 per cent of global warming. Put quite simply, meat contributes to methane production in two major ways: firstly, a lot of land is required for cattle rearing and production. Trees are cleared for this purpose, which releases carbon dioxide stored in forests, also decreasing the natural carbon sequestration process.
Despite the immediate need to reduce and cut global consumption of red meat products, as a four-year-old lacto-vegetarian, I argue that everyone doesn’t need to embrace full vegetarianism or veganism to slow down global warming. With the world’s population projected to rise to 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050, what the global diet demands is more balance to ensure that no one crop or product – be it meat, lentils, nuts – is being overproduced.
Lowering meat consumption is imperative
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not arguing that meat eaters should eat meat without any restriction. No. It’s long been established that reducing meat consumption is imperative for the world to meet its climate goals.
In the case of food consumption – unlike oil, where big corporations will need to change their behaviours in order to lower their impacts on climate change – individual action can go a long way in reducing the role of food as a top 10 contributor to climate change.
If every single person in the United States alone – the biggest consumer of red meat products in the world – embraced “meatless Mondays” (first introduced during World War I to ration meat), then that itself would have a far reaching and positive impact on the environment. Not only would it save 1.4 billion animals per year, it would also lower enough greenhouse gas emissions equal to charging ten billion smartphones.
Evolving food consumption habits at the singular level would force meat producers and countries reliant on meat exports to get creative and explore other avenues of food production. Currently, the world’s five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same volume of greenhouse gasses as giant oil producer and contributor to the climate crisis, Exxon.
Veganism is better, but the choice isn’t black or white
It’s clear that the carnivorous people of the world need to make an urgent shift and incorporate a few meatless meals in their diet a week. At the same time, however, vegetarians and vegans need to take a closer look at the food they’re eating to see whether it’s as kind to the environment as it seems so on the surface.
As non-meat eating people moved inside from the fringe of society, there was a huge rise in alternative milk options such as almond, cashew, hazelnut, oat, rice, coconut, hemp – you name it. Until about 2012, the only non-dairy milk option available was soy.
It was when the production of these nuts and crops ramped up to meet the steeply rising demand of alternative milk that the ramification of this seemingly noble shift came into light. Even though dairy milk releases three times more GHGs and uses nine times more land than plant-based milk, the environmental footprint of many non-dairy milk options leaves little to feel good about.
Over the years, almond has taken the top spot as the most notorious one of them all because of its water-guzzling nature. It takes an estimated 130 pints of water to produce one glass of milk. Most US almonds are grown in California and their demand has exacerbated the drought crisis in the state, especially the yearly forest fires that take place during the summer. Having said that, almonds produce low GHGs and since they’re grown on trees, they even help in natural carbon sequestration. Rice, too, is a thirst crop but produces more GHGs.
Most nuts and crops being used to produce non-diary milk options have their pros and cons – some leave less of an environmental footprint like oat and cashew, but may contribute to labour and human rights issues in developing countries. Others like soy may seem like the best option for the planet, but their overproduction is leading to large swathes of the Amazon rainforest being burned down to make way for them.
Avocado free Friday?
Similar to factory farming and the steep rise in the production of alternative milks that are a detriment to the environment (in so far as in the quantities they are being produced), certain crops are also causing havoc on the geography and environment where they are being grown.
Take the Instagram queen – the humble avocado – for example. Millennials are often derided for their supposedly excessive consumption of avocado on toast – a brunch staple and apparently the reason why we’re unable to buy a house. But, sigh, all green buttery things come at a cost.
Globally, Mexico is the largest producer of avocados – since 2009 its production has grown eight per cent year on year to meet surging demand and it exports about $3 billion worth. Ninety per cent of Mexico’s avocados come from the state of Michoacán, which is experiencing deforestation and high water stress, as well as cartel-induced violence due to increased production of this golden green crop.
According to one source, Michoacán, with one of the most important ecosystems in Mexico, clears roughly 20,000 acres of forest land every year to make way for avocado plants. Avocados are also a thirsty plant and putting pressure on Mexico’s water systems, in a country that already suffers from high water stress.
Balance is key to protecting the environment
Canada is moving in the right direction when it comes to reducing its meat consumption – nearly 10 per cent of Canadians are vegans and vegetarians – a shift that is absolutely needed to tackle global warming and reduce human infliction on the environment.
What I’ve argued for here is to simply keep one’s diet in check to ensure that no one crop, product or produce is being overproduced and putting pressure on vulnerable ecosystems.
No matter one’s reason for embracing vegetarianism and veganism, it is less detrimental to the environment than eating factory-farmed meat. Having said that, even meatless diets – seemingly innocuous – are not and the environmental footprint of nuts, alternative milks and produce like avocados is clear.
Since humans are the most dominant species on the planet at the moment, everything we eat and consume has a negative impact on the environment and climate, yes, but also on labour and human rights in less developed countries. What the environment movement demands, thus, is for humans to consume with awareness, and eat (what their diet allows) with balance.