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Can Your Food Choices Save the Planet?

Author: Bridgette Pilon


It can sometimes feel despairing on our journeys to reduce our negative impact on the environment. Is switching our plastic toothbrush and synthetic sponges for a bamboo toothbrush and loofah gourds really making any substantial difference? Every little change does add up and I would encourage individuals to make these swaps. One of the biggest feasible differences we can make is reducing our meat and dairy intake.


When comparing the Greenhouse Gas (GHGs) emissions between omnivorous, vegetarian, and vegan diets, research has consistently found significantly higher GHGs in omnivorous diets than vegetarian and vegan diets. Current estimates suggest that food accounts for 10 to 30% of households’ carbon footprint [5], and as much as 74.9% of those emissions could be coming from meat and dairy [4]. Beef has been found to produce 7.72 times more kg of CO2per kg of edible food compared to vegetarian meat-substitutes [2]. Omnivorous diets also have a larger water demand than vegetarian diets. Approximately one third of agricultural freshwater withdrawals comes from non-renewable groundwater sources [6]. Despite freshwater appearing to be in infinite supply in North American, this is not the case on a global scale, and is in fact a precious and finite natural resource. Meat accounts for 37% of an average North-American’s food-related water footprint [7]. Replacing meat with equivalent amounts of plant protein sources such as legumes and nuts would result in a decrease in an omnivore’s dietary water-footprint by 30% [7]. Finally, the global amount of land used as animal pastures is more than twice that of cropland. Also, animals additionally consume approximately one third of total cropland [3]. Agricultural land use has and continues to result in clearing of biologically diverse grasslands, wetlands, and forests [1], which ironically also plays a large roll in storing natural and human produced CO2.


"So I say, the Earth needs us to at the very least, imperfectly give meat-reduction a try!" -Pilon

While animal agriculture is a complex system that requires many inputs, these stark differences between meat-based and non meat-based diets come down to one main general reason- animal agriculture is simply an inefficient system. It is far more efficient to grow a crop and eat it, than grow a crop using energy, water and land, and feed it to billions of animals (many that have a greater energy demand than humans).


This decade is the best time in history to start making the switch. There are more vegan alternatives in grocery stores, vegan restaurants, research going into meat and dairy-free nutrition, and health professionals educated regarding the subject than ever before. With growing environmental concerns, projections show it will keep getting easier and easier to choose meatless. No one needs to make a switch in their diet overnight, but there are many ways to begin the process of reducing meat and dairy consumption. Some of my recommendations that personally helped me are:

  • Reduce your meat consumption for just a few meals a week to begin with.

  • Eliminate one food at a time from your diet, and choose less carbon intensive meats to eat (eg: chicken) [2]. I stopped eating beef, pork and lamb first, then poultry, then dairy, followed by eggs.

  • Do a Google search for restaurants near your home that serve vegetarian or vegan food. Entirely vegan restaurants create some of the most creative dishes I have ever eaten and even my meat-eating friends love them!!

  • Swap foods. Oat milk and almond milk can be used where you would use cow milk. Go for a walk around your grocery store and keep your eyes out for “meatless” products. You’ll be amazed at the options that are there for alternatives to meats you eat now.

  • Listen to podcasts (ex: Plant Proof), search up meatless recipes (ex: Gaz Oakley and Oh She Glows) and watch some documentaries (ex: Cowspiracy) to learn more and be inspired!


Anne Marie Bonneau, a zero-waste chef put it perfectly: “We don’t need a handful of people doing [something] perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

So I say, the earth needs us to at the very least, imperfectly give meat-reduction a try!


References:

1. Burke M., Oleson K., McCullough E., and Gaskell J. (2009). A global model tracking water, nitrogen, and land inputs and virtual transfers from industrialized meat production and trade. Environmental Modeling and Assessment, 14: 179-193.

2. Carrado S., Luzzani G., Trevisan M., and Lamastra L. (2019). Contribution of different life cycle stages to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with three balanced dietary patterns. Science of the Total Environment, 660: 622-630.

3. FAO. (2006). Livestock’s long shadow- environmental issues and options. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.

4. Heller M. C., Willits-Smith A., Meyer R., Keoleian G. A., and Rose D. (2012Greenhouse gas emissions and energy use associated with production of individual self-selected US diets. Environmental Research Letters, 13(4): 044004.

5. Jones C., and Kammen D. (2011). Quantifying carton footprint reduction opportunities for US households and communities.

6. MEA. (2005). Millennium ecosystem analysis: current state and trends, 1. Washington DC: Island Press.

7. Mekonnen M. M., and Hoekstra A. Y. (2012). A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products. Ecosystems, 15: 401-415.

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