The Truth Is Hard To Swallow
I’m a massive meat eater. I confess it. I can rarely bring myself to even put a vegetable in my mouth – let alone swallow it.
But today is the day that I must swallow my pride, challenge my preconceptions and explore the environmental impacts of different diets.
So cleanse your pallet, grab a napkin and join me in chewing it over.
Let’s dig straight in!
A Carnivorous Diet
In general terms a carnivorous diet is a ‘normal’ diet. One in which a large variety of meat is consumed fairly regularly. Unfortunately (for me) it’s extremely bad for the environment.
For those of you thinking that this take is just a load of hot air you’re (kinda) right. Animal farming produces a lot of methane and it’s this methane (carbon) that increases the release of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
In fact, it produces so much methane, that according to one UN report 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to animal farming, whereas motorised transport (including planes, cars, trucks and ships) is responsible for only 13%.
When animal farming isn’t producing methane, then it’s destroying forests as farmers clear land to graze animals on. This is most notable in the Amazon rainforest, where 80% of current deforestation can be attributed to cattle ranchers. A shockingly high percentage!
The Paleo Diet
A Paleo diet involves the consumption of foods presumed to have been consumed by humans during the Paleolithic era. It's not wildly different to a 'normal' carniverous diet except they're very picky about what they eat.
What makes its followers different to the average meat-eater is the fact that their meat doesn’t come from unsustainable factory farming, but instead are only pasture-raised animals.
As one supporter puts it: "Paleo eaters tend to be more environmentally friendly, as we focus on eating happy food."
In a more scientific analysis, the website Paleoleap claims that the grass-fed animals improve soil quality, whilst not using any water to grow corn and soy (dramatically reducing its water footprint). They also claim that most pasture land isn’t arable in the first place, so it is not a waste of land.
But this doesn’t negate the fact that grass-fed cows and other animals produced for meat produce more methane.
A Pescatarian Diet
If this diet sounds a bit fishy to you, it’s probably because its participants eat seafood (but not the flesh of other animals).
It’s undeniably better than a carnivorous diet when it comes to its carbon footprint. Fish release far fewer greenhouse gases than land farmed animals. The diet is also praised for preserving precious land resources, on account of fish living in the ocean.
But the pescatarian diet is not without its flaws. Most notably, it places a heavy strain on our oceans. Demand for fish globally has seen 52% of fish stocks worldwide being fully exploited, whilst 17% are currently overexploited. In short, we’re taking at a quicker rate than the oceans are able to replenish.
The Vegetarian Diet
Vegetarians take it one step further than pescatarians, as they choose to eat no meat whatsoever.
Naturally, this has the effect of taking pressure away from already overexploited fishing zones – giving fish populations a chance to recover.
It also helps to reduce the water footprint of the food we eat, with the water footprint of a soy burger being 7% of that of the average beef burger.
But as with pescatarians, the diet isn’t without its flaws.
This is best seen in the ungainly life of an Avocado, as market demand has resulted in illegal deforestation in Mexico (with the loss of 1,700 acres of forest a year between 2000 and 2010). If this was not enough, transporting the Avocados to supermarket shelves in Europe leaves a large carbon footprint.
The Vegan Diet
Vegans might be the butt of many jokes but the environmental benefits of the diet aren't.
A 2014 study by Oxford University found that the carbon footprint of a vegan diet was 24% smaller that a vegetarian diet, and a whopping 60% smaller than that of a meat-based diet.
Similarly, a 2018 study by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek concluded that:
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”
So what should I do with all this new found knowledge?
Firstly, it’s clearly time for me to eat some proverbial humble pie. I have to accept that my current diet is not good for the environment.
I need to eat less meat. Maybe I should use more meat substitutes? Perhaps I should eat fewer chicken nuggets?
The truth can be found in the face of facts and these are truths that need swallowing. But that’s just me.
How about you?