With Christmas pretty much around the corner, much of the Western world and this country particularly, will be brewing up for a period of overindulgence, with everything in excess: drinking, partying and most importantly, food. Nothing says Christmas like the twinkling tree in the front room, festooned with ribbons and bibbons from times gone by; the pile of prezzies beneath it, wrapped with love and care and waiting patiently for the big day to be greeted with grins and the traditional Christmas Day feast: the fat, juicy, golden Turkey, nestled on a glittering bed of sausages enrobed in pink bacon.
We are so removed from the process by which all these edible artefacts have no resemblance to their original form or vigour. We now live in an age where 12% of UK adults are vegetarian. We exist in a global population whose carnivorous eating habits are completely unsustainable. Recent years have brought to light the horrific living conditions of animals produced (or producing products) purely for our plate. It’s not just the morals of vegetarianism that are provoking people to eat more conscientiously, it is reported to be a huge benefit to the environment; by reducing demand, there is less of a need to support populations of livestock, which require obscene amounts of food and water to survive. It’s much better for you financially and it’s an easy way to improve health, with a vegetarian diet believed to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Many more of the population go one step further to veganism, cutting out all animal-based products from their diet. But in a world of diet-fads, protein shakes and thigh-gaps, is veganism just another Instagram friendly way of life? Or are there real benefits to really thinking about what you put on your plate?
Veganism is pretty well facilitated in 21st century culture, with soya or almond milk on offer in nearly all coffee shops and falafel and humus available at every turn. We have long been informed of the environmental implications of eating meat (the primary reason I turned veggie myself) not just in terms of exploitation of resources but greenhouse gas production – cows contribute 3% of Britain’s overall greenhouse gas emissions and up to 30% of the nation’s methane! A vegan diet results in a 53% reduction in emissions, no-brainer?
The process of sustaining a population of livestock for meat production has been linked to land degradation, water pollution, deforestation and socio-economic issues. The pace and quantity at which farms produce meat is unsustainable and fields are often grazed barren, with animal diets needing to be substituted by cereals. If you venture out into the countryside, the bulk of the fields of crops you will see will not be destined for your bowl of Weetabix, but to a farm to fatten up your burger. Half the world’s grain production goes to animals and the wrath of capitalism has infected the global food market around the world, with many existing in a ‘poverty-hunger’ cycle, where food is fed to animals and the animals are fed to humans in the western world.
Similarly, water use and water pollution is a huge problem, with water required to nourish the crops and grass needed to feed the animals, as well as for the animals themselves. For a plant based diet, water is still required in great supply but it is much more resourceful, with aquaponics a new craze: salad leaves are grown using water from fish tanks. The fish faeces provide all-important nutrients for the leaves. Increased nutrients in water runoff from farms (from excrement) can severely impact waterways, though algal bloom may look impressive, it can cause eutrophication where the lives of those in the water is threatened as they have to compete for oxygen.
Thirdly, deforestation. 30% of the Earth’s land mass is used for raising animals for food! Deforestation is a historic issue: it’s hard to believe that the bulk of Britain’s rolling countryside is actually meant to be covered in dense forest – it was all cut down in the Victorian era to cater for a burgeoning population and lavish eating habits. Similarly, 91% of Amazonian deforestation is for the sake of meat production. However, the issue is not just a result of the meat industry, as we are all no doubt aware of the worldwide issue of palm oil deforestation. And deforestation is not just the cutting down of trees, but the destruction of habitats – it was only 4 weeks ago that The Gryphon reported that 1/6 of all species will be extinct by the year 2100. Statistics are all well and good, but I don’t think any of us can really comprehend how devastating that is, and how much of a threat that is likely to be for humankind.
Though mass food production is pretty warped, with tonnes of food being discarded by supermarkets and producers every single day (meat and veg alike), pigs can be useful as they typically eat by-products of the human food industry. And there are reports out there claiming that veganism is in fact worse for the environment than bacon production but this is based on farms where pigs are unlikely to see the outside world or have any sort of life at all. Similarly, comparisons have been made between plant-based and carnivorous diets, claiming that to gain equivalent amounts of calories, veganism is as detrimental as any, but that is no longer an issue of morals or environment but greed.
However, more reliable sources have carried out analyses on how best to implement land use for sustainable food production for humans: a vegan diet, a vegetarian diet (one with dairy; one with dairy and eggs) and four varying degrees of omnivorous diets were modelled. The two most profitable diets (in terms of number of people fed with the resources available) were the vegetarian diets.
As with anything, there are pros and cons, but there really are tangible benefits from cutting meat out of your diet. There may not be plant-based equivalents to a meat-eating diet, nor is there a definitive answer as to how everyone should behave – not all vegetables are good and not all meat is bad. The best advice to give is just to stop and think every now again about what it is you are eating – meat free Monday has taken off like a storm in the UK, and will save you exponential amounts of money in the long run. Why not try a meat-free Christmas and have a cracking nut roast and all the trimmings?!
(Image courtesy of Marisa Gertz)