Reducing meat and dairy in our diets is something many are actively taking on, with Veganuary (going vegan for the month of January) becoming increasingly popular around the world. But does that mean that as soon as February rolls around everyone goes back to their regular eating habits? Making an impact takes more than one month of self-imposed starvation and avoidance of your favorite foods so you can feel like a good person. Stopping dairy and meat isn’t even what I’m suggesting here as an all plant-based diet isn’t for everyone
Why go to all these efforts?
Western diets have a profound effect on the global food system, which produces 30% of greenhouses gas emissions half of is from livestock alone. There is a fair argument that the other half is from plants and other produce, yet most studies agree that plants have the lowest emissions with beef and lamb being the biggest culprits. But, the health benefits from a plant-based diet outweigh that of heavy use of highly processed or animal products. It is not just about the moral implications that come with eating meat and animal products but something much more that has a strong impact on whether there is an ecological and health crisis.
To have a real impact it needs to happen on a global scale and it’s not just up to the individual but it starts with them. Granted, being vegan is not an easy task which takes a lot of mental and physical preparedness. Stopping meat and dairy for one month seems achievable but forever sounds like a very long time indeed. Cutting down is much easier than cutting off and people have become more mindful of which products they consume. It’s not just healthy for humans to limit their intake of animal products but it’s also healthy for the plant.
There are simple food choices that can help to reduce a climate footprint, check out the list below to see your food-related footprint then see our list of tips from the NY Times as to how you can begin to shop, cook and eat in a warming world:
- Do you eat red meat?
- Do you eat meat with nearly every meal?
- Do you eat farmed fish and seafood?
- Do you eat dairy products (namely cheeses)?
- Are the foods you eat highly processed?
- Do you shop only from large chain groceries?
- Are most of your meals prepared by using heat (frying, baking, etc.)?
Answering ‘Yes’ to all of these means that you have a high food-related footprint, so if you would like to scale down and reduce your carbon footprint here are some ways you can do that:
Choosing low emission
With livestock accounting for around 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases each year, meat and dairy, particularly from cows, have the biggest impact. To put the numbers into perspective it’s roughly the same amount as the emissions from all the cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined in the world today. Pork and chicken can be found somewhere in the middle of the scale in CO2 gas emission in kilograms per gram of protein.
Heavy meat-eaters can significantly reduce their food-related carbon footprint by a third or more by choosing a vegetarian diet. Giving up dairy would further reduce those emissions.
February is also a heart-healthy month with most of the tips below being just what the doctor ordered. Eating more fiber, getting your 5 a day, and cutting down on saturated fats are all recommended as some of the best ways to lower your risk of heart disease.
Eat less meat
Vegetarian diets are a much easier way to start cutting down. And meat substitutes are not mandatory when avoiding meat so for those who don’t like tofu or tempeh getting protein from dairy is enough when paired with plant-based proteins (mentioned below). If you do eat meat, make the most of it, grass-fed and local might be more expensive but it’s the better option.
Give up meat & dairy
If you are ready to take the plunge, veganism has the lowest impact when it comes to the climate footprint. Vegans have many options and meat and dairy substitutions that are tasty and healthy. Beans, legumes, nuts and grains are an excellent source of protein. Being vegan doesn’t have to be complicated either, there are simple recipes that can have meat-lovers salivating.
The magic of beans
Baked beans on Toast is a British classic but what about lima beans, chickpeas, lentils, cannellini? Having vegetarian chili instead of con Carne is a step forward. With all the different varieties that are found in Indian, Mexica and Mediterranean cuisine eating beans and more beans will help from getting bored. Getting a pressure cooker will significantly reduce cooking times as well as avoiding canned beans.
High protein grains
Heralded as a superfood quinoa is probably the best for all of its health benefits, the top one being that it is known as a complete protein. This simply means that it contains all nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own. Bulgar, buckwheat, millet, wild rice and even pasta also provide the body with vital proteins.
Go nuts for nuts (and seeds)
Nuts as a protein have the lowest food-related footprint at 0.1 average greenhouse gas impact (in kilograms of CO2) of getting 50 grams of protein. Many vegan cheeses are made from seeds and nuts, while they don’t taste very much like cheese but they are a good substitute. Nut milks and butters are also wonderfully delicious and they are much better for the environment. Not to mention how raw or toasted nuts and seeds add a bit of texture and crunch to fresh salads.
Eat raw foods
Food preparation takes time and skills and when using heat, it kills a large portion of the vitamins and minerals in food. Not to mention the increase in carbon footprint. Saying this meat typically needs to be cooked properly if you want to avoid food poisoning – but not so with most vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts. Fresh salads or home pickling is better for your planet, your health and your waistline.
Something smells fishy
Eating fish at least twice a week, including a portion of oily fish, is known for its heart health benefits. Yet farmed fish is not as healthy plus it’s overexploited. Wild-caught (although low in emissions in itself) takes a huge toll on the environment due to the fuel that powers the boats that need to catch it. Plus, our seas are becoming increasingly polluted causing us to consume chemicals and microplastics in our fish. For those seafood lovers who still want to get their fix, small wild fish and farmed mussels and clams have the lowest emissions. For more information on which farm fisheries are good to check out Friend of the Sea.
Saying that veganism is better than having the occasional animal product isn’t fair. An avocado toast would have higher emissions than eggs on toast if the avocado had to travel for thousands of miles to finds it’s way on your plate. While the egg was from a local farm. Being conscious of where our food comes from, how it’s grown and how much it had to travel to get to you is just as important. Local and seasonal vegetables are the best options.
When shopping, planning is just as vital to ensure food does not go to waste. With many grocery chains now putting a stop to senseless waste which accounts for a large portion of the emissions the individual needs to own their part too. A shocking 20% of what we buy goes to waste. Buy what you need, cook and store correctly and freeze if necessary. The benefits of meat and dairy-free diet is that all of the food that goes to waste can be compostable.
Even if we only adopt half of these methods it would be a step forward. We own it to ourselves and the planet to start making a shift in the plant-based direction. Going a little bit vegan is something to be proud of. The benefits aren’t just a healthier heart or slimmer waistline but a clean and livable world for us and future generations.
More information and sources:
The New York Times top tips for a “How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world”
The NY Times recently published an interactive article on how to lower your climate footprint. They have a lot of answers to your questions about food and climate change that we didn’t get a chance to cover here.