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Meatless or less meat: the case for a sustainable diet change

Hello, please, if you would, consider eating a little less meat—or maybe none at all.

(I know, I know. This topic rarely wins me Miss Congeniality, but hear me out.)

Arguments for eating plant-based usually fall into three categories: ethical, health-related and environmental. I personally find all three convincing, but I recognize the gray areas and other considerations when it comes to ethics and health. The environmental benefit to making the change, though, is pretty clear.

For the sake of brevity, I don’t find the need to argue here that sustainability is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Assuming that it is—because, well, it is—slashing animal product consumption is one of the best things a single person can do to reduce their environmental impact.

Actually quantifying that environmental impact is tricky, as I’ve come across several discrepant figures regarding greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock industry. Despite that, even the least incriminating estimates present compelling information in favor of cutting animal products from our diets. As a primer, keep in mind that animal products only provide 37 percent of the world’s protein and 18 percent of its calories.

A 2013 report from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) suggested that the livestock sector alone represents 14.5 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions: 7.5 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents. Feed production contributed to 45 percent of the sector’s emissions and enteric fermentation—part of the digestive process for ruminant animals that releases methane—contributed 39 percent. Beef and dairy are by far the biggest villains here: They jointly contributed to a whopping 65 percent of the sector’s emissions.

Even more extreme is a 2009 report published by environmental research organization Worldwatch, which stated that animal agriculture alone accounts for at least 51 percent of total human-induced greenhouse case emissions. This figure was controversial at publication time, but the report argued that it factored in commonly ignored factors such as livestock respiration, undercounted methane and overlooked land use. A recent 2019 meta-analysis took a middle ground between the FAO and Worldwatch reports and suggested that animal agriculture is responsible for at least 37 of all greenhouse emissions.

A few factors contribute to the livestock industry’s exceptionally high emission levels, most of them tied to the inherent inefficiency in growing and transporting feed, then having that feed eaten, digested and converted to another product. You may be familiar with the concept of trophic levels, which posits that each consumer level only absorbs 10 percent of the energy available in the previous level. This is relevant here as an immense amount of feed must be produced for a relatively small return in meat. About 100 calories of crops need to be produced for a return of 12 calories of poultry or 3 calories of beef.

Especially at a time when farmable land is limited and resources like the Brazilian rainforest are being cut down to meet growing food demand, this strikes me as a misuse of resources. Along with feed production, raising livestock inherently takes excessive space as animals need room to move and land graze. Of the world’s habitable land, about 50 percent is occupied by agriculture, according to the FOA. In sum, feed production and livestock land account for about 77 percent of this agricultural land. This is unacceptable to me, eve n more so after considering that 67 percent of recent deforestation for agriculture is solely for feed.

Land is not the only resource used inefficiently in our current food system—water plays an equally big role. Animal products use significantly more water than plant-based counterparts, as a result of high feed demand and livestocks’ need for water. Research from the Water Footprint Network shows that one kilogram of beef requires 15,415 liters of water, and a kilogram of chicken meat requires 4,325 liters. On the other hand, a kilogram of fruits requires 962 liters; starchy roots, 387; vegetables, 322.

Mass, of course, is an imperfect comparison, but the high water footprint of animal products holds true even when looking at calories and protein. A calorie from beef uses 10.19 liters of water while a calorie of chicken meat uses 3. This figure is just 0.47 for starchy roots and 1.34 for vegetables. A gram of protein from beef takes 112 liters of water while a gram of protein from chicken meat takes 32. This figure is 31 for starchy roots and 26 for vegetables.

Along with the resource loss, the process of animal digestion, especially that of ruminant animals like cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo, along with manure management tactics, results methane emissions through belching and flatulence—a greenhouse gas said to be about 26 times as potent as CO2. Recall that this factor contributes to 39 percent of the sectors emissions. This, to me, is an incredibly unnecessary contribution to already record-high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Not to mention, the processing impact for animal products also often exceeds that of plant products, particularly due to the emissions of slaughterhouse effluents. Fresh animal products are also highly prone to spoilage, and therefore wastage is high.

These numbers may be difficult to fully internalize, but former Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Chu, put it quite nicely, stating, “If cattle and dairy cows were a country, they would have more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire EU 28.”

There may be ways to make animal agriculture more sustainable in the future, but those methods are not in practice right now nor can we, as consumers, directly control them. What we can control is what we eat. I would urge everyone looking to reduce their carbon footprint to at least consider going vegan. A 2018 study published in the journal Science estimated that when factoring in land use changes for increased carbon storage, a vegan diet could reduce one’s total personal greenhouse gas emissions by 30 to 50 percent.

And if cutting out animal products seems impossible for now, at least consider cutting down, because little changes add up. Going pescatarian or vegetarian, cutting out red meat or dairy and doing Meatless Mondays or Veganuary are all valid options.

After all, when we disregard the labels, there is no strict dichotomy between eating plant-based and not. The environmental impact of food choices—like most important things in life—exists on a spectrum.

With that said, know that the resources for going plant-based or reducing animal product consumption are in place. The negative stereotypes surrounding veganism paint it as something reserved for bougie, coastal hippies. I understand where these misconceptions come from, but I don’t find them to be true.

These days, you can generally find fulfilling plant-based options wherever you go. Especially at Carleton, we always have access to relatively fresh fruits and vegetables in the dining halls along with at least one vegan entree option. Beyond campus, most restaurants—including local offerings like El Triunfo or Chapati—offer at least one vegan option or are willing to make modifications.

As for the cost aspect, this is largely due to media attention on expensive, newfangled plant-based alternatives like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. These products are a welcome treat, but they are not necessary. Vegans have been around for a long time, and many of these companies are simply picking up on a new market trend. Don’t get me wrong—the growing prevalence and promotion of these plant-based alternatives is a step in the right direction, but they remain niche and therefore relatively pricey for now. I would argue that a vegan diet focused on whole-foods like legumes, beans, seasonal vegetables and fruits—maybe paired with “accidentally vegan” junk foods like Oreos or, my greatest love, Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos—can be less expensive than a meat-centric diet (or at least comparable in cost).

It would be a disservice to not acknowledge that going vegan is an imperfect solution. Pesticides, processing, packaging and transportation all contribute to environmental detriment and would remain entrenched in our food systems. Indeed, eating individually-wrapped, imported tropical fruits may be less sustainable than eating locally farmed clams. But it remains indisputable that, on average, eating plant-based is more environmentally friendly than not.

Of course, reducing individual carbon footprints isn’t the end goal; the end goal is reducing global environmental harm. I have seen arguments floating around about individual versus corporate responsibility when it comes to sustainability, and it’s an incisive topic with no right answer. Given my one term of microeconomics, I’m choosing to put my faith into supply and demand. If enough consumers reject or reduce animal products, hopefully that will force companies to reduce animal agriculture or implement more sustainable practices.

That was probably an oversimplification just now, and the process might be twisted or slow. But that’s not a reason to not act. It can be demoralizing to think too much about the magnitude of my environmental impact—good or bad—compared to that of a large corporation. (I’ll be honest, it gets dwarfed.) Still, my stance is that no matter the magnitude, any benefit to the environment is still a benefit. And as cheesy as it is, I’ll say it

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