Vegetarian, Vegan or Flexitarian? A Food Audit

I’ve been a flexitarian for about a decade now and I say that because I’ve attempted full blown vegetarian more times than I can count, I’ve tried a semi-vegan, a semi-paleo and the 5:2 diets all in an attempt to reduce my environmental impact. But I haven’t managed to stick to one for more than a year or so. I know from past research, eating a plant based diet (vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian) has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than one that includes meat and dairy. The World Watch Magazine notes, “as environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future –  deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilisation of communities and the spread of disease.” 

Even knowing all that, I still struggle to stick to a strict plant based diet. The longest stint I’ve ever lasted as a vegetarian was about 18 months but ended when I was pregnant as iron supplements didn’t agree with me. Other times it was far lesser situations that were responsible for my undoing – peer pressure, bacon or feeling like an inconvenience to name a few.  And the thing is, I actually really enjoyed being on a vegetarian diet, except perhaps when heading to a friend’s place for dinner and feeling like I was a pain in the hole. I rarely craved meat, occasionally I missed bacon, ham or sausages but turns out salty, highly processed meat isn’t good for us! For the most part I felt lighter, more regular and less sluggish (with the exception of pregnancy).  Luckily for me, a swift kick up the arse from the foot of guilt is a great motivator to get me to act. Here are some stats from Eat for the Planet by Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone to stir my sense of culpability:

  • 45% of the planet’s land surface is occupied by the global livestock system
  • 99% of the meat, dairy and eggs in the United States comes from the industrial livestock system or from factory farms
  • 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is attributed to beef production
  • 23% of the planet’s fresh water is devoted to livestock
  • 40% of the world’s grain is fed to livestock, while nearly 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night (including Australians)
  • 80% of the global soy crops are fed to livestock
  • the livestock system is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gases – more than the entire transport system combined!

A recent study by RMIT University and Lancaster University calculated the yield of produce you would obtain per kilogram of greenhouse gas emitted. Beef and lamb were the worst performers.

Roughly equivalent to:

  • 50 medium onions
  • 20 medium apples
  • 2.5 tins of lentils
  • 800 mL of milk
  • about 5 eggs

Not to say I should replace all meat with onions as they dont provide the same nutrients and I would have perpetual halitosis. But it’s good to see in numbers how a plant based diet is better for the environment. Also a good reminder that none of the food I currently consume is carbon neutral.

When I first started toying with vegetarianism my sole motivator was to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases I was responsible for, unlike traditional debate for vegetarianism, which is linked to animal cruelty. So what does factory farming look like? A picture paints 1000 words….

In the book The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason they explain “in supermarkets ans ordinary grocery stores, you should assume that all food – unless specifically labelled otherwise – comes from the mainstream food industry and has not been produced in a manner that is humane, sustainable or environmentally friendly”. They also say don’t be fooled by the wording “farm fresh” or “all natural”.

Now that I’m feeling sufficiently guilty enough to act on my eating habits let’s dissect my diet. Below is a rough guide of how often I eat meat and dairy.

Beef – 1 – 2 meals a month Pork – 1 – 5 meals a month Lamb – 1 meal a month Kangaroo – 1 – 4 meals a fortnight Chicken – 1 – 2 meals a week Eggs – 2 – 6 a week Fish – 1 – 2 times a fortnight Milk – 50 mL a day Yoghurt 2 serves a week Cheese 2 – 5 serves a week Butter – used for frying mushrooms and baking 100g a month (this is a wild estimate) Butter/oil blend – 70g a week Sour Cream 75g a month Chocolate – too much Ice cream – 1 – 2 serves a week Seafood other than fish – 1 – 2 times a year Custard, cream and cream cheese – every few months

Being the primary forager and chef in our house of four, I have some influence over how much meat and dairy is consumed but more importantly where we source it from. I don’t intend to force a vegetarian diet on the rest of the family so I’ll look at if there are ways I can shop better.

Audit Summary

Where we do well

  • I’ve recently started purchasing the bulk of our meat online from a local (Victorian) free range and grassfed farming collective
  • I’ve recently sourced a free range small goods supplier in Western Victoria
  • Whenever possible I get eggs and milk locally (Ballarat area)
  • I’ve swapped cow’s yoghurt for coconut youhurt and cow’s milk for plant based alternatives
  • Swapped my cow’s milk/soy latte for a long black with a dash of milk
  • Use kangaroo mince instead of beef/pork
  • Try to have at least 2 meat free days a week
  • Cut back on the amount of meat I use in cooking eg. instead of using 500g for bolognaise, use 300g (5 – 6 serves) and bulk up with mushrooms
  • I usually order a vegetarian meal when dining out

Next Steps

  • Keep reducing my meat intake and swapping for other high protein and iron plant alternatives such as legumes and vegetables (this may require iron supplements whilst breastfeeding)
  • Source local and/or organic cheese, yoghurt and butter manufacturers
  • Use the Sustainable Seafood app when purchasing fish/seafood
  • Cut back on chocolate – probably good for my waistline too! Where possible purchase chocolate with less milk content
  • When safe to do so (breastfeeding requirements), return to the 5:2 diet. The idea behind this is, I find this diet minimises overeating, meaning I require less resources in general
  • Continue to buy free range meat for the fam (and occasionally myself) but opt for roo, chicken and pork over beef and lamb

I get that vegetarianism and veganism are very controversial and polarising subjects, with both extremes of the argument tending to come across angry and condescending in thier views on the topic (much like climate change in general). I also understand the the culture and tradition that surrounds food (Christmas ham – yes please!). I can’t see myself becoming a full blown vegan in the near (or far) future or if I want to be one, nor can I see a strict vegetarian diet in the short term. Perhaps we don’t all need to cut animal products but maybe it’s the amount we eat and where we source them that’s the problem. It’s just another system in our chaotic and confusing world that’s more than a little broken.

Food and it’s environmental impact is a complex and confusing subject because there are many facets to the is system and then there’s the health side of the debate – we need the right foods to function properly. This post doesn’t even scratch the surface but if you are interested in reducing your animal product intake then a good place to stsrt is The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason.

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