Recently, I’ve realized that my consumption of meat varies depending on the people I live with. Back at home with my parents, we used to eat lots of vegetables and fruits from our own garden. I’ve yet to find a single vegetable that I don’t like, not even when I was a little girl. However, in our meals we often had meat and fish as well. There is nothing wrong with that, and while I grew up with little to no knowledge on how meat consumption can affect my health and the planet I live in, now I have the chance to educate myself to mindfully choose what’s on my plate.
Social influence vs personal decision
The decisions we make are sometimes based on social aspects. We grow up with specific tastes in our meals, and get used to cooking traditions or social norms. My family ate meat and I never questioned it. However, my sister started a vegetarian diet when she was in her 20s, and even though she never tried to convince me to adopt the same lifestyle, I became curious and asked tons of questions about it. “Why did you stop eating meat?’” “Is it because you don’t like it that much?” “Are you concerned about how it can affect your health?” “Is it because meat production is negatively affecting the environment?”
My flat mates during my university years ate meat, and so did I. Afterwards, I moved in with a vegetarian and a vegan, and I began to reduce my consumption of meat. Living with them, I discovered that vegetarian meals can be just as tasty and I did not miss eating meat at all. Later, I lived with someone who ate meat every single day, so I found myself consuming more meat than ever in my life. But why? Why did I base my decisions on meat consumption on other people’s choices?
After listening to my sister’s answers to my endless questions, as well as reading books and articles on the topic, I decided that it was time to make my own decisions. I believe that our food preferences are very personal. I still eat meat and fish (much less than I did in the past). But the difference is that now, every time I decide to eat or not eat something, it is based on my personal preferences and the lifestyle I want to achieve.
Whether you include meat in your meals, have decided to reduce your meat consumption, or don’t consume meat at all, remember that it is a personal choice. You should not feel judged or judge others for the same matter.
How does meat consumption affect the environment?
A study showed that agriculture, forestry, and other land uses are responsible for up to 23% of the total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Meat consumption contributes to global warming by:
- polluting fresh water;
- contributing to the loss of biodiversity;
- being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity (especially livestock production);
- producing higher carbon emissions than vegetables, fruits, and grains.
Studies show that agriculture is the human activity that uses freshwater the most. About 70% of freshwater withdrawals are for agricultural purposes and nearly a third of the total is used for livestock production. Natural habitats are converted to grassland and grazing, while arable land is used to produce grain and soya for livestock consumption. Within livestock production, we find differences in the environmental impact:
- ruminant production usually generates more greenhouse gas emissions (GHG);
- poultry production usually leads to less greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) than mammals.
What causes climate change? Mainly greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that warm the atmosphere. Research shows that climate change also affects livestock production due to the quantity and quality of natural resources. What is the challenge? Maintaining a balance between production and environmental preservation, while midway through the 21st century, the demand for livestock is expected to increase by 100%.
Are consumers aware of the environmental impact?
Studies have shown that consumers who are aware of how meat consumption affects the environment are a minority. In addition, consumers either underestimate or ignore that reducing meat production and consumption can reduce the human impact on the environment; in general, people don’t necessarily know that a vegetarian diet is more environmentally friendly.
How can I adopt a more sustainable diet?
There are different ways to adopt a more sustainable diet that will be beneficial for both the environment and your health. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health states that consuming less red meat and processed meat, in addition to being more environmentally friendly, can also decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and even the risk of early death. What are the different strategies you can consider?
- Consume less processed meats such as bacon or sausages.
- Eat less red meat, like beef, pork, or lamb.
- Change red meat for healthier meats, like poultry or seafood.
- Reduce portion size: if you are cooking a meal that includes meat, like pasta Bolognese, you can add less meat and more vegetables and tomato sauce. The taste will be the same, but your consumption of meat will be reduced.
- Do you eat meat several times per week? You can reduce it to just a few days per week, or you can even start eating meat just once in a while. Try to find the way that works best for you, and it will always be easier if you plan your meals in advance. You can try techniques such as batch cooking that will allow you to mindfully choose what’s on your plate.
- You can enjoy meals that include meat during special occasions only or when you go out to a restaurant.
- Are there any other foods that can provide protein? Beans, nuts, whole grains, and other veggies will still provide enough protein. Some examples are legumes (beans, soybeans, peas, lentils), nuts (almonds, walnuts, and pecans), and seeds (chia, hempseed).
- And remember: plant-based meals can indeed be just as tasty and satisfying. Be creative in the kitchen, try new recipes, and add different spices.
If you are curious about how your diet can affect the environment, the Harvard Footprint Calculator will give you insight on your carbon, nitrogen, and water footprints. Every individual decision that is beneficial for the environment counts. Even though our own decisions about meat consumption might feel insignificant compared to the regulations that governments and industries can implement, we are still helping to preserve our planet, as well as addressing any eco-anxiety that we may have.