It is no longer news that consuming too much processed red meat is not good for our health. However, there is a new catch: reducing the consumption of red meat is also good for the environment.
More Greens, Less Red.
Most people think of a plant-based diet as consuming just green leaves and fruits. I used to think so too until I watched a documentary by Journalist Michael Pollan titled In Defense of Food on Netflix. In the exact words of the Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” He referred to it the summary of all he learned about healthy eating in seven words. Eat real food – grains, meat, fruits, vegetables, and not edible food-like substances – highly processed meats, grains, sugars, and oils.
The first bird: Good Health
The Western diet, which is what most of us consume these days is made up of white flour products made from refined grains, lots of meat and processed meat, vegetable oils, and refined sugar. They are cheap, convenient and processed to taste really good. These options do not come without consequences. They are bad for our health. The World Health Organization reported that “Of the 56.9 million deaths worldwide in 2016, more than half (54%) were due to the top 10 causes. Ischaemic heart disease and stroke are the world’s biggest killers, accounting for a combined 15.2 million deaths in 2016. These diseases have remained the leading causes of death globally in the last 15 years. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease claimed 3.0 million lives in 2016, while lung cancer (along with trachea and bronchus cancers) caused 1.7 million deaths. Diabetes killed 1.6 million people in 2016, up from less than 1 million in 2000.”
Cancer, Diabetes, Stroke, and Heart diseases are related to the foods we consume and how often we get our heart rates up. When managing these lifestyle illnesses, nutrition comes atop. Patients are advised to stay away from highly processed foods and consume more green vegetables and fruits instead.
The second bird: A Sustainable Environment
The first time I heard about the impact of eating red meat on the environment was in my postgraduate class. I did not take it seriously until recently. One may wonder, “How does eating red meat affect the environment negatively?” The only way to understand it is to trace where beef comes from and everything that is involved in the production of red meat and products made from it. Technically, that is called a Life Cycle Analysis.
The following facts as found on the ProVeg International website may interest you.
1. Farmed animals are responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gases
2. Animal agriculture is responsible for half of the food-related greenhouse gases
3. The production of 1kg of beef releases 16-30kg of carbon dioxide
4. The top 20 meat and dairy corporations produce more greenhouse gases than the whole Germany
5. In total, the global food system contributes 30% of man-made emissions.
Greenhouse gases are responsible for global warming which has been documented to lead to rising sea levels. The increase in temperature poses threats to our existence. It affects food production, causes water shortage, and increases the occurrence of diseases caused by mosquitoes and similar vectors that thrive in stagnant waters and filthy environments.
The United Nations has something to say
The recent UN Climate Report identifies meat consumption as a barrier to stay below 1.5°C. We would recall that we have been told that we must do everything we can to ensure that we don’t get near a global temperature increase of 2.0°C in order to prevent irreversible catastrophes.
Climate Tracker, in a Synthesis report on the relation between Meat Consumption & climate change in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stated that The agricultural system is the major contributor of CH4 and N2O emissions that are very hard to eliminate with current technologies assumed in integrated models.
So should we all be vegan/vegetarian?
One might ask, “If everyone stopped consuming meat and its products, would we be able to keep up with the supply of plant foods?” The simple answer is yes. This is because plant foods especially vegetables make you fuller with lesser calories than the same quantity of meat with more calories.
In the documentary, Food Choices, Jim Morris Hicks, author of Healthy Eating, Healthy World said that per calorie, a high meat diet requires an average of 10 times more energy, more land, and more water when compared to plant-based diet. This means that reducing the consumption of red meat would free up more land area that can be used to grow more real food for humans.
Going further, Marco Springmann, a research fellow at the Oxford Martin School’s Future of Food programme, tried to find out what would happen if everyone became vegetarian by 2050. Their results indicated that food-related emissions would drop by about 60% and if we all went vegan instead, emissions would drop by around 70%.
The way forward: Less Demand, Less Production
The only reason any product or service remains in existence is that there is a demand for it. Once consumers demand less, less would be produced. If we all reduced the amount of red meat and its processed products, there would no need to have industrial farms and we would have farms that grow real food for humans instead.
Pete Smith, the former convening lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said: “The need to reduce demand for livestock products is now a scientifically mainstream view. Only a significant decrease in meat and milk consumption will allow us to deliver a food system fit for the future – for the benefit of humans and the planet as a whole. Producing the same mix of foods as we consume now, even if we were to do so more sustainably, cannot deliver the reduction in environmental impacts we need to protect the planet for our children and their children.”