Vegetarian myths and realities

Mid way through 2015, my newfound awareness of the meat industry began in the area of animal cruelty; as I discovered the inhumane methods used to bring animals from being full of life, to simply an ingredient on your plate. I saw graphic videos of cattle being slit at the throat, wriggling in pain as a last movement before death. I thought of a beef stew my mum used to make, I thought of pork chops and cottage pie, all the meals I didn’t fully enjoy, and the numerous times I had left my meat on my plate. That simple act to me now symbolised a life going to waste. My conscious was filled with guilt, I couldn’t see meat the same again. For some reason my brain had short-circuited all my life. I had never fully made the connection before that what was on my plate, used to be alive. I felt especial guilty towards cows. Cows are mammals. Humans are mammals. Their experience of pain is recognised in the same way ours is. Putting yourself in the mind of the suffering animal is heartbreaking.

It was at this point my learning on the topic expanded further afield than simply aspects of cruelty. Once you delve into the world against consuming animal products, you can find so much information that most people simply do not have any awareness of. The meat industry is inherently profit-driven, reliant upon consumers, so a lot of the truths behind its impacts are not desired to be discussed in popular discourse. One of these aspects is the affect of meat-eating on the environment.

I discovered some shocking facts, two of which really stuck in my mind.

  1. The meat industry produces more emissions and greenhouse gasses than all the worlds transport combined
  2. If all the land used for feeding and rearing livestock for meat and animal products was used for growth of human food, theoretically there would be no world hunger

Everybody talks about the environmental effects of transport. London has introduced low emission zones, car pooling is being encouraged, expansion at Heathrow has caused environmental outrage, all these things have appeared in  the news over recent years, yet I had never heard about the damage that meat was causing.

Cowspiracy, released in 2014, gained popularity as an educational insight into the devastating effects of meat consumption on the environment, particularly from cattle. This was a shocking new discovery for many people, pushing the idea that ‘meat = environmentally bad’ into common thought.

Quartz recently discussed this, presenting the idea that veganism as the most environmentally sustainable diet could actually be a myth, in the article “Do the math: Being vegan isn’t as good for humanity as you think”.

The article refers to a study conducted on various diets, from unrestricted to completely plant-based to determine what actually uses land in the most sustainable ways. “When applied to an entire global population, the vegan diet wastes available land that could otherwise feed more people”. Purdy, the writer, elaborates on this by explaining about land use. This perspective is something I had not read about, or really even thought about before. It seemed to make sense to see the idea ‘meat = environmentally bad’ as an absolute, without looking into the complexities.

Purdy cuts through the verbiage and lays out the types of land use, and the facts I had not seen become instantly clear – of course, not all land is suitable for arable use. Its not like we could magically turn all grazing land into fields yielding masses of crops to feed the nations. Land, and nature, simply doesn’t work that way. Using technology is an option, but ultimately in order to use land for food production, we need to adapt techniques to suit the land itself, not force the land to function exactly how we demand it to. In order to grow only the food that we can directly digest, to support a world of humans leading a plant-based diet, it is likely that more land would have to be found to support demand – leading to other troublesome problems such as deforestation.

It is difficult to predict how theoretical diets could make a difference to the world, and though the article outlines the negatives in going “whole-hog vegan”, it would almost never be the case that every person in the world would suddenly become vegan, rendering this theoretical situation almost irrelevant to an individual and their personal choice to go plant-based. When I became more aware of all these negatives of a meat filled diet, I felt it necessary to cut down on meat. But I then thought about this lax rule I was so near setting myself, and saw its lack of concreteness. If I was to give up meat entirely, this would give the benefits of about 4 people just cutting down. So though the Quartz article raises some extremely important points, using a reliable study to show an alternative to general belief; I wouldn’t take a message of ‘don’t become vegan’ or ‘veganism is bad’ away from it. Purdy does point this out, writing “of course, this is not an argument to embrace a meaty diet”. He simply is providing a fresh perspective on a repeatedly discussed topic, which I have noticed Quartz often do.

If the ideal diet for environmental efficiency, and the best for humanity in the long term is plant-based with a bit of meat on the side, then a combination of meat eaters restricting nothing, and whole-hog vegans is actually the ideal situation when thinking on a large scale. And with more and more discussion of vegan and vegetarian diets in popular discourse (see figure 1), and more plant-based alternatives on offer to buy, I can assume this is actually the direction in which we are heading. The world needs a level of pro-vegan awareness for various improvements including sustainability, but unfortunately, for a variety of reasons including many outside their control, this mentality is unlikely going to be adopted by every single person on the planet.


Figure 1: Google trends search on the words ‘vegan’, ‘vegetarian’ and ‘plant based’

Back to me. I have recently realise that what I believed to be simply a love of cheese, is more of a dependancy. I find it difficult to comprehend how a meal could taste good without some cheesy element to it. The image I have included shows some of my recent favourite vegetarian meals, of which only 2 out of 9 escaped the grasp of my cheese addiction. Like they say however, the first step towards recovery is recognising the problem… so I intend, to an extent, to faze cheese out of my diet. It is unhealthy, and I need to get rid of my reliance to begin to explore and enjoy new flavours, particularly by consuming more vegetables. I have already eliminated milk from my diet, so cheese is the majority of the dairy I eat. If I cut this down I would be almost totally plant-based, with a few exceptions such as eggs and butter, just to make student life a little easier and cheaper. Living that lifestyle for me feels like the ideal – the best way I can be good to my body, to animals and to the environment. However, if everyone suddenly adopted these restrictions, it would certainly not be the most sustainable act for the environment.

There is so much to learn in exploring diets across the spectrum, each individual food, each ingredient has its own nutritional and environmental effects, and many foods can in some way be considered ‘cruel’. It is difficult to determine what exactly is the ideal diet, as years of various traditions, cultural changes health benefit rumours, marketing, trends and technological developments have caused constant changes to how different people view foods. I certainly would recommend a step towards the plant-based end of the spectrum. Vegetarianism for me has had a wealth of benefits, and I do feel like by cutting out some cruel food products, I am doing something good.


Chase Purdys article for Quartz: https://qz.com/749443/being-vegan-isnt-as-environmentally-friendly-as-you-think/