I’ve been working on this post on-and -since National Vegetarian Week back in mid-May but have struggled with pitching it right. At first I really just wanted it to be an opinion and experience piece, but found I was drifting off into fact and figures and pre-emptive defense of my position. As I’ve now finally published it I must have found the balance I was hoping for and I hope it comes across as I intended!
Over the past 18 months I have been taking conscious steps to reduce the amount of meat I eat. Currently, I’m only having meat in one or two meals each week. Apparently, this makes me part of a growing group that has been labelled ‘Flexitarian’ – a slightly dubious amalgamation of ‘Flexible’ and ‘Vegetarian’ (flexible in terms of diet anyway, definitely not physically).
For me the decision was totally driven by environmental concern rather than for animal welfare reasons (not that I’m not concerned about animal welfare). Modern, western, meat heavy diets have a massive environmental impact. Raising livestock is extremely resource intensive using huge amounts of water, land and energy resulting in pollution, deforestation and the emission of climate change causing greenhouse gases (globally, rearing animals for food is responsible for 15% of all human related emissions, equivalent to the level of emissions from all vehicles in the world) – amongst many other negative environmental and social impacts.
Our methods and the scale at which we are raising animals for food is bad for the environment. That’s not to say that the growing of crops isn’t environmentally damaging, but it is significantly less damaging than rearing livestock. From farm-to-fork, meat and dairy products can have a carbon footprint between 10 and 40 times the size of that of vegetables and grains. As someone who studied Environmental Science at University and still works in Sustainability, as well as having a partner who hasn’t eaten beef or dairy for environmental reasons the entire time I’ve known him, I did know that meat and dairy were environmentally harmful but I guess I just chose not to think about it. As I’ve made more deliberate decisions to try and limit my environmental impact I found that excessive meat consumption was something I just couldn’t really reconcile with that.
At first I wasn’t a little unsure about whether I would actually be able to reduce my meat consumption that much. As a recovering fussy eater who loves to cook I was concerned I wouldn’t know what to cook, how to cook it or if I would want to eat it in the end. I eased myself in slowly with easy things like stir-fries loaded with different veg and substituting the usual chicken for Quorn Chicken Pieces (which I was surprised to find I actually really like) and Bolognese made with Quorn Mince or Veggie Sausages cut into chunks. More recently I’ve branched out and had my first experiment with Tofu that worked out pretty well – I’m yet to a) find and b) be convinced by Tempeh or Seitan though and am mostly sticking to Quorn/Linda McCartney and lots of beans, lentils and chickpeas.
I’ve actually really enjoyed my journey into vegetarian cooking and in some ways find it more interesting than meat based cooking and enjoy finding new recipes and new ways of doing things. I’ve recently purchased a copy of Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz & Terry Hope Romero and Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give A F*ck which I’m keen to try out.
Of course, meat eating is so ingrained in us and our culture that even suggesting that we should eat no/less meat for whatever reason, often solicits a very negative reaction from a lot of people. One of the big ‘arguments’ against vegetarianism is that humans have evolved to eat meat and that we need meat in our diet. I don’t 100% disagree with this, but it’s not as simple as that. Yes, Humans have been eating meat for (probably) millions of years, but never in the quantities that we eat today – meat will have been an occasional addition to our diets, not a daily staple. Meat is a great source of protein and protein is a really important part of our diets, but it’s far from the only place we can get protein from. Reducing meat consumption and increasing plant-based foods and non-meat proteins also bring additional benefits in the form of more diverse nutrients, lower cholesterol and increased dietary fibre. Some studies suggest benefits in terms of reduced risk of certain diseases and reduced likelihood of being obese, but I don’t feel I know enough about that to comment.
I’ve read various things and heard a lot of different views regarding whether you can get all the nutrients you need from a completely meat free diet. I’m personally convinced that a well thought out, balanced, vegetarian, or even vegan, diet can give us everything we need but I also know that too many people know too little about nutrition, or don’t have the time, to be able to carry it out in practice. I’m putting a lot of thought into what we are eating and I think we would be fine, nutritionally speaking, without meat but I like “Flexitarianism” as it seems to provide the best of all worlds – I get to eat and enjoy great quality, tasty meat every once in a while which will cover my bases in terms of nutrition if I’m not getting everything I need from my vegetarian days whilst also knowing that I’ve reduced my environmental impact. I also really feel that I’ve increased how much veg I’m eating generally and think a lot more about the nutrition I’m putting into my body and feel better for the changes I’ve made to my diet. I think the next book on my wishlist is ‘The No Meat Athlete Cookbook’, to try and ensure that I’m getting the right nutrition for building my physical strength and stamina (something else I’m working on).
That wasn’t too painful now, was it? I’d love to hear your experiences of flexitarianism/vegetarianism/veganism or if you think you could/would change your diet for the sake of the environment. Or if you’d like to know more about the environmental impacts of meat then get in touch!