Illustration by Emily Wang/TheGazelle

Vegetarianism: A lot at steak

I have always eaten meat. As a kid I wondered at times about vegetarianism, but the prospect of change always seemed too daunting. I was quick to make ...

Feb 22, 2014

Illustration by Emily Wang/TheGazelle
I have always eaten meat. As a kid I wondered at times about vegetarianism, but the prospect of change always seemed too daunting. I was quick to make counterarguments, and though mostly petty and insignificant, they marred my thinking enough that I did nothing.
Then one night, almost two years ago, I decided to stop eating red meat. I don’t quite remember the catalyst, most probably another dire news report on climate change, but I stopped and I haven’t started up since.
The environmental impact of meat consumption is, by any scale, staggering. The livestock industry, which continues to grow as the population steadily increases and develops, is the cause of 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emission — more than that of the global transportation network. A report in 2013 suggested that this number was a wild underestimation and that the figure was closer to 50 percent. Regardless of the exact number, the production of meat and dairy goods has an enormous impact on climate change. Meat is also hugely water intensive. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimates that the production of beef uses 50 times as much water as most staple vegetables.
Cutting out red meat seemed the most logical place to begin. A number of studies illustrate the impact of red meats — lamb and beef in particular — on the environment. I chose to continue to eat white meat, mostly just chicken, as a self-reassuring compromise between idealism and seemingly unshakable habit.
A sudden and absolute transition into vegetarianism or veganism is not sustainable for many. Instead, in the first place, we should aim to make small commitments to a more sustainable, plant-based diet.
The distinction I have made is not perfect. Some red meats like kangaroo have a smaller environmental footprint than white meats, and the consumption of dairy products is, in terms of carbon emissions, far worse than many white meats. These are calculations that we must navigate in our daily lives, balancing the essentialist pragmatism of categorisations — red meat, white meat, vegetarianism, veganism and so on — with the complexities of the underlying arguments. It is important that we constantly revisit these decisions and challenge ourselves to make greater commitments to a more sustainable diet. My decision is calculated, but certainly not perfect.
The decision to reshape my own diet was empowering. Too often we look solely to our leaders for commitments to address climate change. We look for action on a governmental or industrial level, ignoring our own capacity as actors, as consumers and as agents for change. A change of diet is inconvenient at times, and it is at times challenging, but if we are to seriously address man-made climate change, it is absolutely necessary and it is absolutely possible. Scientists have predicted that even the slightest changes in our consumption of carbon-intensive produce can have a serious impact on slowing climate change.
There are other arguments for a less meat-intensive diet. These arguments usually revolve around questions of ethics or health and are worthy of consideration. However, as an individual that is constantly frustrated by my perceived inability to do anything about climate change, the prospect that what I shovel onto my plate might have a significant difference was most captivating. A study from the University of Chicago found that if the average U.S. American reduced their intake of meat by just 20 percent, it would be the equivalent of them trading in their standard sedan for the much more efficient Toyota Prius.
My initial foray into partial vegetarianism is not glamorous or particularly admirable. But in its clumsiness, it might allow others to similarly attempt their own fumbling journeys towards a more sustainable diet. If nothing else, an attempt is a good place to start.
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