If you’re thinking of going vegetarian ‘for the planet’ - think again!

Did you know that most of the UK Green Party’s representatives are meat-eaters? Either way, there are two things we can take away from this fact. Firstly, not all environmentalists are your Greta Thunberg who have a loathing for meat. But, more importantly, it begs the question - exactly how important is vegetarianism in tackling global warming when the environmentalists are consuming meat themselves?

To answer this question, it will help if we flip the argument from last week’s blog post – say we do cut meat out of our diets entirely (and become vegetarian), will the environmental impact definitely be beneficial? And if so, how much better will it be?

Whilst nothing really compares to factory-farmed poultry, pork and dairy in terms of environmental impact, not all plant-based foods have a small carbon footprint either. We must be mindful about everything we consume – even changing our diets can have unintended consequences. For example, when UK fruit and veg are out of season, air-transported imports can release more greenhouse gases (GHG) than poultry meat.

Other than food miles, more food crops as a result of vegetarianism would lead to:

  • more production of synthetic fertilisers which emit carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into the atmosphere, while their use on fields releases nitrous oxide, another strong GHG.
  • more agricultural practices such as the tilling of fields which releases large volumes of GHG into the atmosphere
  • A bigger water, land and carbon footprint from growing and transporting larger amounts of perishable fruit

Here’s a short list of some of the worst crop offenders:

  • Avocado - a single avocado has been estimated to take a staggering 140 to 272 litres of water!
  • Mushrooms
  • Cocoa - a small 50g bar of dark chocolate emits CO2 equivalent to 17 miles in the average American car!
  • Almonds and cashew nuts

Given this, studies do show that a non-meat diet will likely reduce an average person’s emissions by 4.3%. However, since vegetarian diets are slightly cheaper, there is likely to be a further release of GHG emissions from the production of goods and services from which the saved money is spent. This offsets about half the saved emissions from going vegetarian in the first place! So, changing your diet means you only reduce your emissions by about 2%.

Clearly, such change will only be effective if everybody does it...

For this reason, although going vegetarian is slightly better for the environment, it's an impractical policy to implement – it’s unlikely that all meat-eaters will develop a taste for alternative types of food. Instead, if there is more spending in sustainable farming, it could match (if not better) the benefits of vegetarianism whilst supplying the world’s meat demand at the same time. With this way forward, everyone wins.

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