Become a flexitarian
A flexitarian is someone who has a primarily vegetarian diet, but who occasionally eats fish and meat. According to Whole Foods, flexitarianism – rather than vegetarianism or veganism – is going to be one of the biggest food trends in 2017.
Not all flexitarians are alike. As the name suggests, it is a flexible diet. While one person may only eat meat at the weekends or one day a week, someone else may reserve meat for dinner only, and another flexitarian might only eat meat and fish when eating out. Paul McCartney has been promoting flexitarianism flexitarianism with the concept of Meat Free Mondays. Other high-profile people such as Jamie Oliver, Emma Thompson and Richard Branson support this campaign.
There are criticisms that flexitarianism is cheating. While a flexitarian can feel confident that they have less of a carbon footprint than a carnivore, a vegetarian or vegan may still contest that the diet still involves the regular consumption of food products which are extremely unsustainable. Then there’s also the ethical argument that eating any animal product is wrong because it involves participating in the exploitation and suffering of sentient animals. Comedian Simon Amstell’s first feature length film Carnage is based around the idea that in the future we will look back on our meat-eating past with disbelief and horror.
But right now, it seems that people are finding it easier to become a flexitarian than a vegan. There’s also the argument that flexitarianism is a gateway diet, towards not only full vegetarianism, but also veganism (which excludes the consumption and use of all animal products). And it’s still true that reducing your meat consumption and increasing your consumptions of plant-based foods can make a big difference to one’s environmental impact and health.
The problem with the meat industry
The world needs more flexitairians because of the immense harm caused by the meat industry. One paper concludes that:
“Meat sectors is one of the leading polluters in the food industry. Regardless of the perspective, environmental impacts of the meat chain influence three dimensions – climate change in respect to global warming potential, acidification potential and eutrophication potential; consumption of natural resources (mainly water and energy) and; polluting the environment with various types of waste and waste water discharge.” (1)
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), animal agriculture contributes to 14.5% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making the industry more environmentally unfriendly than all transport combined. This figure factors in the dairy and egg industries as well, but the real culprit here is meat.
A fascinating study analysed the carbon footprints of various diets: high meat-eaters, medium meat-eaters, low meat-eaters, pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans. Vegans had the lowest carbon footprint associated with their diet. But the difference between vegetarians and vegans was not as nearly as significant as the difference between vegetarians and low meat-eaters. Moreover, high meat eaters created about twice as many carbon emissions from their diet compared to low meat eaters. The big difference in emissions between pescatarians and low meat-eaters also highlights that meat is the least sustainable kind of food that exists.
It’s important to know how we can significantly reduce our carbon emissions. Most climate scientists agree that the main cause of the current global warming trend is human activity creating the ‘greenhouse effect’ – when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space.
The effects of global warming should not be taken lightly or ignored. Experts predict that if the current trend of global emissions continues, then the world will be eight degrees warmer by 2100 (2). This will result in more frequent and severe weather, including storms, heat waves, floods and droughts. A hotter climate creates an atmosphere that can both retain and release more water. This leads to wet areas becoming wetter and dry areas becoming drier.
There will be higher death rates. Indeed, some scientists describe climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” (3) Climate change is most likely to negatively impact elderly people, children, low-income communities and minorities. Air pollution will also worsen, which causes adverse effects on human health.
Global warming is causing land and sea to undergo rapid changes. This threatens the existence of all kinds of wildlife. Indeed, a 2015 study highlights that vertebrate species are disappearing 114 times faster than they should be (4). More recent findings have showed that global wildlife populations have fallen by 58% since 1970. There are predictions that two-thirds of all vertebrates could disappear by 2020.
The world’s ice sheets are melting quickly, which is leading to rising sea levels. It’s estimated that by 2100, the oceans will be one to four feet higher, threatening some of the world’s largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Mumbai, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro (5). Another major effect of global warming is the acidification of the oceans. It puts the planet’s marine ecosystems under pressure, and threatens molluscs, crabs and corals.
Experts say that even if we stopped all of our carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow, we still wouldn’t avoid many of these harmful effects. However, by drastically reducing our global emissions, we can avoid a lot of the severe consequences associated with climate change. That’s why reducing meat consumption is essential.
Livestock use up too many resources
Another problem with raising livestock for meat is that it uses up an insane amount of resources, when compared to growing plant crops directly for human consumption. While this applies to meat in general, our consumption of beef is the most unsustainable dietary choice that we make. Researchers have found that raising beef uses 10 times more resources (i.e. land and water) than poultry or pork (6).
A flexitarian diet could be based on this kind of evidence. If beef is the least environmentally friendly kind of meat, then a flexitarian may rationalise: Okay, I’ll sometimes eat meat and fish, but never beef.
The problem is not just that producing meat uses up a lot of resources, it’s also extraordinarily wasteful. From a common sense point of view, it’s more inefficient to feed plants to livestock and then eat the animals than it is to grow plant crops directly for human consumption.
Eating less meat and more vegetables
Eating too much meat also isn’t great on the human body. Eating processed meat can increase one’s risk of cancer. No, this isn’t Daily Mail-esque sensationalism. Research illustrates that nitrite preservatives turn into nitrosamines when cooked at high temperatures. And nitrosamines are carcinogenic (7).
There are many health benefits associated with a plant-based diet, such as reducing one’s risk of cardiovascular disease and different cancers. By reducing your meat intake, you can replace beef with more fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and nuts. By doing so, you will be looking after yourself in the long-term.
The problem with the fishing industry
Not only is eating too many cows problematic, but so is our overconsumption of fish. Many marine biologists believe that the single biggest threat to marine ecosystems is overfishing.
According to the UN, over 70% of the world’s fisheries are either ‘fully exploited’, ‘over exploited’ or ‘significantly depleted’ (8). Some species have been fished to the point of extinction, while many others could end up that way. This is highly problematic. In modern ecology, there is something called the ‘cascade effect’ or knock-on effect, when the extinction of one species leads to the extinction of another (or many more). This is because ecosystems are complex webs of interdependence.
Overfishing is putting the global tuna industry at risk. Therefore, a flexitarian may decide to not only limit their consumption of fish in general, but to avoid tuna specifically, given that some species are more at risk of extinction than others.
Friends of the Earth, a network of environmental organisations, recommends a flexitarian diet for its environmental and health benefits. But they also point out that it is but one part of a sustainable diet. Alongside eating less meat and fish, a sustainable diet can include eating more plant-based foods, eating better meat, wasting less food, and sourcing from known suppliers that have good standards.
It’s time to reduce our impact on the environment. Join the #GoFlexitarian campaign and make a difference to the world.
“Our goal is simple: 1,000,000 days of eating vegetarian in 2017”
That’s 1,000,000 days of leading healthier lives, while promoting sustainability at the same time. Becoming a flexitarian isn’t difficult, but the outcome can be huge.
How to join #GoFlexitarian?
Use #GoFlexitarian hashtag on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for every day of being flexitarian. Share your photos and stories. Each month we will re-count the number of hashtags and give you an update on our progress. Together we can make a difference, so join us and #GoFlexitarian.
And why not tag your friends in your posts too? Ask them to join. Together we can make a difference!
Share the #GoFlexitarian message with your friends and family. 1,000,000 days is just 1 million people going flexitarian a single day in 2017. Can you a spare a day to make a difference?
- Environmental Impact of Meat Industry – Current Status and Future Perspectives