Looking to lower your carbon footprint?
How a green diet of rice, beans and plant-based proteins can help squash your climate impact
When it comes to the need for Canadians to eat less meat, Lenore Newman, Canada research chair in food security and environment at the University of the Fraser Valley does not mince words.
“We eat too much meat,” she says. “The impact of the animal production chain on the environment is crushing and unsustainable, and it has to change. That’s not even a radical statement anymore.”
“In terms of climate, the food system is a heavy hitter,” she adds. “People worry about flying too much, but really that has a very small impact, whereas what you eat really matters.”
Newman, also the author of Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food, is one of a growing number of scientists, sustainability experts and environmentalists calling for consumers to go beyond “meatless Mondays” for the sake of the planet.
The push comes as a flurry of recent research has demonstrated the link between animal agriculture and climate change. One 2018 paper from the University of Oxford suggested that eating a plant-based diet can reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by as much as 73 per cent.
The impact of the animal production chain on the environment is crushing and unsustainable, and it has to change.
The reasons are manifold: carbon intensive transport, the destruction of forests to create pasture and the methane emissions of the animals themselves. But perhaps the simplest way to look at it, Taylor says, is that raising animals uses a huge amount of energy.
The amount of global grain production used to feed animals
“Seventy per cent of the grain grown around the world goes to feeding animals,” she says. “The problem with that, especially when you look at cows, is that they’re incredibly inefficient. For every 100 calories you put into a cow, you only get five out.”
The good news is that the Canadian diet is already changing. A 2018 Dalhousie University study showed more than half of Canadians are interested in eating less meat, and 6.4-million Canadians are already following a diet that restricts meat partially or completely. According to Taylor, this is one sector where a single person’s choices can have a big effect.
“Consumers can have a huge impact on the food system,” she says. “Lowering your meat consumption has the biggest impact of any single thing you can do as an individual.”
The amount a plant-based diet can reduce an individual’s carbon footprint, according to a 2018 University of Oxford paper
But how can Canadians translate their enthusiasm and awareness into a more sustainable diet? Lindsay Coulter, a green living expert and the former Queen of Green blogger at the David Suzuki Foundation, says eating less meat doesn’t mean you’re missing out.
The number of Canadians already following a diet that restricts meat partially or completely
“Here in Canada we grow all kinds of legumes, lentils, chickpeas and different high-protein, plant-based foods,” she says. “When you don’t eat meat, you end up experimenting to get the same textures, flavours and fillingness. You end up using more spices and flavours, so if anything, it causes your food to be more creative.”
Coulter, who has been a vegetarian since the age of 16, has an uncomplicated food philosophy: eat local foods that are lower on the food chain. In practice, that means buying fewer prepared meals out and looking for organic products made in Canada.
Coulter is encouraged by the number of people starting home gardens during the COVID-19 pandemic and by the growing awareness of sustainability in the food system she’s witnessed. But she’s not entirely hopeful we’ve started eating our way to a greener world.
“Hope is attachment to a positive outcome. I think we’re still heading towards environmental unravelling and climate chaos,” she says. “However, the idea of continuing to lean in, try new things and experiment: that’s what I believe in. You can and must do that at the smallest of scales.”
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