Can we still justify our carnivorous diets?

 Forget about teen consumerism - what about the rest of us? Perhaps one of the most effective illustrations of our species’ overextension of global resources is the image that features just that – a globe. Well, two identical globes, actually.

This image is meant to illustrate how many Earths worth of resources we will require if we continue to consume along the same patterns of today, and the global population continues to grow. It has been featured in the work of leading sustainable energy advocates, such as Guy Dauncey, and Powerpoint presentations worldwide.

These illustrations stem from an extensive 1998 World Wildlife Foundation report that deduced, “If our demands on the planet continue at the same rate, by the mid-2030s we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.”

It’s a little bit of a scary thought, if your imagination stretches further than a year or two into the future. The over-used resources this is meant to address are diverse and fairly easy to identify – fresh water, seafood, forests, wild game, oil, minerals and farmland.  However, one essential activity affects all of these resources disproportionately - our sometimes pathological drive to eat, eat, and eat.

Having come to the conclusion that it is indeed necessary to eat in order to survive, where do we turn next? When researching this subject it quickly becomes evident that we must focus our attention on our vastly inefficient eating habits. The most culpable and unnecessarily impactful of our resource-draining agricultural activities is the production of meat. Whether or not you agree with the concept of compound industrial animal farming, or prefer free-range, organically fed livestock, the process of turning grain or soy into mammalian steak is appallingly wasteful.

The research of Stanford economist Rosamond Naylor has shown as much as ten times more grain is needed to produce the same amount of calories through beef when compared to simply consuming the grain. From water to farmland to fossil fuels and minerals required to produce the fertilizer for animal feed, the environmental footprint of meat is massive.

The impact of meat-centric diets begins with the carbon-storing forests that are cleared in order to make way for the monoculture feed crops, and ending with the enormous methane gas emissions of cattle herds and pollution from such industrial meat-production compounds. Methane, a greenhouse gas, and other emissions from such livestock-producing operations are estimated to account for nearly 20% of current greenhouse gas emissions. In other words - more than all transportation sources combined: planes, trains, boats and automobiles.

These are not statistics from obscure sources – the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and even the United States Environmental Protection Agency  (an agency of a government that subsidizes it’s meat producer heavily) are two main sources of such startling statistics.

According to the EPA, the production of a half-pound of beef is equivalent to driving 9.81 miles (15.8 km) and producing 7.4lbs (3.34 kg) of carbon dioxide. A half-pound of pork relates to 2.52 miles (4.1 km) of driving and 1.9lbs (0.8 kg) of CO2.

Vancouverite Amanda McCuaig decided to address the issue last September when she teamed up with Earthsave Canada and the Taste of Health festival to launch Break Up With Meat Week.

A self-described “flexitarian” - defined as a vegetarian who is “not willing to be rude to [her] grandmother” McCuaig sought out to “give people perspective […] that it’s very recent in human history that people eat meat every day.”

Most advocates of plant-based diets do not question that humans are historically omnivorous – pre-historic archaeological finds, intestine length and canine teeth are all evidence that humans and our ancestors have eaten meat every so often.

What McCuaig hoped to accomplish with Break Up With Meat Week was to inspire others to re-evaluate their post-industrial and agricultural revolution eating habits.

“You have this relationship with meat your whole life and you’ve just kind of settled into it.” McCuaig believes the event successfully “[taught] people what a plant-based diet is like [… and] people liked the concept of breaking up with meat as opposed to being told to become a vegetarian.”

“[Meat] can still be a friend,” said McCuaig, tongue-somewhat-in-cheek.

Monday’s cover of the Globe and Mail addressed “a global food crisis that is well underway” and the UN FAO estimated a 40-percent rise in the food price index in 2008 - all while livestock are fed excessively with grains fit for human consumption.

Unless, of course, you have ‘bet the farm’ that our recent discovery of water on the moon will lead to an Earth clone that will fill in for a conspicuously absent second globe, it’s probably best to start addressing your own habits.

If you’re still unconvinced, perhaps a final thought towards the New York Times’ recent, optimistic conclusion that “the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals” might offer one further hint that a break-up is not only necessary, but healthy.

//Jens Ourom

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