For generations, vegetarians have been lauded for their efforts in the world’s fight for a cleaner and greener planet. A meat-free diet is often associated with an organic lifestyle, and many meat eaters remorsefully chew on steak with a pang of guilt for every peppercorn lashed onto a medium-rare. While there is no doubt meat production causes harmful greenhouse gas emissions, the argument remains open – is a meat-free diet the only way to live a sustainable life?
According to a study by Cranfield University, commissioned by environmental group WWF, vegetarian substitutes for meat can be more harmful to the environment than fresh meat. The study concluded by stating that ‘a switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK.’ Essentially, the switch to vegetarianism in the UK could potentially force meat production out of the UK where environmentally aware laws are not necessarily in place. On top of this, the move to overseas production will result in the unnecessary deforestation of areas to make way for farms to feed the UK.
The production of meat alternatives can often out-weigh the production of meat, by travelling further to the consumer and relying on preservatives rather than organic, natural products. Gidon Eshel, a Bard College geophysicist who analyses environmental impacts of food production, says processed meat substitutes are no more sustainable than a pig on a spit. In fact, Eshel goes on to say indulgences in foods such as sardines and anchovies are much more environmentally friendly than Mesclun salad, the ultimate green food. This is because fish like the above mentioned hover near the shores, making it easy to harvest close to land with a minimal production cycle to get them from the ocean to your plate. Mesclun , on the other hand, requires seasonal care – to be cooled by refrigerators in summer, and heated greenhouses in winter. This eats up energy that is simply not needed for the seafood extravaganzas you can create with sardines, anchovies and shell fish.
Backing up these claims is writer, farmer and former-vegetarian Simon Fairlie, who claims a vegan or vegetarian diet isn’t attainable for today’s society. In his 2010 book Meat: a Benign Extravagance, Fairlie argues there is some surplus and waste in every agricultural system and that animals which eat this surplus have little additional environmental impact. While maintaining his views that people should be eating less meat in general, he says eating meat – namely locally sourced fresh produce – has little effect on the environment. He goes on to explain that living on a vegan commune changed his once vegetarian views on food, due to the fact that many vegan diets consist of food imported from faraway developing countries. “We were producing, from grass, a substantial proportion of the protein and fat that we required for our nutrition, but this was shunned. Instead we imported it from countries where people go hungry.”
Fairlie hits on an important point in current sustainable food trends. While a vegetarian diet is still an efficient way to help create a greener world, the push to locally sourced produce has become the en vogue movement in sustainable food. It is more beneficial to the world to rely on produce from your local area – be it meat or vegetables – than rely on produce from abroad which not only travel extensive distances, but can often provide meals for an otherwise underfed population. Carnivore or herbivore, a locally sourced diet leaves a smaller carbon footprint than an internationally sourced vegan diet.
When push comes to shove, there’s no two ways about it: a diet of fresh, locally sourced fruit and vegetables is the healthiest and most environmentally friendly food choice. Despite this, the myth that vegetarianism is the most sustainable lifestyle isn’t necessarily true. Locally sourced food is the best way to create a more sustainable world, even if it’s meat from your local farmer. Rather than sacrificing local meat for international vegetarian goods, buy a steak every now and then – you could be helping the environment, and you’ll certainly be helping the variety in your diet.