Living Sustainably: Eating less meat and dairy
I’d describe myself as a flexitarian - someone who tries to eat fewer animal products but hasn’t put a blanket ban on consuming anything. I have huge respect for anyone who has taken the plunge and committed to being either a vegan or vegetarian, and with that in mind I decided that National Vegetarian Week was the perfect time to try and expand my vegetarian cooking repertoire.
The case for consuming few animal products is overwhelming both in terms of environmental impact and on your health. I’d go as far as to suggest that most of us are intuitively aware that we will reduce our carbon footprint and be healthier if we ate less meat and dairy. After all, it’s been drilled into us that we need to eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables every day so if your meal is based on vegetables then that’s going to be so much easier to achieve!
While animal products do provide important nutrients like protein and calcium, they are by no means the only source of these nutrients. And those benefits need to be weighed against the potential downsides - while no one is saying that a single serving of meat or dairy is harmful, in 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meat as a ‘definite’ cause of cancer (specifically bowel cancer) and red meat as a ‘probable’ cause after reviewing the evidence gathered in over 800 studies. As for dairy, many products are high in saturated fat, which can increase cholesterol and put you at greater risk of having a stroke or heart attack. According to the NHS, you should not consume more than 70g of red or processed meat per day.
Rearing and feeding the animals required to sate our appetite for all this meat and dairy has a massive environmental toll too. Consider this - we use nearly half of the planet’s usable surface for agriculture, and 80% of that is devoted to meat and dairy. And because most of the 80% devoted to meat and dairy is actually used to grow their food, it only delivers 18% of our calories! Livestock accounts for 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions, the same as the entire global transport sector, and can cause the degradation of ecosystems and polluted waterways. A 2018 Science article estimated that if animals were cut out of the food chain completely, 76% of land used for agriculture could be freed up. Animal-based foods are simply nowhere near as efficient sources of protein as plant-based foods:
“Beef production requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of edible protein than common plant-based protein sources such as beans, peas and lentils. Chicken and pork are more resource-efficient than beef, but still require three times more land and emit three times more greenhouse gas emissions than beans.”
In 2019 the EAT-Lancet Commission outlined their ‘planetary health diet’ - one that provided all the nutrients required by humans, but from sources that the planet could sustain. It found that this was eminently achievable, but would require reduced production of red meat and starchy vegetables and a doubling in the consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts. While that might sound like a dramatic deviation from the current Western diet, bear in mind that in other parts of the world this is not too dissimilar to current practices.
According to the EAT-Lancet Commission we need to rebalance our sources of food, both for our own health and that of the planet’s
Not to mention cooking with vegetables is fun, filling and delicious! I’ve had an amazing week discovering new vegetarian recipes from some of my favourite chefs - a selection of which are shown below along with some of the books I’ve used along the way. If you haven’t tried vegetarian cooking before I’d really encourage you to give it a try! You don’t have to go cold turkey, start out slow and cut out meat once a week, then take it from there.