Eating The Elephant In The Room
In the past couple of weeks, we’ve heard a lot about climate change.
For the first time in a long time, there is a ray of hope breaking through those clouds of CO2 and methane that we’ve been pumping into the atmosphere.
The G7 agreed to aim towards phasing out all fossil fuel use by 2100. While much of the science suggests that action is required sooner, it is a sign of progress that the world’s leaders are ready to make difficult decisions, and send a signal to the investment community that big oil and coal is no longer the horse to back.
Adding his weight behind the issue, the Pope has this week called for an end to humanity’s “tyrannical use of nature”, in a leaked draft of a papal encyclical to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Coincidentally, last week I also watched a documentary that was transformative to my thinking about how we address climate change. Cowspiracy followed documentary filmmaker Kip Andersen as he travelled around America talking to the leadership of the country’s top environmental NGOs, about the link between animal agriculture and climate change. If you’re asking — What about it? — like the Executive Director of Sierra Club did, then perhaps check out this movie.
Kip’s question was simple — when animal agriculture accounts for more greenhouse gases than all of global transport combined, with estimates ranging from 18% to 51%, why are there no campaigns from these organisations advocating movement towards plant-based diets? Despite persistent questioning, the large majority of the NGO leaders interviewed were tight lipped, either outright refusing to discuss the issue, or skirting around it.
Why wasn’t anyone talking about animal agriculture, the largest contributor to rainforest deforestation, oceanic pollution and climate change?
This is not new information, but the difference with this film is that everything was laid out bare, with easy-to-understand infographics. Cartoon food plots showed us how an omnivorous diet uses 18 times as much land as a vegan diet, and six times as much as a vegetarian one. Eat a quarter pounder = you’ve just used as much water as you would in two months of showering.
On two occasions in my life, I have put myself on a month-long water diet — that is, a personal water conservation challenge where I only used 25 litres of water a day to meet all my drinking, bathing, cooking, flushing and laundry needs. I undertook this challenge to start conversations and raise awareness, writing about my experiences and getting the media involved.
So it was somewhat depressing to learn last week that the water I saved throughout a whole month of doing laundry by hand and bathing with a bucket and sponge, would have been wasted again on a single hamburger.
James Cameron and his wife Suzy Amis-Cameron also saw a documentary, Forks Over Knives, that convinced them that widespread adoption of plant-based diets are the only way to seriously address both climate change and improve the health of western populations.
Check out the two-minute clip of them describing the moment below (their full length presentation on the future of food and education at New Frontiers festival in New Zealand, is also well worth a watch). The key take-home message for me, is that this is something we can do instantly to help address climate change — we don’t have to wait for politicians to solve this problem for us, we have the power to affect huge change by simply adjusting our diets.
Food is a taboo subject, often deeply ingrained in our culture, and a transition to plant-based diets may not be easy for everyone. While some of the commentators in Cowspiracy view initiatives like Meatless Monday akin to “being an environmentalist one day a week”, it’s better than no days a week. Even consuming animal products every other day could have a massive impact. As Howard Lyman, former Montana cattle rancher and author of the book Mad Cowboy put it, when 75% of the US population call themselves environmentalists, yet the average American omnivore still eats 132lbs of meat per year, there is an irreconcilable discrepancy.
In the interests of transparency, I don’t follow a vegan diet. I am a half-Swiss, half-Kiwi lass who loves her cheese and hokey pokey icecream. I went vegetarian three and a half years ago, and I have definitely had some lapses and modifications to my formerly strict diet. There was the time I was meeting some distant family in Denmark for the first time. Over the course of a friendly and jovial five-hour dining session, they proudly served up a seven course dinner of meat and seafood. Not even seven courses containing meat, but rather seven courses of entirely meat products. I wasn’t a vegetarian that day.
Some days, human empathy and the need to nurture relationships is more important than taking a principled stand, and as with most things, a militant approach is never the answer. These days it’s gentle education, not aggressive arguments from vegans, that have me reaching for the rice milk over dairy. Most days anyway. It’s a work in progress, and I think that’s okay.
Christiana Wyly, Director of My Plate My Planet and the Food Choice Taskforce, recently gave the talk below at New Frontiers, outlining what the future of the human diet might look like. Certainly there was a time when meat was an appropriate and necessary part of the human diet. Even 100 years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who could make an environmental argument against the production and consumption of meat and animal products, as the impact was so much lower.
But times have changed. This is not about whether humans are biologically hard-wired to eat meat or not. It’s about adapting to the conditions and realities of our new home — a tiny blue biosphere with over seven billion humans inhabitants, and four out of nine ecological planetary boundaries already crossed. All bets are off with regards to our planet’s future. Now that we can grow and produce viable plant-based sources of protein and other nutritional necessities with a much lower environmental footprint, there’s really no reason why we shouldn’t consume less meat and animal products.
The G7’s announcement is a good first step, it sends a strong signal to governments heading into negotiations in Paris in December. But if we are serious about addressing global climate change, switching light bulbs and driving Priuses is not going to cut it.
There’s a huge elephant in the climate change room. It’s time we stopped eating it.