Bacon and eggs – Why it’s worth revisiting the plant based diet

12 February 2018 | Holly Porteous

Our researcher Holly is currently in Australia. Here she is exploring everything ‘ResPoss’ that is happening around her. Today she is looking at the Australians’ take on animal agriculture in relation to climate change. 

There’s a movement running through Melbourne’s cafes and brunch spots. A people powered embrace of the tofu scramble, the veggie dumpling or the dairy free smoothie.

smoothie, dairy free smoothie, cafe, melbourne

‘Protein Power’ dairy free smoothie at a Melbourne cafe (Photo by Holly Porteous)

In the five months I’ve lived here, the self- proclaimed cafe capital of the world has shown me what it is to be vegan/ vegetarian/ pescatarian/ flexitarian for the pure love of food. With the eighth highest rate of vegetarianism in the world11.2% of Australians called themselves vegan or vegetarian in 2016 – up from 9.7% in 2012. The rising interest in a plant-based diet is not unique to Australia. Even in Britain, the number of vegans and vegetarians trebled between 2006 – 2016 to at least 542,000 plant-based eaters – 42% of those aged between 15-34. Jasmijn de Boo, Executive Officer at the Vegan Society calls it ‘the fastest growing lifestyle movement ever’.

Less discussed, is the very real, unavoidable need to reduce our global consumption of animal products for the sustainability of our planet. Evidence of a link between animal agriculture and climate change has been long known –  2010 UN report Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Production and Consumption: Priority, Products, and Materials concluded that real impact from a reduction in fossil fuel emissions would only be possible if “combined with a ‘substantial worldwide diet change away from animal products”, while 2014 documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret further highlighted the role of animal agriculture in bringing about climate change. Yet this evidence has largely failed to reach world forums and drivers of change. In early December 2017, leaders from 193 states convened in Nairobi, Kenya, at the UN Environment Assembly with a focus on sustainability. Commitment to combatting pollution, marine litter and fossil fuel energy all featured highly on the schedule. Notably missing however, was animal agriculture.

The environmental impacts of animal agriculture are multi-faceted (for more details, visit our brand new Animal Agriculture page which I have just completed). In brief, animals require far more land to support themselves per calorie than crops – both land to live on and land to grow their feed. Consuming calories from animal products therefore leads to habitat destruction and deforestation at a greater rate than consuming calories from plants alone, reducing our ability to combat climate change. Additionally, livestock themselves produce harmful greenhouse gasses such as methane and nitrous oxide. They require more water per calorie produced than crops and contaminate water with faeces, leading to eutrophication and ocean dead zones. Finally, and the concentrated use of antibiotics in animal agriculture risks bringing about an antibacterial resistance, making us worst placed to fight off diseases.

piglet; meat; pork; vegan; vegetarian; animal agriculture; co2 emissions; water shortage

No matter how cute this piglet is, it is not the only reason why plant-based diets are becoming more popular; meat and dairy diets are a real threat to our climate and water supplies. (Photo by JasonGillman at Morguefile.com)

Less than a month in, 2018 has already brought us some shaky news. Cape Town has announced 12th April ‘day zero’ – the day the first major metropolis in the world will likely entirely run out of water. Paris has seen the third wettest December – January  period since records began, leaving the river Seine on high alert, whilst in Melbourne, Austrialia, where I write this from, the city has seen an unbearable sweep of high temperatures in the high 30s in recent weeks, with Adelaide reaching 46C.

water shortage; save water; Cape Town; drought

A poster in Cape Town, South Africa, warning local residents to use as little water as possible due to the current drought. (Photo Lieke van de Geer)

Most concerning perhaps, is that these ‘unexpected’ weather events are hardly unexpected anymore. Just last week the World Economic Forum asked it’s community of experts ‘what keeps them up at night’. The result was a list of their greatest fears. Weapons of mass destruction may have the greatest impact on the global status quo, yet the likelihood of them materialising was relatively low. Almost predictably, four of the five greatest global risks (the worst impact with the highest likelihood) were related to the environment: extreme weather events, natural disasters, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, and a water crises. And alarmingly, they are all already happening.

A global shift to a plant-based diet is almost inevitable. With the global population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, a study by Navin Ramankutty, Associate Professor at McGill University’s Department of Geography revealed that eating less meat could double the world’s food supply. Evidence suggests the world will have to switch entirely to a vegetarian diet by 2050 due to land and water shortages.

Whilst the rising interest in the West in a vegetarian lifestyle may be some small consolation, the rest of the world has largely got there first. According to a 2010 study conducted by Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute, 21.1% of the world’s population are already vegetarian or vegan, and 95% of those out of necessity, not choice. For the majority of the planet, the ticking time bomb has already started.

So let’s get going, and join the plant-based revolution. Let’s raise a cup to the almond milk cappuccino and grab the veggie burrito with both hands. As vegan food becomes more available, more varied, more price-sensitive and perhaps more fashionable than ever before, this is no longer the mere realm of the eco-quirk or the animal fanatic – this is for everyone. The stakes are with us, so let’s act.

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