G Plan for the Planet

You will begin to notice that plants feature heavily in your diet. This doesn’t mean this is a vegan diet, nor that it is based on ‘clean’ eating, whatever that is supposed to mean! Rather, I’ve put plants first as they are easily the best foods to fill up on for health, weight loss and gut-friendly reasons.

However, if you are interested, you might want to know just what this shift to a higher proportion of plants in your diet does for the planet too.

Professor James Lovelock, widely read and respected creator of Gaia theory (basically that our planet is a living, self-regulating system and quite capable of looking after itself, thank you) has a very simple message for mankind if we are not to disappear in the fog of our own CO2 emissions.

To paraphrase Lovelock, ignore the over-hyped contribution of wind power, biofuel, solar, aircraft emissions and the like; they are comparatively marginal, compared to two deeply unpopular shibboleths at the heart of the way we live. His challenge? Stop producing so many new humans, and stop consuming meat; both contribute massively to the causes of man-made or generated emissions.

It is to the meat diet that this article is going to pay a little more attention. According to recent international study published by the combined brainpower of the UK Met Office and Universities across the world, 100 peer reviewed scientific studies categorically confirm “warming in the 20th century was so intense and widespread that the likelihood of it being explained by natural variations is less than 5%.” So, to put it another way, there is a 95% chance that global warming is the fault of mankind and our activities.

For those that feel a sense of powerlessness or even apathy to the fate of the planet a much more personal solution has is being presented on a silver platter. It seems that what you eat could provide a more compelling solution for the environment than ditching or switching your SUV for a PRIUS, carbon offsetting your air miles or investing in solar panels.

According to a 2006 report by the Livestock, Environment and Development Initiative in the US, the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation worldwide, and modern practices of raising animals for food contributes on a “massive scale” to air and water pollution, land degradation, climate change, and loss of biodiversity.

In 2006 it was estimated that meat industry contributes 18% of all emissions of greenhouse gasses. This figure was revised in 2009 by World Bank scientists who revised the estimate to 51% minimum.

It is not headline making news; this information has been out there for years. However, combine the depth of the recession with the estimated cost of impending environmental chaos and the math just doesn’t add up on a personal and political level.

The fact that the simple act of reducing our intake of beef burgers and bacon could wipe $20 trillion off the cost of fighting climate change makes switching to a veggie burger every now and then seem pretty compelling.

The environmental equation of tracking food animal production from the feed through to the dinner table goes like this. To produce a kilogram of beef (2.2 pounds), farmers also have to feed a cow 15 kg of grain and 30 kg of forage. That grain requires fertiliser, which is energy intensive to produce. Millions of tonnes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, would also be saved every year due to reduced emissions from farms, methane has about 21 times more Global Warming Potential (GWP) than Carbon Dioxide.

Conversely, if the global population shifted to a low-meat diet – defined as 70 grams of beef and 325 grams of chicken and eggs per week – around 15 million square kilometers of farmland would be freed up. Vegetation growing on this land would mop up carbon dioxide. It could alternatively be used to grow bioenergy crops, which would displace fossil fuels. Greenhouse gas emissions could also fall by 10% due to the drop in livestock numbers and together these impacts would halve the costs of dealing with climate change by 2050.

Ridding our dependence on a “hunter” diet – and our love of meat and fish – could massively alter the earth’s ability to feed us all. Lovelock estimates that our current diet means that earth will struggle to feed 10 billion of us; a vegan based diet could see earth feed 100 billion of us.

Don’t let the digestion of these facts bring on a stomach ache though, tthere is a grown up version of eco-friendly eating available.

There is a whole new consumer category to sign up for, the so-called environmental vegetarian. Environmental vegetarians call for a reduction of first world consumption of meat, but not necessary eliminating it altogether whilst campaigning for greener agricultural practices alongside.

Whilst the adoption of a lacto-ovo vegetarian or entirely plant-based vegan diet is undoubtedly better for the planet, even modest reductions in meat consumption in industrialised societies would substantially reduce the burden on our natural resources.

Ideas such as adding an environmental ‘tax’ to the cost of meat in terms of carbon emissions per portion is another initiative that may soon hit your shopping bill.

If worries about the planet’s future or an environmental tax added to your shopping bill are not enough to shift behaviour then perhaps we will be left with the fight of fashion.

If ordering a burger or a T-bone steak becomes as un-PC as taking your SUV on the school run, then the environmentalists may actually stand a chance at making eco-veggies of many of us. Alternatively, we may soon find that meat is effectively priced of the menu anyway…

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