Sustainable Eating: What’s so confusing? A look at Meat and Dairy in our diet

I see I’ve been absent for a long period of time again! Life with a one-year-old has proven to be a bit challenging, but am I surprised? Not really. Sorry for the quiet, here’s a post!

It happened again, and this time, I’m changing something.

I was feeding my son this morning on the couch, our little morning cuddle, and the CBC news was playing on my radio. It was only a brief mention, but echoed a longer discussion a couple weeks before on climate change.

The take-away? We’re almost out of time. In fact, we’ve got about ten years to halt the progression (or Regression, to better put it) of climate change and avoid the worst devastation.

I cried. Yup, I’ll admit it now: I cried AGAIN. Having a kid makes your hormones go funny (that’s my defence anyway), so I SWEAR I was not this emotional before! But having children also changes your perspectives a bit. Not saying you can’t feel this way without kids, you definitely can! But I didn’t. Not to this extent anyway. When it was just me, it was just me. Now there’s this innocent sitting in my lap that can’t even say my name, and I need to think about his future.

So, upon realizing that my first-born would barely be a teenager by the time that clock would run out, I felt a deep resolve inside. I was determined to do what I could to change our carbon footprint and to find the right information to share with others to help them reduce theirs.

A quick google search will land you on many lists of things to do to reduce your carbon footprint and help reduce climate change. I found one of these, and I’m content to say that we already follow some of the recommendations. However, for the sake of this blog and my day-to-day activities of keeping a home and a couple of people alive, there was one recommendation that struck home with me, but left me a bit stressed out:

Eating a plant-based diet.

We don’t eat a lot of meat as it is, but we eat a lot of dairy. I mean, we LOVE cheese. We can eat over a kilogram of it a week easily, and eat well over that if you include cottage cheese. If you include Yoghurt and Milk, our consumption is fairly high, and this has been sitting with me for a long time now.

So I set off to learn what needed to change with our eating habits and why, but first, let me catch you up on a few things you can do to help reduce your carbon footprint:

  1. Buy Second Hand. I don’t know the stats on clothing manufacturing, aside from the fact that almost everything we wear is imported (see point two) and that my child outgrows clothing WAY too fast for my budget (And holy cow he’s only a year old!). The average adult spends about $160 a month in clothing! First off: do you know what kind of haul that would bring from Value Village? Second, where do the other clothes go? Well, if you’re a responsible adult, to a second-hand store, where someone else can both save their cash AND the carbon footprint of new clothes AND saving the landfill space. And when the clothes are too ripped up to use? Check out this link for some great ideas to keep the recycling going!
  2. Buy Local. This may seem daunting, especially if you live in a city where there are no farms nearby, but it can be done! This extends beyond food. Maybe there’s a brewery nearby that you can directly purchase your favourite beverage from. Maybe your neighbour has a garden in the back and some chickens. Maybe you know a crafty person who can make that desired whatever-it-is for you instead of buying from China. It CAN be done! And an easy way to do it? Google and Facebook. Ask for recommendations from your friends’ list, or do a simple search on google and check out the mapped results to see where everything is. I never knew how many Apple orchards were around me until I simply plugged it into Google Maps. Then I came home with 20lbs of apples…
  3. Use Public Transit. Or carpool. Or walk, or bike, or something! If you can get a lift, try to do it and use it as an excuse to socialize (just a little) and catch up on current events.
  4. Reduce single-use items. Surely you’ve heard about the war on plastic straws? Did you also hear about how many coffee cups aren’t actually recyclable? You heard right: That Starbucks cup does NOT belong in the recycling, but actually goes into the garbage (or another appropriately marked bin for coffee cups, which I am seeing more of). So what do you do? Metal straws are readily available in many stores now, and reusable coffee mugs (think Contigos and the like) have been around for years. Just ask your barista to use your cup instead-they’re trained to do it! Q-tips (check out this great alternative), snack bags, feminine hygiene products, disposable diapers-They all add up to landfill and production waste.
  5. Reduce Food Waste. This one has been hitting me hard lately. I have a picky eater at the moment, and so much of what I make for him ends up on the floor. It’s heart-breaking, frustrating, and hopefully just a phase of life. How do I deal with it? I reduce the size of my portion and finish what he doesn’t. Maybe I’m not supposed to do that (I don’t let him WATCH, of course. Don’t you know moms sneak food behind their kids’ backs?), but it makes me feel better about the waste. Beyond this, try to meal-plan and avoid having purchases go rotten in your fridge (like that head of lettuce…). Also, try out zero-waste restaurants! I went to an amazing restaurant last year called Loka, and they used everything—even the peels from onions and potatoes—and it was by far one of the most memorable and delicious meals I’ve ever had. Don’t knock it till you try it!

And finally, what’s the biggest focus of my research today? One of the most common recommendations for reducing your carbon footprint:

Eat a Plant-Based Diet.

But, why?

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years (maybe five), agriculture is one of the biggest single contributors to climate change. From transporting food to using refrigeration to keep it, there is one culprit that’s been getting a lot of flack for it: Meat.  Specifically, Cows.

Keeping cows, for dairy or meat, takes up space, uses up resources, and produces more methane than calories by a LONG shot. They require a lot of water, a lot of land, and a lot of food that we could be simply eating ourselves. But it’s not just cows. Lamb, according to this article, is worse than beef for all of the above. So, for the sake of this blog, everything I say about Beef is applicable to Lamb as well.

It’s an unfortunate thing, that one of the mainstays of our evolution as a society and species has become our bane. Agriculture was a representation of our growing intelligence and ability to adapt and survive. By learning to culture our food and manipulate the environment, we were better able to survive long bouts of famine and barren winters. But now, agriculture is to blame for upwards of 20% of all carbon emissions.

But, we gotta eat!

Many scientists have resolved that the best way to combat this massive contributor to greenhouse gases is to adopt a plant-based diet. The reasoning: Instead of using large portions of land to grow food for cows, which then create massive amounts of methane gases on their own (and then some with production), we use that same land to grow food that we eat ourselves, and reduce the resources needed for keeping cows (and lamb, etc etc).

Great! So how do we reduce our meat consumption at home? We eat meat twice a week right now, less than others and more than some, and we eat grass-fed and free-roam when we do.

However, there’s a big gap for us, and that’s cheese. How do I reduce our cheese and dairy consumption? We all love it here, so I went on a search for dairy alternatives, only to find myself lost.

sliced cheese on brown table top

Photo by NastyaSensei Sens on Pexels.com

Dairy production has a lighter carbon footprint than beef, though I believe it’s a bit more complicated than that, since it depends largely on the farm you purchase from and country. But if I wanted to reduce our consumption completely and turn to plant-based alternatives (more easily recognized as Veganism or Vegetarianism), it’s not the greatest alternative. As an example, Almond milk.

Almond milk is a common milk alternative, and I have drunk it before, many times. But for all it’s health benefits and tastiness, it’s carbon footprint is not small. To grow one almond requires 5 litres of water (by comparison, it takes 100L of water to produce 100ml of cow’s milk). That’s a lot of water,  especially when you consider that 80% of the world’s almond crop is grown in California, where there are regularly massive wildfires and droughts (Such as one of the worst natural disasters in their history that recently destroyed the town of Paradise).

When it comes to alternatives to the alternative, there are many options, and most face the same issue of either requiring a lot of water or a lot of land. There are, however, a couple of exceptions I found. One, which I have been drinking for a year now with great glee, is Coconut milk. It requires very little water and land to make, and provides many healthy fats. Many parts of the plant are used elsewhere as well, with the rusk being used in some biodegradable food containers. Another alternative that is unfortunately hard to find (for now) is Hemp milk. Hemp is an incredibly hardy plant and very sustainable, requiring little to no pesticides and also containing a healthy amount of protein. And every part of the plant is used for one thing or another. I’ve also read a little bit about Oat milk, and would consider it if the price were right (because everything I’ve seen so far has been double the price of the former two options).

Ok, so Milk is figured out for me: Hemp or Coconut. But what about Cheese? Cheese production amounts to about half that of Beef when it comes to its carbon footprint, but in the list of animal products that are responsible for the most emissions, cheese is third (Lamb is first). So, if I’m to follow along with cutting out as much of the heavy-hitters as possible, cheese needs to go, or at least be cut back. And by the look of things, that may be what happens.

First, let’s look at how the type of cheese makes a difference in terms of footprint. Harder cheeses that require more time to mature also need more resources—more milk, more storage time, production treatments, etc—than soft/young cheese, such as ricotta and cottage. So, my cottage cheese fix isn’t too bad, but it looks like my love of cheddar will have to be cut down to special occasions. But what if I want to go further and completely leave dairy?

There are a lot of vegan alternatives to cheese on the market, but I find they fall into one of two categories: Soy-based or Nut-based cheeze.

I’ll be short with the Soy cheeze: I don’t eat it. I avoid Soy in general. There are some populations that have eaten soy for centuries and it remains a mainstay in their diet, however each culture of people has, over the great expanse of time and evolution, developed differently according to their environment, including diet. I, coming from a different genetic background, can’t process soy the way that others may be able to. I find it affects my hormonal balance just enough to throw things out of whack.

The reason? Soy has something called Phytoestrogen, which can mimic the shape and action of estrogen in our bodies. Because it can fool the body into thinking it’s estrogen when it’s not, we can get thrown for a bit of a loop. So, to avoid the various side-effects of hormonal imbalances, I avoid it.

That leaves Nuts.

clear glass with milk beside the bowl full with almonds

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I’ve seen numerous DIY recipes for nut-cheeze, and they all involve either almonds or cashews. We already know about almonds, so what about Cashews? Delicious as they are, turns out they’re a huge pain to deal with in India and Vietnam (so transport is an emission culprit) and have been linked to slave labour and even acidic burns. They’ve also been linked to heart disease due to the nature of their fats. After reading that, I think I’ll avoid them too.

Ok, looks like cheese is for special occasions now. What about Eggs? Lucky for us, those rank much lower in the footprint-list, so for the sake of having protein in our diet, they’re staying in the fridge. However, if we ever end up in an area where local eggs are available (for a reasonable price), I’ll be shopping locally for that. Better yet, some day we’ll just have some hens.

And what comes before the Egg (Or is it after?): The chicken! Chicken and Turkey are also lower than beef on the scale, but I’ll still keep it as an occasional meal. There are various ethical issues in all animal production, and chicken and turkey have their fair share of it. We eat chicken more often than any other meat here, but it’s free-roam only for ethical reasons.

Overall, our meat consumption isn’t too bad, but our dairy needs work, and that will be a hard transition off cheese. We won’t cut anything permanently from our diet, but it will no longer be a staple. But how can we up the game? We’ve already been eating meat infrequently, what else can we do besides cutting dairy back?

action asphalt auto automobile

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

One major component of carbon emission, and one that we all think of first, is transportation. I have a hybrid (an old one now), and my partner drives an electric car. We’re lucky that way. But we also eat a lot of imported foods. Those mexican avocados (which have a socio-economic impact in their native land) may need to be cut back as well as other exotic fruits, which is a hard sell to me when I’m trying to provide variety to my child. But then I have to tell myself that there were centuries before when these products weren’t available to the population, and people got by without them, even without multi-vitamins!

In the end, the reason I’m writing this and figuring it all out is that of my son. I want him to be healthy and happy, without war or struggle. I want him to have a world of hope and potential. Every parent wants the best for their child, and surely even those without want to do right by future generations, right?

We need to change our behaviour. Looking at our diets is a great start, both for our physical health and the health of our planet. If you eat meat regularly, I implore you to consider swapping it out a couple times a week if you can. Go for something based on pulses like beans and lentils (I’ve made an AMAZING burger using all vegetables and pulses before, and I can tell you that it IS possible to have delicious food that isn’t based on beef or lamb).

I’m not asking you to be vegan—I’m not even going vegan—I’m just asking that you cut back your beef and lamb consumption and replace it with something plant-based. Doing this swap can reduce the carbon footprint by as much as 60% (if you go full vegan), and that’s HUGE! Even just going half-way can cut your own carbon footprint by 30%, and that’s a massive contribution!

Please consider looking at your meal plan and making the switch, at least part-time. Your planet will thank you, and so will your body and peace of mine.

three white windmills figure table decors

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

In the meantime, here is a list of articles I browsed through in writing this blog:

The clock is ticking to stop catastrophic global warming, top climate scientists say

20 Things we could do right now…

The top ten foods with the biggest environmental impact

Almond Milk: Quite good for you, very bad for the planet

Is oat milk environmentally friendly?…

Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on earth

Rising seas could result in 2 billion refugees by 2100

The impact of cheese

How to choose the healthiest, most sustainable milk alternative

Healthy foods that are ruining the environment

Why veganism isn’t as environmentally friendly as you might think

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