It’s hard not to feel a general sense of despair every time we read an article about environmental devastation due to human causes. After the initial shock has passed, we tend to go through the well-known 5 stages of Grief & Loss, namely: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Those of us who have gone through heartbreak or the death of a loved one are well-acquainted with these stages. So, it’s only natural to feel the same way because, after all, the earth (our oldest and most intimate lover whose selflessness and abundance we have been exploiting throughout human history) is dying.
Well, perhaps that’s a bit too melodramatic. The point is, we’re not doing very well environment-wise and there are things we can do on an individual level to make a difference.
If there is one thing we Malaysians love to talk about (some, more than most), it’s our food and our love for it *sideways glance to Penang*. Thus, any talk that even borders on threatening the wonderful variety of foods in the Malaysian diet is inevitably ignored or outright discarded and stomped on. God forbid anyone mention the 2 dreaded ‘V’ words (I’ll whisper it softly, so no one hears: veganism and vegetarianism). But the fact is, by adjusting our diets, we can easily make a significant difference in terms of our individual carbon footprint.
A person’s carbon footprint is, in the simplest of terms, the amount of carbon one produces when going about their regular daily lives. The amount of carbon an individual produces depends on factors such as their mode of transportation, their habit of consumption and also their dietary preferences. All three of these factors are touchy subjects. However, the one we’re focusing on today is diet. Everyone’s diet is highly personal. The foods we choose to eat, or choose not to eat, can come down to matters of religious observance, ethical concerns or plain personal preference. However, there is concrete science and data proving that diets heavy in meats and dairy are the most harmful for the environment.
Compared to high to medium meat-eaters, vegans and vegetarians produce only half the dietary greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions . In fact, not all meats are created equal. Red meats (beef, pork, lamb) in particular, require the most land and water and release the most GHGs . Not only that, but remember the Amazon forest fires of 2019? The leading cause of said fire was to clear land for cattle ranching . Beef is the largest agricultural driver of deforestation worldwide, with soy (which happens to mainly be used as animal feed) close behind . So if that hasn’t managed to convince you of the impact of this seemingly innocuous meat, I hope the following graphics can.
So, what can we do about it? In an ideal world where humans have a perfect, unerring moral compass and are dedicated to ending suffering in all forms, we would all go vegan. However, much has been abandoned in the pursuit of extremes. Just ask any one of your friends how their new years resolutions are going. When we want to make a change, we tend to go all out. When we say we want to lose weight, we begin by following a strict diet of barely-eating-anything and going to the gym 7 days a week, despite never having touched a weight in our lives. After the initial motivation has waned, we run out of fuel and sputter and eventually stop moving, like a dead engine. Thus, rather than going all out, let’s take this one step at a time.
We can begin by not eating meat one day a week. Having a Meatless Monday can be a great opportunity to introduce more vegetables into your diet, and even cut costs. Cooking without meat can be hard at first, but when you dip your toes into the wide ocean of vegan and vegetarian cuisine, you’ll find that the water is warm and inviting. For those of us who love cooking, it can be a great opportunity to discover new recipes and techniques. I find that creativity tends to flourish when there are limitations and constraints.
Why else would I write,
This haiku so constraining,
Yet reads so freeing?
You might just discover your new favourite food in the process. For recipes, I suggest drawing inspiration from Indian vegetarian cuisine, which despite being meatless, still packs a strong punch in the flavour department. If nutrients are a concern, tofu is high in quality protein. Some may think that tofu tastes bland and boring, and they’d be right! Tofu’s blandness is what makes it perfect for soaking up the flavours of various sauces and marinades.
If even that sounds too hard, you can simply reduce the amount of beef and other red meats in your diet. The next time you visit McDonald’s, get a McChicken instead of a Big Mac. McFries and McSundaes are still McVegetarian so there’s no McIssue there. Whenever you can, pick chicken over other meats, since poultry requires the least amount of CO2 per serving to produce . Not only is it healthier, you can also save money in the process.
When the odds seem stacked against us, with big shadowy corporations pulling the levers, it can feel like what we do as individuals barely matters. What is my effort compared to the actions of millions who would happily suck the earth dry now and leave future problems for future generations?
To paraphrase from Cloud Atlas,
What are our efforts but a drop in the ocean?
But what is the ocean but a multitude of drops?
| Scarborough, P., Appleby, P.N., Mizdrak, A. et al. Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change 125, 179–192 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1
| Searchinger, T. et al. 2018. World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050. Synthesis Report. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. Accessible at http://www.worldresourcesreport.org. Accessed through Resource Watch, (date). www.resourcewatch.org
| Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2019. “Carbon Footprint Factsheet.” Pub. No. CSS09-09-05
Written by: Rayden Sia