Nuts to you

This last year has been an experiment. In January I made a decision to significantly reduce the amount of animal protein in my diet. The reasons were primarily ones of sustainability. I’d come to realise that the amounts of meat, fish, eggs and dairy I was used to eating was harmful not only to my physical health but also, more importantly, the environment.

How did I arrive at this understanding? Initially it was through reading people like George Monbiot, journalist and activist, someone whose voice in the mainstream carried notes of an urgency I hadn’t before properly registered. Suddenly I had these doubts in my head. I started to question myself, what I was doing, what I could do. Monbiot’s words scared me; not only to the extent by which human activity, especially in agriculture and fishing, was causing so much damage to the natural world but, more resonatingly, in terms of the psychological shift I personally would have to make and the dietary habits I would have to break.

Veganism and vegetarianism are to some dirty words. They are tags which carry a social stigma. There is a tendency in the western world at least to view people who eschew animal products as compensating for this absence with higher levels of self-righteousness. How much this is as a result of the accusers’ suppressed guilt at their own culpability and/or ignorance is impossible to define. However, what this situation demonstrates is that at least one problem which arises from polarised states of mind is conflict.

The arguments for eating meat derive mainly from personal health concerns. Meat is rich in protein, amino acids and several micronutrients. We ‘need’ it, we say. It is ‘good for us.’ If this is the case, then how much do we need? Surely not the amounts currently ingested across the world. Overconsumption is a consequence of a misplaced mindset. Western diets, full of processed meats, are partly to blame for this, as is globalisation. Countries get wealthier, with the unhappy trend of those poor diets spreading. There is also what I’ll call the ‘meat-and-two-veg’ mentality, people being brought up – with all good intentions of a balanced diet – to understand their meals as always having to contain some kind of animal protein. And meat tastes good, useless to deny it. The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer has written eloquently about his own complex and very human attitudes to meat-eating, especially his experiences of craving meat even as a long-time vegetarian.

But meat production has devastating consequences for the environment. Even aside from the animal welfare argument, there is enough evidence to show that a serious reduction in our meat consumption can only have beneficial effects for the world we live in and share with all manner of other species. What small health gains are produced by meat-eating are completely overshadowed by the negative effects:

  • Biodiversity Loss. 80% of the world’s arable and pasture land is taken up by growth of animal feed. These regions in many cases were once diverse ecosystems, for instance soybean plantations in Brazil have replaced the tropical forests there.
  • Inefficiency. Ruminants, especially sheep and cattle, are poor at converting the plants they eat into nutritious food for us. For instance seven kilos of grain are needed to produce a single kilogram of beef. All that land used to grow the feed is therefore largely wasted; we’d be better off eating the soybeans ourselves.
  • Carbon Footprint. Meat consumption produces greenhouse gas emissions in three ways. Deforestation for the benefit of agriculture releases the carbon trapped in the trees and underlying soil into the atmosphere. Ruminant animals produce methane and also from their manure when it decays.
  • Water Footprint. Beef requires four times as much water to produce as protein-rich pulses, like lentils. Pork requires twice as much. Water is wasted in meat production due to irrigation of the land described above. Manure also contaminates water sources.
  • Soil Conservation. Degradation comes from intensive grazing, meaning bare, exposed soil. Unhealthy soil means nothing will grow, rendering land useless for agricultural purposes.

(data taken from

Eating meat is ‘good for us.’ This strikes me as a particularly anthropocentric view of the world, one in which human wellbeing is of more importance than anything else. Putting ourselves before the rest of the natural world places us in a position of supreme seflishness.

I believe it is right to say that when we are born we come out of the world, not into it. Our aim should be to ensure not that the human race propagates but, simply, to appreciate what we have right now. We have a duty to respect the world in which we are living but as consumers we have decimated global resources for our own gain. Humans have a better chance of perpetuating as a consequence of correct environmental action action but it shouldn’t be the overarching motivation for change. After all, it is our self-interest that has caused the problems we face today, why then turn back to it as the stimulus for improvement?

But I haven’t given up meat completely, or fish, or dairy. Why not, when the case put forward above is so compelling? Well the experiment this year has been to find a balance between sticking to a sustainable diet and continuing to enjoy what I cook and eat. Nourishing all senses, feeling good about what I’m eating in mind, body and soul. I think that by and large I’ve come to a satisfactory compromise and it’s been interesting getting there.

There is a word for the diet I basically follow. Flexitarian. I dislike labels in general but this one is as good as any. Essentially it’s a plant-based diet with occasional and minimal injections of meat and fish. The EAT-Lancet Commission is a comprehensive scientific review of how to eat healthily from a sustainable food system; this is basically what I follow although the amounts of meat and fish I consume are even less. Their dietary suggestions in terms of amounts are slightly unrealistic I think – we need more than that a day – although we can bulk up on fruit and veg. If people criticise me for what they might term as sitting on the fence then so be it; I’ve already explained why living to extremes in my mind is unproductive.

Over the year my meat cravings have reduced to the point where I no longer consider it when doing the grocery shopping. I have it occasionally, maybe once a month, because I can feel my body calling for it. Fish is a slightly different kettle of, er, fish. When I was in the UK I ate mackerel, simply because I knew where it had come from. In China the vast majority of fish comes from farms; these can be sustainably run, as I’ll explain in another post another time, but at the moment I prefer to avoid any seafood altogether. I can’t remember the last time I ate eggs. Forms of dairy I’ve also relinquished; I drink nut milks, don’t use butter in cooking (except very occasionally when making a roux or similar), I substitute regular yoghurt for a coconut variety.

Cheese however I will and cannot compromise on. I can happily find alternatives for meat but to my mind nothing replaces cheese in terms of flavours and consistency. So there.