The struggle of a meat-loving environmentalist
As an avid foodie, a significant portion of my life is all about food. In my free time, I look for new restaurants, peruse food blogs, and watch food videos and TV shows. However, it occurred to me that the high consumption of mass-produced seafood, dairy, and especially meat is somewhat contradictory to my strong environmental morals.
First off, the usage of pesticides and fertilizers during agricultural production oftentimes contaminates water resources. The United States Geological Survey reports agriculture as the “leading source of impairments in the nation’s rivers and lakes” due to the ½ million tons of pesticides, 12 million tons of nitrogen, and 4 million tons of phosphorus fertilizers used yearly on crops. Runoff and infiltration cause these chemicals to reach our water sources; at least one agricultural pesticide was found in 94% of water samples across the country.
Additionally, our agricultural production and food practices contribute to climate change by producing about 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to reports from the United Nations, it is essential to dramatically decrease emissions by 2030, but “emissions from agricultural production are projected to increase.” Authors of the report warn that there could be “some irreversible impacts on some ecosystems” with greenhouse gases from agricultural practices continuing to trap heat in the atmosphere. In particular, cattle produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is even more detrimental than carbon dioxide due to its ability to effectively absorb heat.
A third environmental impact of agriculture is the extensive use of land and water. 80% of the U.S.’s consumption of water is used for agricultural purposes. There’s no denying that agricultural practices are necessary to supply adequate food and meet people’s nutritional needs. However, there is a prevalence of unsustainable agricultural methods such as soil tilling, which weakens soil by breaking its structures and biological interactions, and monoculture, the planting of a single crop, which makes crops susceptible to disease and mass infestation. These methods along with other common unsustainable practices lead to soil erosion, depletion of water resources, deterioration of ecosystems, and deforestation. Because meat such as beef and lamb need large open spaces to graze, livestock is often produced on land that used to be forests.
Thinking through these ramifications of agricultural production and especially of meat production on the environment seeded a deep internal conflict. Before I was aware of such detrimental effects, I never hesitated to devour my meals of meat, dairy, shellfish, and other foods that are particularly harmful to the environment. Now, due to this awareness, I was torn between the overwhelming feelings of guilt and temptation when it comes to consuming my favorite foods. I try to be environmentally conscious in every aspect of my life, but I was not confident that I could completely sacrifice my natural desire for the foods that bring me such joy every day.
Fortunately, the sustainable agriculture industry is growing, and there are many food alternatives to help people like me transition to sustainable diets. Sustainable agriculture focuses on long term food production that maximizes productivity while minimizing environmental harm. Some efforts include developing healthy soil, managing water supplies wisely, promoting biodiversity, and limiting pollution by using more environmentally friendly practices such as rotating crops and promoting diversity.
In addition, there are small changes that we can make to our everyday diets to take a step towards a more sustainable life. For starters, everyone can work towards minimizing food waste. Some other suggestions to eat more sustainably are to consume more plants (fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains) and reduce meat consumption. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in a report that these dietary changes “present major opportunities for… mitigation [of climate change] while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”
A more extreme option towards sustainable eating is to change to a vegan diet. Veganism is a growing trend with many more meat and dairy alternatives becoming available, but it is not for everyone. Personally, I know that I am not ready to change to a vegan diet at the moment, but I am making much more of an effort to eat sustainably. For example, I have cut out all meats from my diet, stopped consuming dairy milk, and my even family now only buys plant-based alternatives such as coconut milk and oat milk.
If more and more people adopt such sustainable eating practices, we can reduce carbon emissions and “free up several million square kilometers of land… by 2050,” according to the IPCC report. While individuals make an impact with their efforts, it is essential for us as an international community to fight for systemic change and transition to sustainable agriculture to minimize environmental damage while aiming for long-term food security.