When it comes to saving the world your mind probably goes to electric cars and solar panels, which are great ideas but not yet within everyone’s reach. In a decade, perhaps, their plummeting prices will allow them to conquer the market, but not yet, certainly not in my household. Thankfully there’s another solution, to both climate change and mass extinction which doesn’t cost a dime, and would make a bigger difference that any solar panel ever could. But do we have the nerve, or the courage, to embrace it?
Of course I speak of veganism. In case this word makes you cringe or reach for the half-truths of dairy commercials, please bear with me, because two years ago I was just like you, always ordering a burger and fries off the menu and thrusting a chicken breast into every home-cooked meal. I understand both the difficulty and fear of giving up a staple food.
But one day, after considering the fossil fuels it takes to fly or drive me across Canada for work, I felt the overpowering need to balance the scales. I needed to know that, overall, I was contributing as little as possible to the death of our planet while still participating in society. Since money stood between me and the lofty solutions above, I turned instead to my fridge.
A landmark study published last year in the journal Science concluded that, while meat and dairy only provide 18 per cent of the world’s calories and 37 per cent of the world’s protein, they take up a staggering 83 per cent of the world’s farmland and produces 60 per cent of the greenhouse gases associated with agriculture. If, for the sake of argument, the world were to go vegan, a full 75 per cent of the planet’s farmland could be returned to nature, while the remaining 25 per cent continued to feed everyone.
Think about that – a space the size of the United States, China, the European Union and Australia combined being surrendered to the natural world. Scotland could once again host temperate rainforests, central North America vast, unbroken prairies and the Amazon, one of the main victims of clearcutting for pastureland, could regrow, securing the lungs of the Earth. Not only would this mass rewilding absorb unimaginable quantities of carbon from our atmosphere, but the expansion of the world’s wildest places could halt or reverse mass extinction. Plus, livestock production no longer contributes heavily to climate change. This is the best case scenario, of course, and not terribly likely, but some version of this might be practical, if aided by government subsidies. Even then, government doesn’t control what’s on your plate; you do.
My move to veganism wasn’t cold turkey nor was it absolute. I began with vegetarianism, avoiding meat but continuing to used milk and cheese (while not as significant, this still works wonders for your impact on the planet). I went vegan when I felt bold enough, but chose a couple restaurants from which I could still order meaty meals. Nowadays my exceptions are few, such as during travel or when my choices are limited by menus. I’m not so pure that I’ll turn down roasted ham from my mother, but 98 per cent of my meat and dairy has been effectively purged.
It’s funny, but when veganism comes up with friends or family their reactions fall into one of three categories. The first is enthusiasm, usually asking how they might make their own transition and going over some of their concerns. The second reaction is admiration, as though by giving up meat or dairy I’d transcended by fellow human beings, hovering a few feet off the ground with sweet righteousness. These people often avert their gaze at some point in the conversation and say they could never do such a thing, never give up their vices of meat and milk. This is easily my least favourite response. Of course you can do it yourself. There is nothing physiological tying you to a traditional diet, nor is there a dairy police coming to check your fridge. Yes, you like burgers, but meat alternatives are available at almost every grocery story, and they rock. My favourite vegan burgers, made by the company Sol Cuisine, even sizzle on the grill.
The final reaction is, of course, hostility. “Where do you get your protein?” they say, treating this platitude like a trump card. I say my protein comes from peas, beans, nuts and seeds, and then defy them to name one other nutrient. There’s a pandemic of low fibre diets in North America, for example, but beef doesn’t have fibre, so it doesn’t come up in arguments or commercials. And just to put this protein problem to bed, 100 grams of beef offers something like 26 grams of protein. 100 grams of uncooked yellow slit peas, white kidney beans and peanut butter have 25, 23 and 26 grams of protein respectively, as well as ample fibre.
I’ve been asked why I don’t support dairy farmers; it’s because I’d rather support fruit and vegetable farmers. I’ve been asked if I miss meat and chocolate; sometimes if it’s in front of me, not unlike a smoker struggling to quite, but this fades with time. If all else fails I’ve seen critics close themselves off, stubbornly refusing this new way of thinking. “I’ll eat what I’ll eat and you’ll eat what you’ll eat,” they say, suggesting that our two diets were created equal. In reality there are two people, one requiring a fraction of the land, water and expelled carbon to maintain, the other encouraging climate change and deforestation because beef is too yummy, and because the consequences of their actions are out of sight.
These days I’m an organic whole food vegan, for the most part, not only reducing my impact but improving my health in ways I found surprising. If you’ve got the guts to follow suit, I strongly recommend doing so in stages, making commonsense exceptions and discovering the joys and diversity of vegan cooking. Maybe start by cutting out beef, the most damaging of our meats, and instead use chicken, one of the more efficient. Some day the used car market will have an electric waiting for us, and maybe in a decade we’ll afford rooftops covered in solar panels, but in the meantime, our biggest impact remains on my plate.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Halifax Magazine.