When it comes to saving the world, your mind probably goes to electric cars and solar panels, which are great ideas but not within everyone’s reach.
In a decade, perhaps, lower prices will allow them to conquer the market, but not yet, certainly not in my household. But there’s another way to mitigate climate change and mass extinction that 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?
I speak of veganism. In case this word makes you cringe or reach for the half-truths of dairy commercials, bear with me. 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 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 in the journal Science concluded that while meat and dairy only provide 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of the world’s protein, they take up 83% of the world’s farmland and produce 60% of the agriculture-related greenhouse gases. If, for the sake of argument, the world were to go vegan, a full 75% of the planet’s farmland could be returned to nature, while the remaining 25% 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. This mass rewilding would absorb unimaginable quantities of carbon from our atmosphere and halt or reverse mass extinction.
Plus, livestock production no longer contributes heavily to climate change. This is the best-case scenario 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 my meat and dairy consumption is down 98%.
When veganism comes up with friends or family, reactions fall into 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’m doing something righteous. These people often avert their gaze at some point in the conversation and say they could never give up their vices of meat and milk. This is easily my least-favourite response. Of course you can do it. There is nothing physiological tying you to a traditional diet, nor are the 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 skepticism. “Where do you get your protein?” My protein comes from peas, beans, nuts, and seeds. 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, plus 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 quit, 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. One requires a fraction of the land, water, and expelled carbon to maintain; the other speeding climate change and deforestation because beef is too yummy.
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 it in stages, making common-sense 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 the plate.