The Local Climate: A Squirrel Diet

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To recap, I wrote a column this spring expounding on the climatic consequences of eating meat and dairy, and shamelessly promoted veganism. In it I quoted a landmark study published last year in the journal Science, concluding 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 produce 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.

I said also that anxieties over protein, iron and Vitamin B12 are perfect myths, that meat alternatives are fast becoming a joy, and that amid these dietary changes I’m enjoying the best physical condition of my life, but such healthy details are not my specialty, nor were they my primary reason for making the change over two years ago, first to vegetarianism, then to flexible veganism, and finally to a strict regiment of fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, a squirrel diet, as family has chided, carefully maintained for the sake of our planet.

Since that column was published I’ve received steady feedback, some extremely supportive, others carrying constructive questions, and a few with vitriol, declaring me an imbecile for drawing a line between our diets and climate change. In this column I’d like to address all the questions thus far asked for the benefit of anyone who’s interested, because some were quite good.

1) Are you an idiot? No.

2) Do you have proof that a vegan diet lowers your carbon footprint? This one is interesting to me because the links between diet and climate change are very well established. As with climate change itself 20 years ago, when the science was already conclusive but public discourse was still muddled by corporate sponsored denial, the merits of veganism haven’t yet been effectively demonstrated for most people.

I’ve read more books on climate change than I can count, but see this issue popping up everywhere with similar veracity. The housing, grazing, feeding, watering, slaughtering and consumption of livestock is a greater producer of carbon emissions than our planet’s entire transportation sector, is at the centre of global deforestation and habitat loss, and is an extremely inefficient way to feed people. Meat is an expensive luxury chipping away at our collective futures, and we’re having it with every meal. For quick yet effective sources I’d recommend the aforementioned Science study, entitled Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts Through Producers and Consumers, and another in the journal Nature, entitled Assessing the Efficiency of Changes in Land Use for Mitigating Climate Change. I would also recommend the relevant chapters of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, as well as Wolf Nation by Brenda Peterson. If these sound laborious, there’s a documentary entitled The Game Changers on Netflix which, while not my primary source for any of this information, did an excellent job of summarizing the issue.

3) Why don’t you eat your way and I’ll eat my way? This question suggests that “your” diet and mine equally valid, and while this might sound undiplomatic, it’s just not. Stand a vegan next to a veracious meat eater and odds are they’ll look pretty similar, but one of these people is consuming significantly more resources just to maintain the same level of personhood. It’s the same old argument between electric cars and gas guzzlers, LED bulbs and incandescents. One is more efficient than the other, requiring less of the planet’s biological wealth, landmass, water and atmospheric purity to do the exact same job. I don’t aim to demonize, not even to criticize necessarily. The simple fact is, eating meat comes with fundamentally heavier environmental costs…much heavier.

4) Is it more carbon efficient to eat vegan, or eat local? Excellent question. Here again, vegan wins. Eating local is an excellent decision, supporting neighbouring farms and empowering you to promote agricultural practices which are gentler on soil and water, but this don’t make a significant difference in personal carbon emissions. The carbon costs of transporting food are real enough, but peanuts when compared to that from the production of meat and dairy. A meal of imported corn or potatoes still beats a local burger by a very wide margin, but there’s no reason at all you can’t go vegan and local.

5) I want to experience all of life’s pleasures and veganism seems like such a restriction. Not a question exactly, but well worth dissection. My own experience suggests quite the opposite, that my meat heavy diet dramatically simplified the types of food I’d bother eating. Having since discovered recipes and vegetables previously unknown to me, my cooking is more elaborate than ever, and with a little effort I’ve been able to perfectly recreate, even improve upon, those old meals I used to love – pizza, shepherd’s pie, pasta, even buttered chicken. I don’t notice my veganism now. It’s become so habitual as to require no special focus, but in terms of sheer experience, I’m probably better off than your average omnivore. My childhood decision never to drink alcohol, which I’ve stuck to rigidly, my the way, didn’t cost me any of life’s great thrills. It just exposed me to new ones entirely.

The eating of meat is a funny thing. It makes everyone, from dedicated environmentalists to fast food patrons extremely defensive, wielding the common myths like shields and treating my dietary choices like a personal attack; they’re not. They’re merely food for thought, a simple, powerful, even indispensable part of the solution which can be embraced in degrees, at one’s own pace. We human beings have altered our diets a thousand different way over as many generations, each time to better suit our place in history and the special challenges it’s presents, and this is no different. The stakes have just never been this high.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.