The idea of what is considered a sustainable diet has been on my mind for years. Full disclosure, I personally still consume meat products in moderation. I’d say that 50% of our meals are vegetarian. After watching the documentary What The Health, my husband I attempted a meatless diet, but ultimately failed.
Along with widespread promotion of adopting a plant-based diet, Canada recently updated the food guide to encourage vegetables to fill half your plate, removed the entire milk category and suggests more plant-based proteins.
But is this the most sustainable diet that someone can consume?
There’s plenty of variables to consider when it comes to a sustainable diet, including the ethics behind the treatment of animals, the workers and of course the carbon emissions associated with each lifestyle choice.
Studies show plant-based diets contribute less carbon emissions
Consuming less meat is undoubtedly one of the most popular ways to reduce your carbon footprint. After all, the the excess greenhouse gas emissions from a meat based diet is irrefutable. According to a 2014 study, a vegan diet produces roughly 2.89kg of daily CO2 emissions, whereas a person who eats a moderate amount of meat in their diet contributes to 5.63kg of daily CO2 emissions. Source.
You might be wondering how meat can be so much less sustainable than plants. The answer is: cow burps…and farts. No, really. Methane emissions are much more potent than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Although methane does dissipate quicker than carbon dioxide.
Keep in mind that while a plant grows they’re not emitting any greenhouse gases. Whereas an animal needs to consume a plant and digest it. Then the animal is slaughtered and the meat is shipped throughout the country. Therefore the process of harvesting meat is more environmentally intensive.
Meat products lack ethics
The meat industry is rife with unethical practices. From keeping chickens in tiny cages where they’re unable to roam free. Or cows that are constantly attached to a machine pumping milk out of their blistered udders. And removing their calves from the mother as soon as they’re born. These are living, breathing, feeling animals that are abused their entire life.
If you have a heart it’s easy to see that switching to a plant-based diet will reduce your carbon footprint and from an ethical standpoint it appears to be a no-brainer.
But veganism comes at a cost
Cashews are a common vegan swap for dairy based products like cheese or beverages. Although they are a great nutritional item. They’re not an easy food to harvest. Cashews are actually not technically a nut at all. According to The Telegraph, they’re closer to a seed or legume.
Before you get to the fruity, tasty bit, you’ve got to go through two very hard shells, avoiding the harmful cardol and anacardic acid liquid they contain.
The rise in popularity of adopting a plant based lifestyle has increased the hiring of cheap labour from India and Vietnam to harvest cashews. The caustic outer coating leaves many harvesters with burns. They are paid a wage of roughly $3 a day for 10 hours of work. And it’s the lucky ones who get paid. Drug addicts in Vietnam labour camps are forced to harvest the caustic seeds coining the term “blood cashews.”
Cashews are native to Central America and unable to grow in northern countries. Shipping cashews halfway across the world surely adds to the carbon footprint of the nut.
Cashews aren’t the only nut with an environmental burden
Almonds are a delicious snack and a perfect milk substitute beverage. However, they’re also one of the worst culprits for creating droughts. A single almond requires one gallon of water. Most almonds are grown in California which has been experiencing more frequent droughts from the rise in agricultural farming.
So, the answer to a sustainable diet surely isn’t to consume only cashews and almonds.
What is the answer behind a sustainable diet?
Clearly, there’s no perfect diet. From the mistreatment and abuse of animals to the exploitation of workers in developing nations everything has a cost. However, we can have a more sustainable diet by keeping a few things in mind.
Eat Less Meat
Eating less meat will reduce your carbon footprint. However, that doesn’t mean you need to switch to a completely vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. When you choose to consume meat opt for brands that treat their animals with respect. Better yet, try to find a local butcher with a farm nearby.
Look for third party certifications
Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane and FairTrade are just a few third party certifications that provide consumers insight to the ethical treatment of workers and animals.
Everything in Moderation
Anything that is harvested in abundance is unsustainable. Although in theory eating a plant-based diet is better for the environment than consuming meat. There’s many agricultural farms that aren’t sustainable. Like trying to grow almonds in a state that has an issue with drought.
When I sit back to think about what the most sustainable diet is, I am brought back to the new Canada food guide. Yes, we should definitely consume more plant-based products. It’s healthier for us and the Earth. Especially if we’re able to harvest our own crops from a community or personal garden.
In my opinion, a sustainable diet consists of less fast food. More local meat and crops. Regardless of the lifestyle we want to live, our diet will have an impact on the planet.