Is a Vegetarian or vegan diet better for the environment in Australia? - Baobab Health

Is a Vegetarian or vegan diet better for the environment in Australia?

Like many Australians, I want to eat food that has caused the least amount of harm to our planet and cruelty to animals. Unless you live on your own self-sustainable farm (which is not possible for everyone), you don’t have control on how your food is farmed and slaughtered, before it makes it to your plate. However, you do have control on what you decide to eat and how that impacts the world around you.

This is why many people go vegetarian or vegan, in order to minimize the environmental impact of their food choices, as well as removing themselves from potentially eating food that was raised and killed in a cruel environment. At first glance, avoiding meat for environmental and moral reasons is a no brainer. However, when you look a bit deeper, use critical thinking and not getting caught up in the hype/propaganda/fear mongering, the issue becomes a lot more complex.

It is so common to come across die hard vegetarians/vegans who make a point of letting you know that their diet choices are healthier and more morally correct than others. Obviously, this is a large generalisation, but the growing trends of vegetarianism and veganism tends to go hand in hand with food dogma and food fascism. Where these individuals are all over social media perpetuating their pseudoscience into the world and not realizing the impact they have. That is why I have a problem with all of the different diet camps (e.g paleo, vegan, IF) as they all claim that their diet is the best and the healthiest, and will find any type of information to justify their beliefs, while ignoring/opposing any evidence that goes against it. Failing to change your opinion in light of new evidence (which is what science is about), leads to stagnation. Also, any person proclaiming that a specific diet is the “perfect/healthiest” diet, should be viewed skeptically as the perfect diet is one that suits the individual best.

In this post I will argue that avoiding meat is not necessarily the best thing you can do for the environment in terms of your food choices, especially in Australia.

I want to make it clear that I am simply writing this post to bring awareness to this topic. It is not to belittle or degrade anyone, but rather I wish to state my point of view, hoping that in light of what I say, people may reconsider their views regarding this topic. I am passionate about this topic because misinformation, fear mongering and propaganda dominates the industry that I am in and makes it hard for the general consumer to know what is right to benefit their health. This is why I am so adamant on trying to clear up this misinformation in order to help people make good health choices.

How much blood was shed to eat your vegetarian meal?

If you are not eating meat, then you are getting your nutrients from agricultural foods. Most environmentalists argue that not eating meat and turning to a plant based diet is better for the environment. However, the environmental and ethical impacts of agriculture are harsh and far-reaching. Here are just some of the things that agriculture does to our planet.…

  • The pesticides that are used on the crops destroy the topsoil, they contribute to air pollution, and they are harmful to animals and various ecosystems (land and sea).
  • Agriculture depletes our fresh water supply.
  • Agriculture encourages the depletion of topsoil because the soil must be plowed and replanted each year. This is of great ecological concern as one inch of topsoil can take 500 years to form naturally. On current trends, the world has about 60 years of topsoil left. And let me just remind you that topsoil contains all the nutrients in order to sustain plant life on earth.
  • The machinery used to plough, fertilize, plant, irrigate, harvest, maintain and transport these crops use a lot of fossil fuels, producing greenhouse gasses and kill many creatures like snakes, lizards, rabbits and mice, which are believed to be sentient creatures. Many of the species die a slow and painful death.
  • Making room for the fields in order to grow crops, completely and utterly destroys the habitats of thousands of different species, therefore indirectly killing them. Agriculture is actually the main cause of deforestation at the moment.
  • Vegetarians and vegans have no problem eating grains like wheat and soy, which are basically in every processed food/ vegan friendly food you can think of. These grains are produced from mono-cropping, which completely destroys soil diversity. when you grow the same crop on the same piece of land, it destroys soil diversity.

As you can see it is not so black and white. Just because a person stops eating meat and starts eating plants, it does not mean that animals and the environment are not harmed (or even killed) in order to provide them with their meal. Based on this, one can argue that protein obtained from livestock costs fewer lives per kg than plant protein.

Also, the higher nutritional content of meat means that the amount of space required to grow plant products with the same nutritional content as meat, would require much more agricultural land globally than what we are currently using now. Meat is extremely nutrient dense and its nutrients are more bioavailable to the body than plant foods. This means you get more nutrients with less amount of food consumed.

Also, if we were all to stop eating meat, there would be some serious health issues that may arise as it is an important part of a well balanced, nutrient dense diet along with plant foods.

Moreover, Australia and a lot of the world is now at its limits for the amount of land that can be cleared for cropping in order to feed the growing populations. This is why GMO foods and conventional farming (not organic) is important, as these farming methods allow for a higher yield of produce with less amount of land used, pesticide and water usage. Meanwhile they have been proven time and time again to be safe.

Lastly, if we were to all stop eating meat today, what would happen to all of the cattle? What would we do with them?

Ok, so agriculture is damaging to our environment. But a lot of agriculture space is used to feed our meat and it could be used for human nutrition and the starving people of the world?

In Australia, 98% of our cattle (sheep and cows) are fed solely on a pasture. With little to no grain feed at all. At any one time, only 2% of our cattle in Australia are fed grains in feedlots. The beef cattle that are fed grain in feed lots, only lasts 60 to 100 days. Grainfed meat comes from animals which are fed grass for most of their lives and then transition to grain-based diets for the remainder of their lives. The number of days during which they are fed a grain-based diet varies. Use of grain finishing depends on market requirements and seasonal conditions and represents, on average, a third of total production. Also, animals are fed a selection of grains not suitable for human consumption, including feed-grade wheat, barley, sorghum and triticale. These grains are also combined with lupins or field peas, by-products of cottonseed or canola, and silage or hay to deliver the necessary protein, carbohydrate, fat and roughage required to ensure nutritional requirements are met.

Based on this it is clear that the majority of our cattle in Australia eat grass, a food that is inedible to us. They also eat grain that is inedible to us. And, very important in this country, while eating grass they drink rainwater.

Our cattle mostly graze on rangelands, which makes up 70% of our continent. Therefore, grazing occurs on natural ecosystems with more biodiversity than crop lands. Most of these rangelands actually can’t be used to grow crops, hence the production of meat in Australia does not limit plant food production and does not use food sources, which could be used for human consumption in Australia and impoverished countries.

Grazing is the only way we can get substantial nutrients from 70% of our continent, without any loss to human food and farming space.This is not only the case in Australia, but all around the world. Vegetarians and vegans must understand that not all land on our earth’s surface can be used for crop and vegetable production. There is a difference between pasture land and crop land.

Furthermore, most people think that grazing damages the soil, however many farmers and scientists argue that grazing cattle, is not only harmless to the land but beneficial in a number of ways – by storing carbon in the soil, for example.

The process of short bursts of intensive grazing on one piece of land, then letting it rest and moving the cattle to another piece of land, sets in train a combination of complex mechanisms which increases soil sequestering carbon and soil health. Grazing cattle poop on the pasture lands. Their poop contains nutrients and microbes that are essential for soil diversity and soil health. Increased soil diversity leads to increased water retention of the soil and increased nutrient density of the soil, which in turn increases the nutrient density of our food. Sadly, many synthetic fertilizers actually decrease the microbial soil diversity and therefore decrease overall soil health.

It is evident that grazing cattle is essential for the health of our soil. If we were to all abstain from eating meat in Australia and around the world, our grass lands would go to waste and two things would happen. One, the original ruminants would re-establish themselves, or ferals would invade. In Australia, the main ferals are goats, as well as camels in drier regions. Second, the grasslands would most likely burn. Bushfire accounts for about 3 per cent of Australia’s net greenhouse gas emissions. Also, if we immediately abstained from eating meat and allowed our grazers to roam free, the current amount of grazers would over graze our lands, therefore destroying the soil.

Similarly to Australia, the U.S also raise most of their beef and lamb on open pastures, however towards the end of their life they are moved onto a grain based, however this diet consists on mainly soy and corn, which humans use for food. These animals are fed the grain-based diet in those cruel and disgusting feedlots that you see on vegan propaganda Netflix films, which make audiences believe that all meat production is like what you see in the films. However, meat production in Australia, as you are seeing, is very different from the U.S, which have their own host of issues.

Pigs and chickens, both in the U.S and Australia are mostly raised in cruel feedlots, unless they are organically farmed. Therefore, if you were to pick the most ethical meat, it would be read meat.

In feed lots, instead of eating grass, the animals are feed grain and people usually quote a statistic that the units of nutrition (grain) fed to an animal and the amount of nutrition produced when that animal is eaten, is 10:1. This means that huge amounts of land and resources (pesticides and water) need to be set aside for growing crops to feed cattle, pigs and chicken with a poor nutrition return.

This is obviously concerning based on agricultures effects to the planet, therefore it is best to minimize it, which is why people believe we should stop eating meat globally, based on the 10:1 ratio. If this were the case, then eating meat is totally unsustainable with a feed conversion ratio of 10:1.

However, lots of important things had been left out of consideration when this ratio was made. Firstly, the higher nutritional content of meat protein was not taken into consideration. The amount of space required to grow plant products with the same nutritional content as meat, would require much more land globally than what we are currently using now. Secondly, it does not take into account the value of meat by products such as using it for pet food.

In 1997 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation census on all livestock, calculated that of the 966 million tonnes of human edible cereals, roots and tubers produced globally, 74 million tonnes is fed to livestock. From that, meat, milk and eggs which “contain 53 million tonnes of protein” is produced. This makes the global aggregate conversion ratio of human edible grain to human edible meat back to 1.4:1 for all meat and meat products.

Moreover, in Australia (and globally) there is an issue when it comes to pork. While cattle eat what we can’t – grass – pigs, throughout history, have eaten what we won’t: discarded human food, known as swill. But swill is not permitted to be fed to pigs in Australia and globally, even though we throw out three million tonnes of food a year. Why can’t this be recycled to the pork industry? Pigs are fed industrial feed containing human-edible grain in cruel factory farms, which could be used to feed the starving people of the world.

There are several reasons for this. The rules set by supermarkets; the domination of the feed industry by large corporations, which can’t handle waste from many different sources; but most important the panicked over-reaction to the foot-and-mouth crises.

Ultimately, if pigs are fed on residues and waste in open fields, and cattle on straw and grass from rangelands – food for which humans don’t compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition, as it would just mean that we would have to eat less than what is currently being eaten in a standard western diet.

The stuffing of animals with grain, mostly in the rich world is what reduces the total food supply to the poorer nations. Cut this portion out and you would create an increase in available food, which could support 1.3 billion people.

But what about the greenhouse gasses from cattle?

There is no doubt that ruminant cattle do produce methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. However, critics of meat consumption like to compare ruminant-produced methane with transport emissions. It is said that 18% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock. This figure is overestimated due to some fundamental mistakes and it is about 10% of the world’s emissions that can be attributed to livestock.

If you’re looking at pure carbon emissions, yes, cows emit a lot of methane, but then you take into account the carbon sequestration that cattle can have on the land plus there’s microbes in the soil which can also help mitigate some of that methane, it’s actually in a gain, so people have to look at the entire picture.

Moreover, fossil fuels are releasing carbon that was sequestered hundreds of millions of years ago that will never be replaced. The methane burped by a cow comes from carbon sequestered in the grass during the last growing season. If that grass keeps growing, or produces seedlings, carbon will be sequestered again next season. There is no comparison: burning fossil fuels is a one-way street. The methane produced by ruminants is a natural part of an ancient life cycle. Also, there are other bigger fish to fry in terms of greenhouse gasses such as landfills.

Lastly, the processing of vegetable oils from grains and argiculture, which are basically in most processed and packaged foods that a vegetarian would have no problem consuming, produces more greenhouse gasses than livestock.

But what about all the water?

Another commonly quoted statistic by environmentalists is that to produce 1kg of beef you would need 100,000L of water.

However, for this figure to hold true, a pasture fed cow would have to consume 25,000L of water per day. Also, such a figure, even applied to feedlot cattle, taking into account the amount of water needed to grow grain for the animal is ridiculous.

This figure was made by looking at every bit of water that falls on a area of land that a cow may occupy, including rain water! Also, the water to grow rice, sugar, avocados, and almonds is extensive, however I’m not hearing a whole lot of complaining about them.

Lastly,  no one has ever investigated how much water is needed in the processing and growing of all the soy and wheat that’s necessary to make one package of a vegetable burger or other lab-grown meats, which I think people are somehow thinking are just created out of magic and no inputs at all. Who is paying for the lab? Who is paying for all the trucking, all the storage required? Just storing that product requires a ton of energy.

Ethical issues.

I believe that since we have moved to a more modern way of living, we have become very detached from our food production, which is why the killing of an animal for food seems cruel to some people. We are no longer actively involved in the sourcing of our food. Once upon a time, killing an animal for food was something that came very naturally to all human populations. Despite humans lack of speed and strength, we evolved into highly intelligent animals that could manufacture tools to kill animals for food, protect us from wild animals that used to eat us, as well as grow our own plants. We are so intelligent that we have been able to domesticate animals purely for food, which is why we are at the top of the food chain.

However, with our increased intelligence, we are now the only animal on this planet that is concerned about how we move an animal into the next phase due to our growing moral conscious. I hear many people arguing that we should let an animal live out its life cycle and when it dies naturally, then we can eat it. However, the way that we slaughter animals is very fast and efficient and to let an animal die a natural death could be a lot more slow and painful due to illness and injury. Natural is not always better.

Ultimately, we are all part of a life cycle and for one thing to live, another must die. When we die, our bodies become one with the earth, which provides nutrients for other animals.

Lastly, many people argue that there is a double standard around what animals we as a society deem ok and not ok to eat. For example, as a society it is deemed not ok to eat your pet dog or cat, yet it is ok to eat a pig, cow or sheep. Yes this is a double standard, however this double standard exists for a specific reason.

For thousands of years humans have bread and domesticated animals for different purposes. As we have moved away from our hunter gatherer pasts, we found ways to domesticate certain animals to act as food sources for us because meat is essential to our diet. Just like we domesticated other animals for work such as horses and other animals for protection and companionship, such as dogs. Therefore, this demonstrates how certain animals have have been bred and domesticated for different purposes in our society.

Also, on a sentience scale, when you compare the animals we have domesticated for companionship such as dogs, compared to cows, there is a huge difference between these types of animals. Compare a dogs sense of curiosity, playfulness and need for companionship compared to a cow who simply grazes most of the day with little need for companionship. There is a large difference in sentience between animals we deem ok and not ok to eat.

Lastly, the culling of certain wild and domesticated animals can be necessary for the health of the soil due to risk of over grazing, which is a commonly done all over the world with herbivores, even in the wild.

So, to eat meat or not to eat meat?

Well, in Australia, lets just say that if you decide to eat beef or lamb from the supermarket, you can be assured that it is more than likely that the animal on your plate had a happy life on a open pasture grazing. It is also an environmentally friendly, sustainable choice, that can benefit your health greatly. Further, it is assuring that the Australian meat and livestock industry appear to be constantly monitoring and improving the welfare standards of our animals, with the latest amendments to be accepted and put into practise across most or all states over the next year or two.

If you don’t want to eat an animal because you think they are cute, then that is fine, just don’t parade around like you are better than anyone and do not say it is better for the environment or more morally correct. Also, please don’t say it is healthier.

Please realize that your plant food also involved the killing of other animals. You just have to weigh up the cost to benefit ratio, which in this case, the benefit outweighs the cost, because meat is an important part of a whole food, nutrient dense diet and abstaining from eating it is a first world privilege, because you have access to supplements in case of deficiency.

Eating pork, chickens and eggs is another story. These animals are fed grain and on certain farms can be treated pretty badly. So you need to do your research and source your produce from an ethical source and take business away from those who don’t practice ethical farming.

Usually, the cheaper options are probably the crueler options. Going to your local farmers market will probably ensure that the animal products here were sourced ethically and you are supporting local farmers, while reducing the transportation emissions of your food. But understand, this does not answer the problem of global food supply.

If you really want to be environmentally friendly, eat kangaroo meat. Kangaroos don’t damage our soil, they are low methane producers and they are pests. By eating them you would be helping the environment. They are also a nutrient dense meat option.

The answer is not to avoid meat and advocate for no meat production. Rather, we need to focus our attention towards how our food gets to our plate both in Australia and globally. Meat is an important part of the diet and provides essential nutrients for human health, but we must eat less, and drastically change the way we farm it. Therefore, we could eat meat, milk and eggs with a clean conscience, while supporting the environment, supporting impoverished nations and keeping healthy.

Eat a wide variety of whole foods from both plant and animal sources and decrease the amount of processed foods you eat. Not only will this benefit your health but it will reduce the need for food companies using grain to make processed foods.