Editor’s note: The following is a submitted opinion piece, one in a series, as part of ‘October is Plantiful,’ a project of 350 Kingston aimed at educating the public about the environmental benefits of plant-based foods. The City of Kingston officially proclaimed “October is Plantiful” at the Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, meeting of Kingston City Council. The agenda for that meeting, including correspondence received by Council from 350 Kingston, is available on the City of Kingston website, and the meeting itself can be viewed in full on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel. Mayor Bryan Paterson signed the official “October is Plantiful” Proclamation on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. The first article in this series, Advice on starting your plant-based journey, is available here.
The views, opinions, and assertions expressed in this article have not been verified and do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.
“October is PLANTIFUL!”
So proclaimed Kingston City Council in recognizing the contribution of food choices in addressing carbon emissions and climate change. Local environmental organization 350 Kingston has organized a number of events to help people add plants to their diets. Visit 350Kingston.org for details on webinars, recipes, and more! Below are some helpful tips for those starting down a more plant-based path from Hannah Ascough, PhD candidate at Queen’s University.
Types of plant-based diets
The terminology associated with plant-based eating can sometimes be overwhelming. Indeed, what constitutes as “plant-based” itself can sometimes be unclear. While there is no exact consensus as to what language to use, the following labels can sometimes be helpful if you need to describe your diet to someone else:
Do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or any products derived from animals, including eggs, dairy products, and gelatin.
Do not eat meat, poultry, or fish, but will eat products derived from animals, including eggs and dairy products. Sometimes referred to as lacto-ovo vegetarians.
Less commonly used, but refers to vegetarians who avoid meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products, but do eat eggs.
Less commonly used, but refers to vegetarians who avoid meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, but do consume dairy products.
Do not eat meat or poultry, but will consume fish, and potentially eggs and dairy products.
Typically follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, but will occasionally eat meat, poultry, and fish, for various reasons. Also referred to as a semi-vegetarian.
Some commonly cited concerns
‘I heard that it isn’t really better for the environment to go plant-based.’
This is a common misconception, and one that seems to be gaining more and more traction every day. The reality – backed as it is by a revolving door of continuously updated scientific studies – is that vegetarian and vegan diets are better for our planet.
There is no denying that our global, industrial agricultural system – the ways in which we grow crops and raise livestock for consumption – needs to be overhauled. It is estimated that overall, the world’s industrialized food system is responsible for between 26 per cent and 34 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions (Poore and Nemecek 2018; Ritchie 2018; Crippa et al. 2021). Approximately 71 per cent of those emissions are associated with agricultural practices and land-use change activities, while the rest are linked to the movement of food within the global supply chain, including retail, transport, packaging, and waste management (Crippa et al. 2021). Moreover, industrial agricultural practices contribute to land acidification and the eutrophication of freshwater and costal marine systems (Poore and Nemecek 2018), while agriculture takes up half the habitable land on our planet and is typically tied up in deforestation processes (Maslin 2022).
While it is clear that our industrialized agricultural system as a whole is hard on our environment, countless studies have indicated that it is the production of meat and dairy products that have a particularly detrimental impact on the planet.
In a recent study, researchers looked at the dietary data from 55,000 vegans, vegetarians, fish-eaters, and meat-eaters, and compared it to the life-cycle assessment of various food items. They considered the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the food product in its entirety, as well as its land use, water use, and its potential for eutrophication and biodiversity loss. Even after these variations were accounted for, the study still found that plant-based diets were considerably lower in their GHG emissions (less than half that of a meat-intensive diet), required less water and land, and caused less biodiversity loss (Scarborough et al. 2023).
These findings are consistent across other studies, which took more specific approaches. For example, in one European study, researchers found that the overall water resource usage associated with meat-based diets was significantly higher than in vegetarian and vegan diets (Vanham et al. 2018). Another study found that vegan diets cut the destruction of wildlife associated with industrialized agricultural practices by 66 per cent, and cut down water usage by 54 per cent (Carrington 2023). Even when studies accounted for whether the meat was “organic” (i.e., grass-fed, rather than fed imported fodder), the estimated GHG emissions remained significantly higher than that of plant production (Pieper et al. 2020).
The reasons why animal agricultural practices are harder on the environment are varied, and complicated. Typically, livestock production – including the rearing of animals themselves, and producing their feed – relies heavily on larger amounts of land than plants, leading to soil erosion, deforestation, and biodiversity loss (Suzuki and Hanington 2016). Raising meat is also considered inefficient from a caloric standpoint; for instance, you need 42 kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of beef (Carrington 2020). Livestock farming also produces 65 per cent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has nearly 300 times the global warming effect as CO2, and significantly contributes to human-induced levels of methane, which again has significant warming impacts (Suzuki and Hanington 2016).
There are, of course, other elements of your diet to consider. While the vast majority of our food is sourced from industrialized agricultural practices, it is feasible to base your diet on local and organic sources. While organic meat is still more GHG-intensive than plants, it is notably easier on the planet than non-organic meat (Pieper et al. 2020). Moreover, if the food is only travelling from a local farm to your table, chances are its associated environmental costs in terms of transportation emissions, packaging, and waste management will be significantly less detrimental than that of food sourced from the industrialized global agricultural supply chains, even if it is a meat or dairy product.
Hannah Ascough, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University in the Department of Global Development Studies, is a longtime vegetarian, a Kingston resident, and a member of 350 Kingston.
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