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That Vegetarian Thing? It Is Complicated…
I’m almost exclusively vegetarian. I am so by choice but after reading this article I wanted to dig a little deeper about the interrelationship with climate.
TL;DR: it is much more complicated than you think (or I thought before Alina Goh pulled together a bunch of research).
How did we get here?
Plant-based diets have exploded in popularity in recent years. Some of that has to do with perceived health benefits, but most of it is triggered by the emergence of climate change as a defining issue, given that animal products on average produce far higher emissions than even the most unsustainable plant products.
In response, scientists and activists have championed the idea that becoming vegetarian is the “single biggest way” to reduce one’s environmental impact.
The market has responded - entire industries, such as alternative protein and meat substitutes, have been created, attracting billions in investment (disclosure: my VC firm, Amasia, has been poking around the area).
A bit o’ science
In a 2018 Science paper, Poore and Nemecek concluded that even the lowest-impact animal products are more detrimental to the environment than the highest-impact plant products. According to the study, cutting all meat and dairy products out of one’s diet could slash an US citizen’s carbon footprint by up to 73%, making a strong case for veganism as a significant individual impact-reduction strategy.
Now that very paper also makes the case that a more moderate approach — sourcing half of the meat in an omnivorous diet from low-impact producers — could see up to 71% of these results achieved, translating to 10.4 billion tons of CO2eq reduced. Despite the nuance of these findings, however, public takeaways tend to converge on a blanket conclusion that vilifies any level of meat consumption and glorifies plant-based diets.
Not so fast…
But global agricultural practices are far from homogenous. A small-scale local farm that generates enough produce to feed the neighbouring village is a far cry from the “ecologically anathemic” industrial production of staples like soy and wheat.
In the hunt for caloric adequacy, many plant-based diets will involve or be reliant on staples — cereals and grains, typically. The unfortunate truth is that many of these staples in supermarkets are a result of mass intensive farming.
Put simply, intensive farming systemically favours profit over planet. This manifests through resource-intensive production methods, annihilation of natural environments for crop land and widespread and indiscriminate pesticide use, among other things.
Buy organic! That solves ALL problems!
One logical response is to turn to organic farming, which often promotes itself as more environmentally sustainable.
However, organic farming is not the answer either. While it does reduce the emissions associated with crop production — 20% per unit of production, according to a Nature study — it requires far more land to reach similar yield levels. If half the land converted for organic farming was from grasslands, the impact of stored carbon being released from plant tissues and soil would boost emissions by 21%.
Solutions to intensive farming therefore lie in research pathways that could slash emissions without a consequent drop in crop yield. This a field full of novel approaches, including ‘plant probiotics’ to replace fertilisers and nitrogen-absorbing rice crops.
Remember this word: “regenerative”
It is true that, on the whole, producing any sort of meat generates far higher greenhouse gas emissions than producing any sort of crop. However, regenerative agricultural practices have shown that placing crop and animal agriculture under the same roof — or in the same field, as the case may be — could bring about positive outcomes for crops, animals and climate.
Regenerative agriculture essentially involves enabling animal grazing on crop-growing lands, and promises a host of benefits including restored soil health, structure and increased biodiversity, all of which contribute to emissions reductions. Additionally, pasture-fed animals could emit less greenhouse gases during their lifetime due to their pasture-based diet. This is all contingent on a well-managed balance that enables enough grazing to stimulate plant growth and soil restoration while preventing overgrazing.
The big question after hearing all this is: why isn’t everybody switching to regenerative agriculture? Like organic farming, however, regenerative agriculture faces the problem of yield. Intensive farming is what has got humanity beyond the Malthusian trap; right now it alone can feed our rising demand for food. Small but environmentally promising practices must grapple with the “tall order” of scale.
Despite this challenge, more producers and firms are catching on to the idea, and working towards solutions in this space that could be both economically and environmentally beneficial.
In summary: it is complicated
The idea that a plant-based diet is universally good for the environment is simplistic. Gargantuan levels of consumer demand have given rise to unsustainable and irresponsible production practices that plague all industries — crop agriculture is not exempt.
This problem will worsen as global populations increase, underlining the need for industry-level and individual behavior shifts towards more sustainable consumption.
This is not to redeem meat’s reputation; rather it is to highlight that eating a plant-based diet is not a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to climate change and sustainability. If there is a silver bullet it is this: behavioral change is required to fight the climate crisis. Step #1 is for us, as individuals, to start being intentional about our choices. Step #2 is for producers to get their act together. The two go together, and I am optimistic about both.