I’m often told I couldn’t possibly care for the planet because I still eat meat.
Apart from triggering an existential crisis, this argument used to really get under my skin. I felt guilty, confused and ashamed about my love for bacon.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve heard the oft-quoted statement that the single biggest way to reduce your personal impact on the environment — more so than giving up air-travel or choosing an electric vehicle — is to follow a vegan diet.
You may also have heard the United Nations warn that our meat and dairy-packed Western diets are driving climate change, which really stings if you’re someone who cares about a sustainable future for our children.
Over the years, I have given vegetarianism a red-hot go numerous times. Ultimately, I found that I don’t feel vital and healthy on a vegetarian diet. And, as much as I love vegans and think there should be more, I’m just not one of them. I love honey, eggs and cowboy boots too much.
These days I comfortably consider myself someone who strives for a low-impact life for myself and my family. And, yeah, I still eat meat.
Eat less, make better choices
Like many Aussies of Anglo-Saxon heritage, I grew up with a lamb chop in my teeth — this was back when families could afford lamb.
It was not uncommon to have a slab of roast beef, chops, sausages, chicken drumsticks, beef-mince-tacos, fish and chips, and a steak in a week of evening meals.
The average Australian eats 95 kilograms of meat each year, compared to the OECD average of 69 kilograms.
It doesn’t take a UN delegation to tell us that this is way too much meat, which comes with associated water consumption, chemical inputs, food miles and soil degradation.
There is also the matter of animal cruelty for high-intensity farmed meat — I’ve lived next to a meat-chicken factory and, trust me, it was horrific.
And it’s not just the environment and animals that can suffer with a meat-heavy diet, our health can be adversely effected when we eat a lot of red meat.
A good way start reducing your use of meat is to try Meat Free Mondays (a campaign championed by Paul McCartney). Not-for-profit organisation Sustainable Table advocates taking that a little further and having a vegetarian diet five days a week, which they say would cut greenhouse gas emissions and land use by around 45 per cent.
Meat can be expensive, especially if you opt for free-range and ethical options. But if you’re not buying as much meat, you can make more of a choice with the meat you do buy.
How to find a ‘better’ meat option:
- Consider the welfare of the animal and condition it was raised
- How far has your meat travelled to get from the farm to you? Find out what’s grown in your area and eat more of that to reduce the emissions from freight
- Organic and free-range meat might be your choice for ethical or health reasons, but these practices do not reduce the carbon emissions of the meat production
- Avoid supermarket meats and get to know your butcher and talk to them about where the meat is from (they tend to agree that higher-welfare meat tastes better)
- Find a supplier at a farmers’ market or search for farmers that sell direct to consumers
- You can always team up with another family and buy half a lamb/goat/pig direct from the producer to save food-miles.
Pork on your fork and roo for your chew
When it comes to environmental impact, not all meats are created equal. A 2016 RMIT study found that beef and lamb have the highest carbon footprint, followed by chicken, pork and fish, so consider leaning towards those animals for your meat fix.
Nothing beats an organic, free-range chook and, once you’ve tasted one, you will never go back.
Interestingly, as gourmet chef and farmer Matthew Evans explains in this episode of Little Green Pod, free-range pigs can be more damaging to soil and require a lot more feed.
“From an environmental standpoint, they are not as obviously green as a pig in a shed, which isn’t allowed to move anywhere so doesn’t burn as much energy and puts on weight quicker,” he says.
Look for suppliers that include waste products from other food producers as part of the feed mix for their pigs.
Kangaroo is a lower-impact meat that hasn’t yet found its place in our culinary hearts — according to Choice, only half of Australians have tried eating kangaroo meat.
Gamey, lean, iron-rich and light on their feet, kangaroos are wild-harvested, don’t use much water or produce much CO2. If you can’t quite come at a Skippy steak, try making kanga-mince san choy bow or similar to ease yourself in.
The beef with beef
We are prodigious producers and consumers of beef in Australia, eating almost 23 kilograms per person per year; however, it comes at a high cost to the environment.
About 10 per cent of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions comes from the red meat industry, with beef cattle accounts for around 45 per cent of that. It’s largely because the by-product of digesting grass is methane, which heats the planet 25 times faster than carbon dioxide.
With their hard hoofs, cows can damage topsoil and cause erosion. They produce a lot of manure that can upset the balance of soil and water systems, and can require large numbers of chemical inputs — from worm drenches to antibiotics. When grain-fed or finished, cows can cost a vast amount of water per kilogram of beef.
However, it’s not all bad news. Regenerative agricultural practices are gaining traction as consumers seek more ethical and environmental choices.
Tim Wright, who has managed his farm, Lana, near Uralla in NSW, holistically for almost 30 years says careful management of livestock can actually rejuvenate grasslands.
Tim follows a practice called planned cell grazing, in which he mimics the natural behaviours of herd animals, keeping them close together and moving them to fresh pasture every couple of days.
The result, as evidenced by his lush farm, surrounded by sparse, conventionally farmed land, is healthier animals more naturally resistant to disease.
“Healthy soil needs animals as part of the holistic process and carbon cycle. Without livestock, the land will go backwards, fast. If anything, we need more animals so we can get more biology back into the land.”
When choosing beef to eat, choose grass-fed. As Mr Evans says, cows can eat grass, which we can’t — why would we grow food we can eat to feed cows?
Where possible, find a supplier that demonstrates good livestock management practices or, when in the supermarket or butcher, consider less popular cuts of beef, to ensure that the whole animal is being used, for example brisket, silverside and chuck steak.
And, of course, remember rule number one — eat less!
Balancing the needs of your family with the needs of the planet
I don’t know about you, but being in charge of my family’s nutritional needs can be stressful. My son and daughter grow faster than bamboo and I constantly worry they are getting the balance they need.
Eating well and sustainably does require a bit of planning and thought. Mapping out a meal plan each week gives you a great overview and dramatically reduces food waste.
If only eating meat twice a week seems unrealistic to you, consider taking the amount of meat you would eat and using it more sparsely across meals.
Think of just about any other cuisine than the Western diet and how small amounts of meat are incorporated into stir-fries, curries and noodle dishes.
My goal is to raise the next generation to understand that meat is a privilege, not a right.
Before a meal, we thank the cook, the farmer and the animal for the meal we are about to eat. My kids understand that the bulk of our diet should be plant-based and come from whole, rather than processed food.
As a bonus this will hopefully set them up with healthy eating habits for life.
If my kids decide they want to be vegan or vegetarian one day, I will be the first to pull out the recipe book and help them plan their meals. I, however, will still eat meat, fish and a bit of dairy, based on conscious choices.
There are plenty of labels that could be ascribed to this diet but the one I strive for most is simply being a good citizen of this planet, Earth.
Jo Hegerty is is an outrageously busy parent (and writer) who strives to gently influence others to think more about the environment.