The Food You Eat Affects The Planet
Popular culture loves to mock those “hippie vegan and vegetarian” types, often depicting them as holier than thou, sickly, or just plain annoying. We as a culture hate being lectured about anything, but this is especially true when it comes to what we eat. Anyone trying to extol the virtues of their meatless diet will instantly be greeted by a round of groans and mockery.
Why exactly are we conditioned to react this way? Why are we so upset at the idea of learning about a different way of eating? And, how many of us have truly examined the rationale behind a vegan or vegetarian diet?
A few years ago, I was sitting in my college dorm room flipping through the seven channels my tiny TV was able to get. It was late afternoon and I’d finished classes for the day. I landed on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the only channel that seemed not to be filled with infomercials. I had never really watched an episode of Oprah before, but I figured I’d give it a shot. I mean, she’s Oprah for a reason.
"For most of my life, I hadn’t really thought about nutrition beyond the food pyramid."
That episode happened to be a deep dive into the food industry. For the first time in my life, I learned about the cruel treatment of animals by the meat and dairy industry in this country. I learned about the hormones and additives that were in my food. In short, I learned where my food was actually coming from!
For most of my life, I hadn’t really thought about nutrition beyond the food pyramid. Sure, I’d been on some version of a diet or another for the majority of my life, but I wasn’t thinking about the actual nutrition behind these diets, just that I wanted to lose weight and lose weight fast.
Suddenly, I was thinking differently about the food I ate. How often would I put something into my body without knowing the actual ingredients that I was ingesting? How many chemicals had I willingly eaten without thinking about the impact it was having on my health? Once I started looking at the actual composition of some of my favorite snacks, I was startled to realize they could barely be considered food!
Add to that the cramped conditions, constant suffering, and maltreatment of the animals in the majority of the mass meat production industry, and suddenly I was very aware of what I was eating and what I was supporting with my money at the grocery store. As someone with chronic illnesses, I started to wonder about the impact my food was having on my health. I learned about the antibiotics many farm animals were treated with, the hormones used to keep dairy cows lactating beyond their typical terms, even the idea that you could be ingesting the adrenaline these animals were constantly filled with due to the stress of their living conditions.
"Many scientists theorize that we could potentially, over the course of years, cultivate that land to grow enough food to end world hunger."
I learned about the life expectancy of a dairy cow that is forced to keep milking. The average factory-farm raised dairy cow produces 100 pounds of milk a day, which is almost 10 times the amount a normal dairy cow would produce naturally. Cows can naturally live up to around 25 years. However, the lifespan of a dairy cow in the dairy industry is closer to five years. These five years are filled with pregnancies, where the calf is immediately taken from its mother and milked to meet the demands of the dairy industry. Cows are known to forge bonds with their young as other mammals do — stories of cows escaping to feed their calves appear on our social media feeds every so often. It’s hard to look at your morning yogurt the same way after that.
I was even surprised to find out that we were feeding livestock food that is often not their natural food source. The idea of eating a maltreated, often sickly animal just wasn’t appetizing to me anymore.
One of the most surprising things that I began to research was the land that is currently used to raise cattle for the mass meat industry as well as the land that is used to grow the food to feed them. Many scientists theorize that we could potentially, over the course of years, cultivate that land to grow enough food to end world hunger. It’s been stated that the dairy/meat industry as it stands is not a sustainable model. If more of the world adapted a plant-based diet, we would be able to successfully end world hunger. Add to that the fact that the amount of money that is put toward feeding, raising, and housing the animals for the meat and dairy industry could be put to better use when it comes to feeding and housing humans as well.
Not only is the dairy/meat industry model not sustainable on a farmland level, we have to look at the impact that the industry has on our climate. With climate change an ever present worry, we cannot allow industries to override scientific fact. Climate scientists have warned about the high levels of greenhouse gases that are produced at every stage of the production process in the mass meat and dairy industry.
Data presented by U.K. climate change website Carbon Brief indicates that the meat and dairy industries create 7.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases annually. This is 14.5% of the TOTAL man-made emissions, with the beef industry the biggest offender by far, generating more than twice the emissions of that of the next most polluting food, lamb. Cows and sheep produce large quantities of methane as a byproduct. When it comes to greenhouse gases, methane is approximately 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Now, you would think with all of this information readily available, people would think twice about the food on their plates. However, meat consumption appears to actually be on the rise worldwide. So, what are we supposed to do?
"But even if you’re not ready to go fully vegan, or you are unable to for reasons like mine or because of something like financial restrictions, you can still examine the small choices that you make and see if you can improve them."
This feels like a good time to admit that I am actually not a vegan OR a vegetarian. After spending almost a year as a vegan, I discovered that I was sensitive to both beans and soy, which caused issues with my chronic inflammation. So, without tofu or beans in the cards as a form of protein, I was left with no choice but to come crawling back to meat.
But even if you’re not ready to go fully vegan, or you are unable to for reasons like mine or because of something like financial restrictions, you can still examine the small choices that you make and see if you can improve them. Just because I couldn’t keep vegan doesn't mean that I can’t make better choices when it comes to the meat I eat and the dairy I choose to consume. My father always told me to vote with my dollar, so I make sure to research the companies behind the meat and dairy products that I buy. I try to choose grass-fed, antibiotic free, and/or organic whenever possible — bougie I know, but it’s the best for a reason. I try to support farms as opposed to mass factory-produced meat and dairy products. I try to find companies that treat their employees and animals as ethically as possible. Even if the food costs a bit more, I’m comforted by the fact that it should have a better impact on our environment, our world, and a better impact on my health overall.
So, the next time you’re sitting at a table with someone who is about to extol the virtues of their plant-based lifestyle, instead of greeting them with an eyeroll and an insult, maybe you’ll have a bit more respect for the lifestyle choices they’ve made. Many vegans and vegetarians have put a great deal of thought and even research into these lifestyle choices. While none of us likes to be lectured, all of us should have a willingness to learn. And, if the food you eat is having an impact on the world around you, you definitely should be willing to learn about that.