A varied diet could save the planet, writes Chai Brady
We’re constantly hearing that the planet is on the verge of a precipice, that a veritable apocalypse will befall future generations once the earth’s temperatures rise above a catastrophic level, and the human race is railroading itself with its irresponsible actions – doomed to its fate.
Despite the grand scale of the issue, many have taken to making small changes in their daily lives, playing their part to secure our common home.
With a leading scientific journal, The Lancet, publishing a report highlighting the impact the meat industry has on the environment last week, many people are saying it’s time to start varying the Irish diet. The report went as far as to call for a 90% reduction of meat eating worldwide to combat the world’s climate crisis.
For one parish pastoral worker in the Archdiocese of Dublin, all Catholics have an obligation to care for the planet and to alleviate the suffering of those already being affected by changing climates around the world, saying that perhaps reintroducing old traditions could be the best way to respond.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Jane Mellett said that bringing back the Friday Fast might be a great way to help the environment for one, but would also benefit Catholics spiritually.
The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales restored the Friday Fast eight years ago in May, and while Ms Mellett welcomed this on a spiritual level, she regrets they didn’t take the opportunity to make it even more obviously significant.
“The only thing was, it was a missed opportunity because they didn’t link it to any justice issue. Now it’s good in itself, but it could easily be linked to how much we have in this part of the world, how much we consume, and also climate, so I thought it’s a great idea, it’s just a missed opportunity in terms of linking it to our relationship with our brothers and sisters around the world,” she says.
“As Catholics we used to be great at fasting, no meat on a Friday, there’s a benefit to fasting on a spiritual level, but it’s also good for the environment so I think it’s good in both spheres to do that.”
Ms Mellet elaborates by saying it’s not about going without food altogether, but cutting out meat every now and again could have a big impact.
She says: “Even the science that’s out there showing the connection between meat and its climate impacts at the moment, for me I would usually do as much as I can to fix this problem.
“There are people on the planet suffering because of the climate crisis so if we can do as much as possible from our side of the world to reduce that – I think we have a moral obligation.”
Ms Mellett describes herself as a ‘flexitarian’, basically meaning someone who takes an environmentally sustainable approach to what they eat, including reducing meat consumption.
“I think it’s healthy in lots of ways, my motivation is climate impact but also in terms of our own spiritual codes and developments, fasting is a really good practice and we’re not going to starve – there’s things we can eat on a Friday – so I think it would be worth thinking about.”
Particularly focusing on families, Ms Mellett says it’s beneficial to explain to children the reason they might fast from meat and why it’s good to “go without something every now and again”.
“We consume so much meat in this part of the world and in other parts of the world it’s very little. Just even entering into that conversation with families and discussing the impact on the environment as well,” she says.
The report which appeared in The Lancet on January 28 has been lambasted by the farming community, who have said their methods of farming are carbon efficient.
However Emeritus Professor John Sweeney of Maynooth University says that the sector is the “single largest contributor to Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions” and that it is getting worse, with projections predicting an upward trend for the next 20 years.
The academic is part of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit, and says the current and predicted carbon emissions from agriculture “run counter” to Ireland’s pledge regarding the Paris Agreement, in which countries from around the world said they would work to reduce their emissions and reach certain targets.
Plants use energy from the sun to grow, and animals eat plants to create energy for themselves, Prof. Sweeney explains, thus a huge amount of “food energy” is wasted when humans eat meat rather than plants.
“The implications are quite clear in terms of food to support a large global population, we know that you can’t support 10-12 billion people if they all have diets based on meat consumption because of the loss of energy along the way,” he says.
Speaking about China and India, where meat consumption per capita is on a much smaller scale compared to Ireland, he says: “If they were to acquire a taste for western food then there could be a problem down the road regarding the planets ability to sustain the world.
“If the world consumed meat such as we do here in Ireland, we’d need something like four planets to support the global population.”
Regarding The Lancet report he says phasing out meat completely is not what it is directing, but that a balanced diet is both healthier for humans and the planet.
“I think there’s a need for Irish agriculture to reinvent itself and move towards a more balanced and diverse production system and move away from simply the monoculture of game cattle,” he adds.
As more and more vegetarian and vegan options appear on Irish menus and with vegetarian and vegan restaurants and shops cropping up particularly in urban areas, there is definitely a growing number of people choosing to go without meat completely or just every now and again.
Young people in particular, Prof. John Sweeney says, appear to be “voting with their feet” and steering the market. A few decades ago an alternative to milk would have been seen as preposterous, now for those who prefer to avoid it, or indulge from time to time, there’s oat milk, almond milk, rice milk, soya milk and more.
However, as these products do not have all the same nutrients as milk, perhaps having more or less of one thing or another, it’s always advisable to be aware of nutritional needs before choosing an alternative diet or even just planning on cutting down on certain foods.
Prof. Sweeney says: “We can get the necessary nutrients from non-meat food, it takes a bit more creativity and imagination but it can be done as vegetarians and vegans demonstrate.
“I think one shouldn’t be alarmist about what’s been advocated by The Lancet, a very respected journal, simply a more balanced diet, one which addresses the issues of obesity in young people.”
“I think it’s common sense, rather than parents taking children off meat, just consider the implication of an imbalanced diet in children as you would think of a lack of exercise or education.”
With Prof. Sweeney remarking that over the years there may be increased worries regarding water shortages, he says it takes 1,500 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef and “as water becomes a valuable resource in years ahead, again we have to think about how you use that more efficiently in food production”.
Changing attitudes regarding a diet founded in a long tradition of farming in Ireland, and with an economy based hugely on the agricultural sector, it seems like cutting out meat for some may be a far-fetched notion, but treating meat as a treat rather than a staple may be the way forward.