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Opinion: Sustainability is Not About Perfection

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

I chose to not eat meat because I am committed to the cause of environmental protection, and the meat industry is responsible for deforestation, accelerating global warming due to the release of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and destroying wildlife. The choice of a plant-based diet is often criticised as soy, avocado, and almond production is not sustainable or because it would not be feasible for everyone to go veggie. How true are these statements? Not very.

Firstly, let's consider that 1/3 of the global cereal production is consumed by livestock. In Europe, a whooping 70% of crops’ produce is used to feed livestock. So yes, we would be able to grow vegetables for everyone if a plant-based diet became the norm.

Secondly, I'd argue that sustainable meat consumption is a myth. Beef coming from small and independent farms is not more sustainable, as cows from such forms need twice as long to grow because they consume less or no hormones (Critistina Coto, 2021), which means double the resources and more deforestation.

On a third point, 77% of global soy production is produced to feed livestock. Only 20% for human consumption. aAAAAAAATherefore, Although soy farming is responsible for deforestation and displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples, a plant-based diet rich in soy could still be sustainable if the usage of lands were changed radically and the need for meat decreased rapidly. Almond farmers are a great example of how innovation in plant-based farming can make even the more problematic plant foods more sustainable, having reduced the amount of water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 33% over the last 20 years. And we must say that, despite the focus on 'bad' crops such as almonds, soy and avocado, plant-based agriculture is overall more efficient: it generates 1.5 trillion more pounds of “product” than animal agriculture, using 115 million acres less land. This means that even the more ‘unsustainable’ elements of a plant-based diet are still much more sustainable than meat.

It is however important to point out that making sustainable choices is not about perfection, but about small steps to reduce our impact. It doesn't even have to be about cutting off meat completely. Let's also remember that individual action is important, but the real system change that we need to see has come from those 100 companies which are responsible for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is also true that consumer behaviour shapes corporate action. But why not tax highly polluting goods to make them less affordable? The free market currently does not allow it. According to the WTO rules, regulations/tariffs should be avoided, except in some cases to achieve specific goals. We need the international economic order to commit to climate change mitigation by allowing import tariffs for environmental goals.

So, do we need to go vegetarian to mitigate the climate crisis? It would certainly help, but when it comes to consumer action and climate change, there is no panacea. Is it even fair to put such a burden on individuals when international leaders prioritise the free market and avoid strong environmental action? Is it fair to prevent developing countries to take part in the richer lifestyle, e.g. regularly eating meat, when western countries have been able to do so for a very long time?

Meat is also more than just food. My family comes from a fishing town in the south of Italy. There, fish is considered a cultural heritage, and so is being a fisherman. Fishing itself is a cultural ritual. Fish is celebrated and incredibly respected. Many towns in that area base their economy on fishing. It is what allows many families to survive. I grew up being praised for enjoying eating fish and constantly reminded of its importance to a healthy lifestyle. Fish is so venerated that nothing is thrown away. You eat the eyes, you fry the bones, and use the liver for other recipes. Is it fair to expect individuals to give up meat and fish if they are part of their culture, or even their identity when 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by 100 companies?

Upon reflection, my answer still stands: We do not necessarily have to go vegetarian or vegan to be sustainable. Sustainability is not about perfection, it is about making small changes, such as reducing rather than avoiding meat.


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