As we have seen, the harder we try to identify the most sustainable diet, the more complicated it gets. This isn’t the type of question that can be answered simply (even in a 4-part blog post!)
Imagine you are an alien coming to Earth; you want to understand this planet but you have limited fuel and food (it was a long journey!), so you can’t stick around too long. You’re not the peace-loving type of alien, so you want to be sure this is a good planet to colonise but there are a lot of things you need to figure out: food, air quality, wildlife, ‘hostiles’ and all that other stuff aliens worry about. You decide to take a two-pronged approach. First, you send out some of your sneakiest aliens in some invisi-ships to check out a few locations, get some samples, see what they can find. Then you try to get some general info from way up above, an overview of this foreign blue-green planet.
The result isn’t perfect, it isn’t complete, but it gives you a general idea of what is happening on Earth and you can make some educated decisions about how to proceed.
That’s the strategy I’ve used to approach this question of sustainability: a bit here, a bit there, and a general overview. I could give you lots more information, try to create a more complete picture (though it will inevitably never be completely complete) but you just want an answer to a seemingly straightforward question.
So, now that we have touched on a few of these specifics and a bit of the overview, here is one of the big, general conclusions we can make about the most sustainable diet:
Producing foods from animals is generally more resource intensive and less efficient than growing food from plants.
After all, growing and shipping feed to raise a fully-grown animal whose by-products or flesh will then be turned into food is inevitably (in the overwhelming majority of cases) going to make less sense than just eating the corn or wheat or whatever it was you grew in the first place!
As a result, producing ANY types of animal foods uses, on average, significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based foods (this includes dairy and eggs). For instance, substituting the protein in beef for beans reduces emissions by 99%.
It has also been linked to all of the leading causes of death, including cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart disease and more. And, the more reliant on meat and animal foods a person’s diet is, the more likely they are to be overweight or obese; in fact, vegans are the only group to have a healthy average BMI!
If a sustainable future means doing more with less, means living in a manner that is harmonious with the planet and its resources, it inevitably means that we must eat drastically fewer animal foods: less meat, dairy and eggs. Quite simply, the same amount of nutrients and calories from plant foods means we will have more resources available, better health and more food. And, we will not have to kill an innocent creature.
Yes, you are right: In my short visit to the planet Sustainability I have presented you with an incomplete narrative, a map that has some rough sketches, a few dots and a lot of gaps. But, isn’t that a more sustainable way to look at sustainability (at least on an individual level)? We can’t expect consumers to make the most perfectly sustainable decisions every time they go shopping or to not be overwhelmed by the complexity that even confuses the best of researchers. But, we can present information about general ways to be more sustainable and use that as a guideline for our own lives.
There are many other important components of sustainability that I haven’t addressed: the use of pesticides and organic farming, producing food locally (though this isn’t 100% more sustainable for all foods 100% of the time, interestingly), a fair wage and working conditions for employees and shifting from the huge corporations who have taken over the industry back to small, local producers.
BUT one of the best and easiest ways to be MORE sustainable in your diet is to cut back on animal foods as much as possible. Nowadays, there are about a zillion (I am definitely going to pretend that is a real number) resources for how to cut back on animal foods, go veggie or, even, take the full plunge into veganism (go for it!).
Here are a few of my favourites:
- Get a mentor (you might even get me, or my wife!)
- For anything to do with health (seriously, I mean anything) check out Nutritionfacts.org by Dr. Michael Greger.