An Ex-Vegan's Green Guide to Buying Meat
I was a vegan for the better part of a decade and a vegetarian before the stores in my rural Canadian town had ever heard about tofu.
I adopted a largely plant-based lifestyle in my teens and held strongly to the belief that ending animal suffering and saving the planet meant removing animals from the food pyramid.
I viewed environmentalists who ate meat as either ignorant or hypocritical.
Now, after years of research and introspection, I understand the world isn't so cut and dry and that the rhetoric of the "saviour vegan" is yet another well-intentioned "ism" steeped in classism.
Veganism is not a sustainable solution on a global scale, and it's not feasible for many rural Canadian communities and indigenous cultures—many of which depend on animals for their survival.
Animals are an integral part of a sustainable agricultural ecosystem. We need them for more than their nutrient-rich meat and versatile fur and hide.
Animal manure is an age-old necessary natural fertilizer for plant-based crops or that animals provide on-farm power and risk diversification for the smallholders that make up the majority of the world's farms.
Controlled grazing of grasslands is critical for the health and biodiversity of those natural spaces.
The real issue isn't with "using" animals—it's with our food system as a whole.
Our food system has become a food economy.
From subsistence hunting and small-scale community farming to the environmentally-destructive mass-scale factory farming and processing plants that favour profit above all else, including animal welfare and human health, we've increased quantities at the cost of the planet.
Capitalism takes the brunt of the blame, but realistically, the blame game is a waste of time because most of us can't opt out of the system anyway.
So instead, we make conscious choices about which animals we eat and where we source them. This is how we do our best to live naturally while reducing harm and contributions to climate change. This is how we restore a small sense of balance in a broken food system.
Here's how to be a more sustainable meat-eater:
1. Support your local farmers
Canadians are lucky that our local farmers are more accountable to their communities and their animals. After all, their reputation is their livelihood. Smaller-scale farms are in general more humane than commercial producers.
The care a local farmer has for their animals directly translates into its environmental impact, too.
According to World Animal Protection, "Greenhouse gas emissions are often reduced when animals are healthy and have good welfare."
What's more, these smaller-scale local farmers are much more likely to focus on their land's health as their legacy by recycling nutrients and fostering soil fertility.
Sourcing your meat from local farmers also means reducing your overall carbon emissions from farm-to-table.
2. Eat less lamb and beef
While the whole "livestock production contributes to 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions" claim has been blown out of the water as grossly over-estimated, no one's denying livestock production plays a role in climate change.
You can minimize the effects of your impact without giving up meat by simply choosing animals that have a lower impact.
The Environmental Working Group suggests limiting our consumption of lamb and beef because they rank as the highest emitters of greenhouse gases and the biggest resource drains.
Cheese and pork are also in this category.
3. Choose chicken and turkey
Chicken is the best choice for conscious consumers and turkey is second best. These meats contribute considerably less to greenhouse gas emissions and require less land space than larger animals.
The Environmental Working Group advises avoiding processed versions like cold cuts.
4. Source smaller-school fish
The organization Oceana says seafood has a smaller carbon footprint than land animals because they don't require resources like land space or care of livestock.
However, they argue, not all seafood is the same.
To keep your plate as eco-friendly and sustainable as possible, it's advised that we stick with smaller-school fish because catching them requires less burning of fossil fuels in boat engines. You see, when you head out to catch fish in smaller-schools, it's more efficient because one net can catch thousands of fish. Compare this to prawns or lobsters who are, simply put, more spread out in the ocean. Oceana estimates it can take upwards of 10,000 liters of fuel per ton of catch in these cases.
Smaller-school fish include anchovies, mackerel, and sardines.
To further increase the sustainability of your seafood and animal welfare, choose wild-caught options over farmed varieties.
5. Go organic
The Environmental Working Group's Climate Report states that certified organic animal products are less harmful and more ethical choices.
Humanely-raised and grass-fed varieties also fit this bill.
6. Buy whole meats
The less processed, the better. Opt for whole chickens and turkeys and either roast them as is, freezing portions of cooked meat for later, or separate raw portions first and cook later as needed. De-bone the meat and boil into a flavourful, nutrient-dense broth. This way, you give due respect to the animal, cut down on processing inputs, and save yourself some money.