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  • Writer's pictureKarthik Sunil

Chicken Wings or Salad for the Environment?

Written by Karthik Sunil

Illustrated by Manish Goyal © Renesa - SVNIT

I love eating meat. Chances are, you do too. But, it’s time for a reconsideration. Our choice of diet has been detrimental to the environment — causing higher carbon footprints, mass-murdering of cattle, soil erosion due to overgrazing, unused land, and many more. Over 500 liters of water are used to produce a chicken breast and reportedly, 68% of agricultural land is used for livestock alone. If you look at these numbers, it would be fair to conclude that a non-vegetarian diet does a lot of harm. But can you really trust them?

Although popular media would have you convinced about the evils of meat consumption, it is important to note that statistics supporting these claims are heavily manipulated. For example, arguments claiming that livestock feed can provide food for 800 million people is incorrect because 86% of this feed is inedible. You simply can’t give their food to humans. Livestock mainly feed on food waste generated in the production phase like wheat hulls, almond hulls, soy skin, etc. They are also fed rejects from bakeries or farms where the produce wasn’t fit for human consumption. Similarly, the argument of land allocation for livestock is equally irrelevant. It’s true that more land is used for grazing than agriculture. This is attributed to the fact that only one-third of the available land is actually arable. The other two-third aren’t fit for crops, but grow grass that livestock can feed on. This doesn’t change the fact that the meat industry harms the environment; it’s just that the numbers are out of context. If the meat industry is a relevant problem, one solution is to cut meat and dairy from our diet and lifestyle - veganism. But how feasible is this move?

Going vegan isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Sure, you can always choose to not eat meat, but not everyone can. Reports show that nearly 30% of students from India, South Asia and South Africa suffer from stunting, caused by vitamin and mineral deficiency. These vitamins and minerals can be easily provided through dairy products and meat. On average, meat and dairy products are more nutritious at lower costs, making a vegan path even more unattainable to the common man in developing countries. A hamburger is more filling and cheaper than a salad. A vegan diet itself gives you most of the required nutrients except vitamin B-12 and omega 3 fatty acids which are found in meat and dairy products. Overall, a plant-based diet is nutritionally adequate (with a few supplements), but it’s much easier and economical with a non-vegetarian diet. Apart from nutritional deficiencies, veganism doesn’t work in the long run either.

A research published in the Elementa journal found that a vegan diet is the least sustainable lifestyle. The study observed ten eating patterns, ranging from plant-based diets to Viking-style diets. The study wanted to measure how long humans would survive using present resources in the different patterns. A vegan pattern was the shortest because it would waste available land that could be used to feed others. Utilizing arable land for crops alone leaves wastes grazing lands, which could be used to feed cattle and convert them to meat or dairy products. This diet would also neglect the perennial cropland used to grow hay and grain meant for livestock. The study further concludes that incorporating 20% to 40% of dairy products would be better than a completely plant-based approach. But sustainability isn’t the major concern if the world went vegan. The elephant in the room is food wastage.

Every year, 1,555 million tonnes of food are wasted and more than 80% of it is non-animal based. This includes food thrown from the consumer side and from the production end. This enormous amount of wasted food releases methane which accounts for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. If the whole world were to go vegan, it would translate to more food wastage and more greenhouse gas emissions. We would face other issues like shortage of available food for some since wastage trends aren’t uniform. Currently, most of this food waste is being fed to livestock, from which we obtain meat or other products. Going completely plant-based would leave the majority of the waste unattended to. So, going vegan isn’t as clear-cut a solution as it sounds. So, what can we do?

The answer lies in the middle ground. As mentioned earlier, leaving about 20-40% of meat and dairy products in your diet would help in the long run. Correcting our attitude towards food and reducing wastage from the consumer side, would also contribute greatly to fighting the crisis. Cultured meat can be introduced alongside livestock to tackle this which would reduce the involvement of animals. Lab-grown meat is still in its infancy, although early reports deem it safe and similar to real meat in taste. It could replace real meat in the future; however, it would most likely bring other issues like high energy requirements for production. These are the potential solutions we have at the table. Even though the meat industry is dangerous, it shouldn’t distract us from bigger concerns like burning of fossil fuels and massive landfills. In the end, it comes down to your choice. Skipping the dairy won’t suddenly make the world a greener planet but it can give you a sense of relief. So, what would you choose for dinner, the chicken wings or the fresh Caesar salad?

Editor-at-Large Renesa

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