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Our Diet: Leading to a Sustainable Future or Killing the Planet - Part 9

Transcript for the following video on changing our diet to save our planet. Myths continued:

Myth number 4:“I only eat organic and free-range meat and dairy produce, so there’s no problem”. Again, there are some facts we should consider before reaching this conclusion – first of all, the problem is not just “factory farming” but “animal farming”. Let us consider firstly the notion of  ‘free-range’.  “Free-range” is an uncertified term.  Even when free range is practiced in actuality, whilst it is better for the animal while living, it is much worse for the environment, because free-ranging, by definition, necessitates a lot more land and more resources to maintain that land. For example, in order to maintain grass fed beef – there’s only so much land to do this, and it usually  means having to take natural forest and convert it to grazing pasture for cattle. That is exactly what has happened in NZ, with 50% of the land having been converted from forest to grassland, to maintain the herds of grass-fed beef and dairy cows. This contributes to increased carbon emissions, soil erosion and species disruption. This is why it has been stated that  “Extensive pastoralism…(or free range farming as opposed to intensive farming)...because of the vast area involved….has had a greater impact on natural ecosystems and biodiversity.”

We should consider that  slaughterhouse practices remain. Organically farmed animals are not transferred to organic slaughterhouses, they go to the same slaughterhouses as all the other animals, and  slaughterhouse practices are not always as humane as we like to believe they are.  Transport issues remain, with dark, overcrowded trucks, transport injuries and often long journeys.  The environmental impact remains– organically farmed animals still produce methane and nitrous oxide. There are some recommendations about performing further research into the benefits of organic animal farming over intensive  on the basis that organic meat is better for the environment because chemicals are not used, and because there is less methane and NO2 emissions – true. But -  it’s no longer a matter of just reducing our emissions – we’ve gone too far for that -  we have to drastically cut our emissions, and quickly. Organically farmed animals produce less methane and NO2 but still produce methane and NO2 (300x GWP of CO2) – at a time when our climate is in such a critical state, why should we want to pump any amount of these incredibly toxic gases into our atmosphere through the purposeful breeding of animals for meat?  I liken this situation to a basin with the plug inserted and the tap full on which soon floods a house. The water represents greenhouse gas emissions, the plug is deforestation because the water has nowhere to go. At the moment, we are mopping the floor and trying to look for ways to slow down the water flow – but the problem is - we’re already drowning-  it’s too late to slow down the flow – we have to stop it – it’s time to turn off the tap.

The following study shows clearly how organic meat still harms the environment  - Foodwatch of Germany published a comprehensive study of the effects of agriculture on the climate, the first study of its kind that differentiates between conventional and organic farming.

The scientists who conducted the study, with Germany's Institute for Ecological Economy Research, accounted for both the CO2 emissions resulting from the production of feed and fertilizers, as well as the land requirements and productivity of various methods.  Then they translated this into mileage driven by a BMW

Foodwatch of Germany compared:

Conventionally and organically raised meat, dairy and plant foods. 

Omnivorous, vegetarian and vegan diets. 

They found that eating a diet including meat for one year was equivalent to driving 4758 km

Eating a diet including only organic meat did not reduce the emissions by much – it was still equivalent to driving 4377 km .

Eating a diet without meat but including dairy was equivalent to driving 2427 km.

But eating a purely plant-based diet with no animal products was equivalent to driving 629 km, and when the plants were organic, this reduced further to only 281 km.

What this study is showing us is that we are not helping the environment by buying organic meat – we would help the environment by reducing, or even better, by not buying meat at all. And preferably dairy too. When it comes to meat production,  ‘organic’ is not necessarily the same as ‘sustainable’.

This study compared the emission footprint of eating a 100% plant-based diet with the emission footprint of an diet including meat but sourcing totally locally grown foods.

What they found was that although food is transported long distances in general (several thousand kms  on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%.

That is,  the emission footprint of food is primarily determined by its production rather than by its food miles.

Therefore if we want to help with climate change, it’s not by buying organic meat and dairy that makes a difference, it’s cutting them out that makes the real difference. It’s not only by buying local that makes a difference, it’s by cutting out the animal produce that makes the real difference. The diet with by far the lowest emission footprint is a plant-based diet, whether organic and local or not.

I am not promoting intensive farming methods, nor am I promoting buying produce from distant sources – what I am pointing out is the factor that creates the greatest burden in terms of GHGs and our eco-footprints – and that is consuming meat and dairy, whether it is organic and local, or not.

The ideal diet of course would be a plant-based diet using organic and locally grown produce – if we are concerned about our eco-load on the environment, that is the diet with the lightest footprint.

Myth number 5:“I do enough for animals, without becoming vegetarian.”

Without wishing to cause offence to animal lovers, this is most unlikely. Because an animal welfare advocate who still eats meat will consume about 22 warm-blooded animals per year (mainly factory-farmed).

In fact over the course of his or her lifetime, the average American eats:
-  11 cows
-  4 veal calves
-  3 lambs
-  43 pigs
-  1,107 chickens
-  45 turkeys
-  861 fish

We eat a lot of animals. So even one person switching to a vegetarian diet will make a huge difference not only to their health, but to the lives of countless animals and also to the environment.

Another reason for eating meat, which is not so much a myth, is that : “I like meat too much to quit”. There are two ways in which this can be tackled. Firstly, the custom can be broken gradually, by introducing meat-free meals once a week, then twice a week, then more and more.

Alternatively, there are now a wide variety of mock meats available, with the same appearance, same consistency, and even such a similar taste of real meat that it’s difficult to tell the difference – ask at your local Chinese supermarket – there’s mock ham, mock chicken, mock lamb, mock duck, and so many other healthy alternatives which are delicious, healthy, packed with protein and better for our bodies and for the environment

Myth number 6: “The economy will collapse if we don’t rely on animal agriculture”

We should remember here that the main issue is  sustainability. The main issue is survival.

The rise of our economy and affluence has been paralleled by a similar, if not greater, rise in environmental damage:

- our forests are being destroyed and turned into grass for the purpose of animal agriculture, deforestation which has produced billions of tons carbon dioxide release not to mention severe disruption in biodiversity in the form of endangered species

-       -  our waters are being polluted by the toxic waste from animal farms and products of animal agriculture,

-       - one fifth of our planet’s greenhouse gas emissions are composed of gases directly produced by animal agriculture, gases much more harmful than carbon dioxide in causing global warming.

-       What are we doing to our earth in the name of economy? We cannot continue in this fashion, it is simply unsustainable – and the huge environmental damage we have caused will most certainly lead to economic ruin.

-       Farmers will be amongst those with the most to lose by the predicted weather changes – these are environmental changes which we are contributing to, even encouraging, with continued animal farming.  

We must understand that our farmers’ situation is not an easy one. Farmers need our support, both from community and government level - they also have families to feed.  But we must help and support our farmers to move away from unsustainable animal-based farming that is damaging to the environment, to sustainable plant-based farming, otherwise, if we continue with our current trends, the ensuing climate changes that will occur will ensure that  there will be no economy.


Dr Aryan practices as a Consultant Physician in Respiratory Medicine in the Hutt Valley, New Zealand.  Dr Aryan is also interested in the many-fold and far-reaching effects of our diets, and particularly how our diet affects the environment. She has written and spoken widely about this topic and has presented her talk, Our Diet: Leading to a Sustainable Future or Killing Our Planet? in many venues around New Zealand. She has been interviewed about the link between diet and climate change by both local and national radio and newspapers.

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