Why I Changed My Diet for the Planet

Originally published on the Student Energy Blog on April 27, 2016

Anyone who knows me knows I am passionate about creating a sustainable future and I have dedicated my professional life to finding solutions to make that possible.  My problem is translating that same passion for sustainability into my personal life. 

I am aware of my privilege and the associated carbon footprint of being a Canadian.  Canada is a cold climate with a low population, which means that we burn a lot of fossil fuels simply to keep warm and to get from point A to point B. We also are a developed country and have modern infrastructure that has a large carbon footprint. According to the World Bank, the average GHGs per capita in Canada are 14.1 tons per year[1]. Compare this with emerging or developing countries like China (6.7) or Ethiopia (0.1) and it is clear that we Canadians are consuming way more than our fair share (we are in the top 15 of emitters per capita).  On top of this challenge, I also happen to travel a lot – for work and for pleasure.  In other words, my carbon footprint is a big problem!

I am a believer that infrastructure and policy needs to be in place for people to make meaningful behaviour changes.  For example, if I have the choice between driving a car, taking transit, or riding my bike for similar cost and convenience I will always choose transit or a bike. Yet, sometimes infrastructure just doesn’t support behaviour change and that’s the type of thing that I work on in my professional life.  But does that mean individuals can’t do anything until broader society moves?  Of course not! There are always things people can do to make a difference. 

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about what the world will look like with 9 Billion people.  We are currently at 7.125 Billion and it is predicted that the world will be over 9 Billion by 2050[2].  If you think about the sheer scale of 2 Billion more people it can be a bit overwhelming.  It is hard to imagine how our infrastructure, energy, and food systems will be able to support such a large increase in demand.  One day it just hit me - if we want a fair, good life for 9 Billion people, it will mean that we can’t just do and have everything we want at any time. And so, I started thinking about what I could do to alter my lifestyle to be more conducive to a sustainable world of 9 Billion.  I already offset my CO2 from flights (I am still hoping that biofuels will be used in planes soon; I think it is on the way - check out this article) but are there more things I can do day-to-day?

For years, high profile environmentalists have been saying that we could save the planet if everyone went vegetarian and the recent documentary Cowspiracy has brought more light to the issue.   I only recently watched it, but I have been worried for years about the mass deforestation that happens for livestock production and the general unsustainable practices around the way we produce food and eat (check out a couple of good summary articles about the environmental impacts of food here and here and here).  

And so, I finally decided to become a weekday vegetarian.  

I can already hear you... "Weekday vegetarian?  That sounds like a cop out."  Well, let me explain.  For years I had been thinking about going vegetarian but it always seemed like such a daunting task.  You see, I was raised in the middle of the Alberta prairies where it is widely agreed that there is almost nothing better than a good, BBQed steak.   I love meat.  And I also love to cook and almost all my cooking knowledge centers on meat being the focal point of every meal. What I am trying to say is the thought of eliminating meat completely from my diet just seemed too huge.  Luckily, there is a great quote that says “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” and I decided to apply it to my diet.  It suddenly became apparent to me that there are no vegetarian police and doing something is better than doing nothing.  For me, at this point, it is better to do something that I can reasonably maintain and greatly decrease the amount of meat and fish I eat (by 71% to be exact).

Here is a great 3:57 TED talk that completely explains the ability to change the choice from completely binary to something more nuanced.

Which brings me to where I am now.  For two months, I have been eating meat only on weekends.  I am still working through my new cooking habits, and learning how to stay full all day, but so far so good.  I don’t really miss meat, and when I decide to eat it I actually think about it and its impact.   A friend of mine sent me a great article by Bill Gates called “Is There Enough Meat for Everyone” where he reviews Vaclav Smil’s book “Should we Eat Meat?” It provides a balanced viewpoint of the impacts of meat and provides a more moderate solution than quitting cold turkey (no pun intended).  

I should also mention that this new diet has got me thinking more about the health impacts of meat as well and I have already lost weight and feel more energetic.  Those weren’t the goals but they are pretty incredible side effects! If you want more information on the health aspects of a meat-heavy diet I highly recommend the documentary Forks Over Knives.

I do hope that one day I can completely convert my diet to vegetarian but this is my first step.  I hope some of you will join me in thinking more consciously about how and what we eat – remember, the health of the planet and the wellbeing of a future population of 9 Billion will greatly be affected by the habits we develop today.