Steak or avocado, which is worse for the environment? And other pressing questions for an omnivore flirting with a flip to the vegan life.
BERLIN —I'm about to eat a beef sandwich. Should I not, I wonder, considering the effect of consuming beef on the environment?
Factory farming is responsible for 15% of carbon emissions, which is more than planes, cars and trains put together. Meat production sucks up 70% of fresh water around the world. The logical conclusion? Meat is evil!
The German agriculture ministry recently advised citizens to abstain from meat for the sake of the environment. The council of experts advocated a "shift toward the consumption of a climate-friendly diet".
But that's where things get complicated. What exactly is climate-friendly? Instead of salami, should I put avocado slices on my sandwich? Personally, I'd consider this a delicious alternative. But is it really more eco-friendly? Avocados grow halfway around the world; pine forests are cleared and artificial fertilizers, pesticides and vast quantities of fresh water are used for their cultivation.
Eating eco-friendly is tricky — even before ethical concerns come into play, which are also valid concerns. There are many reasons people might avoid meat or animal products. Some people don't like the taste of it. Others think a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier, even when there's no scientific evidence confirming or disproving this theory. Most vegetarians care about animals and think it's immoral, a crime in fact, to kill other living beings for food. Vegans even renounce livestock that are bred for their milk, eggs, hair or skin.
If scientists consider a vegetarian diet the most effective way to counter climate change, there's some bad news — the wealthier a country gets, the more meat it consumes. But I can do my bit. Each steak I refuse to eat is one steak less that has to be produced. But if I'm trying to forgo animal products, I quickly run out of ideas. Pasta without parmesan? A curry with canned coconut milk that's imported even though that is problematic in its own way?
Supermarkets in Germany have solutions. Shelves and shelves stocked with tofu, soy, and wheat gluten steaks. But these offerings also raise questions. If you're consuming a lot of soy-based products, you cannot ignore that its cultivation is responsible for the destruction of certain rainforests. Furthermore, the majority of soy cultivated worldwide is used as feed in factory farms. As for the taste for of my soy Bolognese — it's okay but a bit strange.
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Say it with flowers — Photo: Helen Alfvegren
In the U.S., it grew harder to go without meat. I was living on carbonated water, pretzels and whole-grain bread.
I think replacing meat is easier when it's not the main ingredient, just a part of it. Pizza is still good without ham, as is lasagna or kebab with wheat gluten or a curry with tofu and vegetables. But roast venison is not quite the same without venison.
But even with these changes I've accepted that it's impossible to completely avoid carbon emissions from food production. The blogger Felix Olschewski says that factory farming is just as bad as conventional plant production. According to him, the solution is to simply accept that eating involves denying another animal food. "If you eat the blueberry, the bird can't have it. You take the salad, the bunny has to starve. If you cultivate fields, you destroy the ecosystem and animals' natural habitat."
There are different ways of reacting to this dilemma. One is to have an "I don't give a damn" attitude, eating as many avocados, steaks and environmentally-unfriendly sushi boxes as possible, flushing it all down with coffee that comes from capsules and is for take-away in plastic cups. Or, you can question your own behavior. Do I have to eat steak every single day? Is it the season for strawberries? Where does the milk I buy come from?
There are no clear rules for sustainable consumption because everyone has a different definition. Is it about water consumption, carbon emissions, the wellbeing of animals or chemicals in the food? What's relatively undisputed is that it makes sense ecologically to eat little meat and to focus on regional and seasonal products.
I still haven't become a vegan. To be honest, not even a vegetarian. But I try to eat as little meat as possible and to not stuff myself with meat burgers. Nor avocados, by the way.