I grew up in a Greek household, where food is an essential part of bringing people together. I suppose that’s true in most cultures, but I can only really speak for my own. If you visit someone’s house for a meal, there must be abundant food. In fact, there is a saying that if all the food finishes at the end of the dinner party, there wasn’t enough.
Part of this cultural connection is to meat, which is ironic because if you look into Greek history, meat was a luxury that was rarely consumed. Today though, there is a cultural identity strongly tied to meat. Greeks are meat eaters, end of story.
I put myself in this category too, up until recently.
I have known for a long time that meat is bad for the environment, particularly beef. It has been one of those pieces of information that despite knowing, I conveniently ignore because I don’t want to change my habits.
I dabbled with becoming vegetarian a few years ago when I graduated university. At the time, it felt attainable. I was living by myself and cooking, so I was able to stop purchasing meat and focus on vegetarian cuisine. But things rapidly went downhill when I moved back to Greece a couple of months later.
I discovered deeply engrained perceptions around vegetarianism that I did not know existed. Friends and family reacted with statements such as:
“You don’t eat meat? Are you stupid?”
“You’re vegetarian? That’s an Americanism.”
“It isn’t healthy to be vegetarian. We were born to eat meat.”
At first, I was horrified at the reactions. Then I was frustrated – I couldn’t understand why my food choices were receiving so much judgment.
How long did I last before I gave up and went back to meat? 3 months. In my head, I tried and it didn’t work. It was something I wanted to do, but I couldn’t.
It’s fascinating to step back and identify what is stopping you from changing your own behaviour. In my case, I was using people’s perceptions of my actions as an excuse not to change.
Flash forward four years. My friend invited me to the vegan festival to hear her presentation on the relationship between veganism and climate change. As she went through the facts and the environmental footprint of beef and lamb, I had this sinking feeling in my gut (and no, it wasn’t hunger). It was the realisation that I need to try harder and actually stop eating meat.
In that moment, it wasn’t the facts that convinced me. I already knew that meat was bad for the environment. What hit me though, was the realisation that it is in my own power to change. And it isn’t impossible, even though I like meat, fish and dairy.
But before I get ahead of myself, here are a few facts for you.
A cheeseburger has the same emissions as half a gallon of gasoline. One burger (a quarter pounder to be specific) also requires 150 gallons of water.
Now you’re probably thinking, well I’ll just cut burgers. End of story, right? Not quite.
Take a look at this graph from the Environmental Working Group showing the life cycle impact of different food:
Lamb, beef and cheese have the highest emissions, mostly because the animals generate methane which is more potent than carbon dioxide. But you can see that all meat and fish has a significantly higher carbon footprint than the staples of vegetarian/vegan diets such as legumes and vegetables.
These are inconvenient facts. They are facts that challenge our routine and our understanding of what we like to eat and what we consider a healthy and balanced diet.
Now I will be the first to admit that despite this data I have not switched to a vegan diet. I fully agree that it is the right thing to do, but right now I can’t imagine never eating cheese again. It’s tough to let go of the things that you really enjoy.
But here is the trick: you can make better choices. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
To make an impact, you don’t have to cut everything out completely. If you reduce your meat and dairy intake, you are substantially reducing your carbon footprint.
I can safely say I now eat 90 percent vegetarian (with a couple of vegan days a week). It sounded so difficult at first, but the switch has been surprisingly smooth. It has been more about making the mental switch and changing my habits, than anything else. I don’t feel deprived and my taste buds have certainly not suffered from it; plant-based food is actually delicious!
The comment I get a lot when I have this discussion with friends is – well I’m just one person, my consumption won’t make a difference.
This argument comes up with all sustainable choices, and I will argue against it every day. One person’s actions add to the collective action. We all have the power to make a difference and it is up to each and every one of us to exercise that power and make better choices. Every choice compounds into a greater market signal that can ultimately change society.
The human brain is amazing at coming up with excuses for things we don’t want to do. Habit is a lot easier than expending effort to change. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap.
Every meal is an opportunity to make a choice. Start by making a few more sustainable choices a week and see how it goes!
A few recommendations to get you started:
- Beef and lamb are the highest impact meats – go for chicken if you choose meat
- Try having 1 meat free day a week
- Try having 1 dairy free day a week
- Choose wild salmon instead of farmed salmon
And if you need some recipe inspiration, here are a few of my favourites:
- Thai Green Curry with Spring Vegetables
- Baked Falafel
- Spanish Style Quinoa Stuffed Peppers
- Curried Butternut Squash Soup
- Roasted Cauliflower with Turmeric and Cumin
- Aubergine Bake with Feta and Tomato
- Lentil Salad with Hummus and Avocado
- Spinach Pie (Spanakopita)
- Veggie Tacos
- Butternut Squash Orzo
Plant-based food is on the rise, with a rise in options from the high-end vegetarian and vegan restaurants that are opening all the way through to your classic junk food. McDonalds is putting out a new vegan burger (you guessed it – the McVegan burger) and Burger King will begin serving the Impossible Burger this year. Most recently, Pret a Manger bought EAT and is planning on turning the chain into vegetarian Pret stores. If you prefer to cook, retailers are now offering more options in the supermarkets. Waitrose, for example, expanded its selection of plant-based options by 60% in mid-2018 as sales were 70 percent higher in July 2018 from the previous year.
The food industry is changing, and we can all help accelerate the change.
Commit to making a few better choices a week, and be part of the new food revolution.
Written by Eleni Polychroniadou