Flexitarianism: The case for cutting back

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[Written by Melissa Dunn]

[Image by Kate Zápražná]

Recently, it seems like we’re constantly being told that the single biggest thing we can do to save the planet in the next 12 years is to turn vegan – or at least cut cows out of our diet. But do you really need to go as far as giving up all animal-based products, or is it OK to just reduce your meat intake by going “flexitarian”? The answer to that question depends on your motives. Do you think that killing and consuming animals is unethical, or do you just want to do your bit towards saving our planet? Those in the former camp would argue that nothing short of veganism is good enough, but for those in the latter camp, the answer may not be so clear-cut. My perspective here is strictly environmental – I’m trying to find out whether flexitarianism actually changes anything for the better.

Flexitarianism, a concept coined in the 1990s, is a modern phenomenon of a “person who has a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish”.  It sounds like a phoney label – what’s wrong with the clear-cut distinction where you either eat meat or you don’t? But actually, I think it makes a lot of sense. Strictly speaking, I am a flexitarian too. Yes, veggies, I am that person who cannot quite give up the meat in her diet. But I’m also that person who believes that if everyone would just cut back on their meat intake, it could have enough impact on our climate that veganism would not be needed to save the world.  In other words, we could have our cake and eat it – as long as it’s not the whole cake.

A pound of beef requires 13% more fossil fuels and 15 times more water to produce than a pound of soy; in the UK alone we eat an estimated 2.2 million chickens a day. It’s not like consuming meat is, by itself, an act of eco-terrorism – but our current levels of meat production and consumption are putting our ecosystems into overdrive.

There are plenty contradictory arguments, bombarding us left right and centre, attempting to convince us of what’s best for our planet; whether it’s completely ditching all animal substances, ditching solely red meat and milk, or switching to traditional farming methods to restore the balance in both our ecosystem and the soil itself. While there are many more nuances to the discussion, overwhelming evidence shows that yes, cutting meat, fish and dairy out of your diet is the single biggest thing you can do in your part towards helping climate change – which is why we in the developed world need to step up to the mark and take responsibility.

But is it enough to just consume less animal products, or opt for ones that have been produced in a “sustainable” way? Essentially, flexitarians are people who believe that the answer to this question is “yes”.

Isabella Tree has been one visible advocate of the view that “sustainable” animal farming is the future. In 2000, she and her husband converted their farm into a rewilding project, letting free roaming herds – from cows to deer to ponies – do extensive grazing on the grounds. The animals wandered wherever they please on the Trees’ land, and as a result, the damaged soil rebounded effectively – with the help of earthworms, dung beetles and all those useful creepy crawlies. You’re probably thinking why soil has managed to weasel its way in here. But in all seriousness, it’s actually pretty important. The fact that in the UK topsoil depletion is so severe that in 2014 the Farmers Weekly announced we may have only 100 harvests left  is, quite frankly, scary. This is what intensive farming of both livestock and grains does, and Tree sees it as the core problem we are facing.

In fact, Tree blames vegetarians and vegans for increasing demand for protein sources that require heavy fertilization – soya and maize – but this criticism is based on a falsehood: the reason for this crisis is not growing demand from vegans, but from the meat industry. In 2017, 33% of agricultural land worldwide was used solely for livestock feed production. This statistic alone should indicate what’s the right thing to do here.

Although Tree’s experiment with transforming her own farm into a sustainable ecosystem seems successful, intensive livestock farming is still the root cause of the excessive burden placed on our environment. I agree with her argument that changing the way in which we farm livestock could provide a potential solution. But reducing the demand on industrial farms to supply cheap meat is the only way in which we could live in a world of ‘extensive grazing’ and ‘letting land lie fallow’ methods, like envisioned by Tree. Global meat consumption continues to increase; we simply can’t keep eating this much meat and expect it to be produced “sustainably”. The only way to reduce demand is to reduce consumption. In other words, to cut back.

Even if you’re not ready to completely give up bacon or meaty Sunday roasts, you can at least reduce your intake by limiting it to a certain weekday, avoid industrially produced meat imported from faraway countries, and take other small steps. Of course, that whole attitude of “it’s only one straw” can often pop up: “It’s only one steak, it’s only one pint of milk, it’s only one pack of bacon”. However, it all contributes to the crisis in our hands. Where you could so easily give in to a meaty craving, you could also say no that one time.

Despite the fact that Flexitarianism is a bit daft in name (there’s a reason why veggies used to take the mick out of it), it’s really what everyone should be aiming towards. Every piece of meat that we consume, or in this case, don’t, has an impact.  Instead of thinking that Meat Free Monday isn’t good enough, you should see it as a start of something bigger.

[Image Description: A close-up of milk being poured in a glass, with a pink border and the word flexitarianism on the left side of the image.]


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