For those of us who have not been living under a rock for the last few months it has been impossible to miss the wave of people making the leap to a plant based diet. Most of us will know somebody who is giving it a go – when the thought of not eating meat and cutting right back on dairy was considered abnormal a decade ago. What has been the driving force behind this sudden shift in public opinion about food?
The environmental impact of rearing animals has been well understood for many years. Animals metabolise most of the food they eat and only a miniscule fraction becomes the tissue which ends up on dinner plates. This means using a huge amount of land for a relatively small amount of food when compared with the farming of plants. This causes a number of issues including the degradation of soil as well as a reduction of wild land which is so important for various ecosystems. Further still, a huge amount of methane is produced through farming of cattle. Methane is significantly worse than carbon dioxide at preventing the escape of thermal radiation from the earth making it a terrible greenhouse gas.
Have a look at this BBC article which shows a farming union’s response to claims by the BBC about farming. You can see an interesting set of measures suggested by the National Farmers union of England and Wales to make farming carbon neutral in twenty years. While one has to be sympathetic towards people’s livelihoods, twenty years is nowhere near good enough and when farmers are thinking of taking steps such as changing the diets of sheep and cattle and capturing methane to heat homes, one has to wonder why we don’t just change the diet of humans and rid ourselves of the problem entirely. It is important to note that the only organisations arguing against the environmental impact of farming animals have a financial interest in the trade.
This is before we even consider the ethical implications of eating meat and dairy products. The land required to farm animals can be reduced and profits increased if movement is restricted so that metabolism is reduced. Hens kept in cages produce more eggs using less grain, increasing profit. Cheaper meat often means worse conditions for the reared animals. This article in the Independent shows some quite disgusting treatment of turkeys having their feathers plucked while they are still dying as they move around a conveyor belt style slaughterhouse. Be warned, the video is not pleasant. Even dairy products do not come without suffering. If a cow is to produce milk it must give birth. If a farmer is to maximise the amount of milk gathered the calf must be removed – which causes a great amount of suffering to both cow and calf. Dairy cows can live up to twenty years. On average, however, they live for six before being marketed for beef.
Despite a public awareness of both the environmental and ethical impacts of meat, eating habits changed little until recently. This is likely because we are, like most species, very well adapted to consider what is best for our health. Documentaries such as “The game changers” have caused a sudden shift in opinion by presenting an argument – and a convincing one at that – for the health benefits of a plant based diet. While the “experiments” carried out in the documentary are not always the most scientific, the plethora of sports men and women as well as experts in a variety of fields makes for a very convincing case.
If a plant based diet has some notable health benefits as well as being better for the environment, better for the welfare of animals and better for your finances, has there ever been a better time to reduce or remove the meat and dairy from your diet?
A word of caution though – health experts have warned that vitamin B12 which is vital for maintenance of a healthy nervous system is only found in animal products or food supplements and so if you decide to take the plunge you must ensure you get all of the nutrients you need. Adults need at least 1.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 each day.
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