Does what we eat affect the health of the planet? With agriculture producing an estimated 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, you could say it makes a significant difference to the planet’s health.
While we are told that eating less meat or eating a plant-based diet is the most earth-friendly way to go, it’s worth looking more deeply into this advice; and rather than just considering whether we eat meat or plants, consider how each of these foods are farmed.
It’s well documented that regenerative agriculture can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but actually sequester carbon dioxide – by pulling carbon from the air and storing it in the ground. By eating food that is farmed using regenerative practices, you will be helping to build soil fertility and grow healthier and more nutrient-dense plants and animals; which will create a healthier you and a healthier planet.
The Ecological Implications – Beef
The statistics say the greenhouse gases emitted when producing beef and other ruminant meat like lamb are sky high compared to getting your protein from chicken, pork, lentils or soy. But this depends on how the animals are raised. These figures are based on beef that has been through a feedlot, where cattle stand in yards being fattened on grain and soy. This includes 80 percent of supermarket beef in Australia.
These figures also factor in land clearing – something that happens here in Australia, especially Queensland, where trees are removed to make grazing land. It also happens on a large scale in the Amazon, where the jungle is cleared to grow mono-crops of soy (which is imported to Australia for intensive livestock feeds). There’s also the issue of ruminants producing the greenhouse gas methane when food is broken down in their rumen.
Let’s flip this around and consider beef that spends its whole life grazing on farms using regenerative agriculture practices. This includes managed rotational grazing where the pasture is allowed to regenerate and rest between grazing bouts, or silvopasture where the cattle range in tree-lots. These techniques build soil carbon, require no petroleum byproducts to keep the land fertile, increase biodiversity and sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide.
According to holistic management expert, Allan Savory, perennial grasslands can store a tonne of carbon per acre in their massive root system, far outstripping the ability of annual mono-crops. Research has found that feeding ruminants with supplementary seaweed products reduces their output of methane.
Should we eat less beef? Yes, eat less beef that has been fattened on rations of soy and grain in feedlots. If you do want to eat it, ask your local butcher for grass-fed and grass-finished beef. Find a beef farmer using regenerative agricultural practices and natural supplements in their system. This means you will be contributing to carbon sequestration, not emissions.
Practise nose-to-tail eating. If you go to the butcher and order only prime cuts like eye fillet, then you are driving demand for those cuts. The rest of the animal is waste unless you also choose the secondary cuts – oxtail, tongue, liver, fat and bones for stock.
Only 15 percent of the chickens grown for meat in Australia are free-range. While free-range means the animals are able to move out of a large growing shed and onto grass for some of their short lives, all intensive chicken farms need to deal with concentrated animal wastes and waste-water.
We need to think about how earth-friendly this is and whether it’s regenerating the land and soil. We must also consider what meat-chickens are grown on, which is a diet of mono-cropped wheat, barley, sorghum and soy.
Ultimately, if you can source a young backyard-grown rooster or make the most of your old laying hens, then you will be eating the most earth-friendly chicken meat. At the very least, consider buying whole free-range chicken (eating nose-to-tail), rather than small plastic-wrapped portions or, better still, find a local free-range chicken farmer to buy directly from.
About 90 percent of Australian pork is produced in intensive piggeries. That’s a lot of confinement sheds where pigs live out their entire lives on concrete floors without ever knowing sunlight or soil. There’s also a lot of concentrated animal waste and waste-water that needs to be disposed of. This doesn’t rate high on the earth-friendliness scale.
Ask your butcher if the pork is from a farm where pigs range on pasture or in tree lots. Consider buying a whole or half-pig. It’s not unusual for a butcher to give away parts of the animal they would normally throw out (i.e. heads, fat and bones). At least try the parts that you wouldn’t usually buy – hocks make a flavoursome soup.
How planet-friendly are our dairy products? Most dairy cows in Australia are grass-fed. But not all. There do exist confinement dairies in Australia where up to 2000 cows live full-time standing and laying on the concrete floor of a shed where they are milked and their food is brought to them. No sunlight, no grass.
Consider buying milk from a single origin dairy. Support your local dairy by also buying their beef – some farmers will grow out the male calves and sell them as beef animals (44 percent of the world’s beef comes from dairy animals). This greatly reduces your carbon emissions from consuming beef, as the footprint is shared with the dairy products the cows produce.
If you are a dedicated meat eater then, rather than eating less, add variety to your diet. Eating commercially harvested kangaroo and wallaby is legal in Australia and provides rich, high protein meat in your diet.
In terms of being earth-friendly, eating wild game has to be way above conventional beef or lamb. No farming required and not being part of intensive agriculture systems, kangaroos and wallabies live natural lives in the wild and produce little methane.
Protein alternatives have become popular in recent decades. Soy milk, almond milk, soy meats and nut butter have replaced traditional foods, as vegetarian and vegan diets become more common. Soy is also a large part of the diet of intensively farmed cattle, chicken and pigs.
One issue with soy farming is the land-clearing of forests and grasslands to make way for this large mono-crop, removing species habitats and reducing biodiversity. With fewer trees and reduced grasslands, there is less carbon sequestered, less rainfall and we see increased temperatures. In most of the world, soy is grown as a genetically modified crop, requiring heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers such as glyphosate, contaminating waterways and affecting human and wildlife health. Note that soy is imported to Australia for intensive livestock feed.
What about organic soybeans grown in Australia? This is definitely a better choice – soy is a legume and in rotation with other plants can help replenish nitrogen levels in the soil. However, being a mono-crop, it still requires cultivation of the land, which can reduce biodiversity, create soil erosion and emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Soybeans also need a large amount of factory processing to turn them into suitable products for human protein needs.
Legumes And Nuts
Include Australian, organically grown chickpeas, split peas, lentils, macadamias, almonds, pecans and hazelnuts in your diet for your protein needs. About a cup of lentils or a cup of almonds will provide similar protein to 85 g of beef. While the prices of buying organic products will be higher, you won’t be contributing to the pesticides and herbicides that are used in conventional farming that affect biodiversity, waterways, bees, wildlife and human health. To grow lentils organically, a paddock will still require cultivation and inputs; however they can be grown in rotation with animals and other green manure, nitrogen-fixing crops. Organically farmed nut orchards offer not only carbon sequestration but can build soil health using mulch layers, cover crops and grazing animals within the orchards. Alternatively grow your own.
When considering how to fulfil your protein needs, one question you should consider is – does the farming of this food regenerate the soil and sequester carbon dioxide? It’s likely that when you find food that does, it will be the food that is most healthy for you and the planet.
Four Ways To Eat An Earth-Friendly Diet
1. Grow some of your own (nutrient dense) food
Whether it’s parsley in a pot or rows of cabbages, to grow at least some of your own food reduces food miles, reduces your reliance on the food system and reconnects you with the earth. This includes growing some of your own meat. Keep backyard chickens and harvest the old hens.
If you have a big enough space, keep a few sheep and eat lamb a few times a year. Whether it’s plants or meat that you are growing, the nutrient density of your food is important to consider. If you are looking after the soil that your edible plants or animals are growing on, then you are farming food and eating in a planet-friendly way in your own backyard.
2. Eat local
Start with your own backyard, then reach out to your neighbours, local community food shares, farmers’ markets, veggie box schemes, CSAs (community supported agriculture) and local small farms.
3. Choose regenerative agriculture
Choose grass-fed beef farmed using regenerative agriculture practices such as holistic management, silvopasture and natural sequence farming. Choose local free-range pig and chicken for your meat or try eating wild game. Choose organically grown legumes, soy and nuts grown in Australia, preferably using regenerative agricultural practices.
4. Eat the whole animal or plant
Eating your apple cores or using them to make apple scrap vinegar, eating beetroot and carrot tops in your salad, and eating animals nose-to-tail reduces food waste, which greatly reduces your carbon footprint.