Can a plant-based diet save the planet?

My answer is “yes.” This, even if I’m happily (and guiltlessly) snacking on Greek yogurt and cheese and pepperoni pizza while writing this column. But I will qualify that answer by saying that one doesn’t have to be vegan/vegetarian to enjoy a more environment-friendly diet.  What we can do instead is to eat more vegetables—preferably seasonal, local and organic vegetables—and reduce meat and dairy consumption. They’re not only healthier for the body, but it also encourages farmers to grow more types of crops, enrich the soil and secure their livelihood.

I discovered vegetarianism about 20 years ago, after I bought a copy of Fraces Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet in Popular Bookstore. After reading how wasteful cattle raising was—as cattle consumes so much soybeans and corn, and with more profitable feedgrains discouraging the cultivation of food crops—I decided to drop beef from my diet. I also stopped eating pork, chicken meat and seafood because it was also around that time that I started doing yoga and meditation under an Ananda Marga nun. Although yoga and meditation students are not required to become vegetarians, Ananda Marga encourages its students to get into a lacto-vegetarian diet as a form of compassion for sentient beings and to aid in meditation. Soon after, I got a job offer in Singapore, and thanks to the Lion City’s multiethnic populace, I had the chance to dine on Hindu and Buddhist vegetarian meals.

I was an ovo-lacto-vegetarian for several years until I returned to Manila in 2005 and reverted to being an omnivore owing to my anemia. But I continue to believe in putting more greens in my diet and to this day, seldom eat hamburgers, lechon and steak. Having said that, I still maintain that vegetarianism/veganism is not for everyone. Plant-based protein sources like tofu or beans, for one, can’t supply vitamins like B12 that the body needs. We also need to consider local food cultures. Would you ask an Inuit to give up seal meat or require all Pinoys to stop serving lechon during  fiesta? And how about the taste? We don’t just eat food for fuel but to enjoy being a gourmet.  Another consideration is that farmers have to maximize their small plots of land by raising a variety of animals and plants as this will diversify their sources of food and income.

Thankfully, the Philippine dining scene has changed since I first embarked on my vegetarian journey. The rise of weekend markets, organic farming, healthy eating and farm-to-table dining has encouraged Filipinos to eat more vegetables. There are now vegetarian and vegan restaurants and cafes; and several stores and pop-ups are selling tofu, mock meats and even veganized versions of Pinoy favorites like tapa and longganisa. In Facebook, there are groups offering tips, recipes and even supplies for a vegetarian/vegan cook and diner. I even had the chance to sign up for a vegetarian cooking class and spent one weekend mashing garbanzos and slicing onions for the falafels that I’m cooking in vegetarian chef Marie Gonzalez’s culinary class.

Such development is welcome if only because a relatively new environment issue—climate change—has given rise to the “low-carbon diet.”  Unlike other diet fads, low-carbon diet is not about weight loss but about carbon loss. It’s about reducing the farming sector’s greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions by being mindful of what we eat.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said livestock raising alone emits 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2)-equivalent per year, representing 14.5 percent of all man-made GHG emissions. Cattle accounted for more than 60 percent of the livestock sector’s emissions. FAO estimates that on a commodity basis, beef and cattle milk are responsible for the livestock sector’s emissions, contributing 41 percent and 20 percent, respectively, to the sector’s overall GHG output. In contrast, pork only accounted for 9 percent of the livestock emissions. This was followed by buffalo milk and meat (eight percent), chicken meat and eggs (8 percent), and goat/sheep milk and meat (6 percent).

So, if you are an avowed carnivore and your diet is heavy on cow’s milk, steak and corned beef, then your carbon footprint is higher than those carnivores who eat lower in the food chain, opting for fried chicken, omelet and goat’s milk.

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint further there’s no better way to do that but to eat more greens, beans (and bean by-products like tofu) and fish.

According to a fact sheet issued by the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS), meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy.

“A vegetarian diet greatly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint, but switching to less carbon
intensive meats can have a major impact, as well.  For example, replacing all beef consumption with chicken for one year leads to an annual carbon footprint reduction of 882 pounds carbon emissions,” CSS said.

CSS added eating a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles, while replacing all beef consumption with chicken for one year leads to an annual carbon footprint reduction of 882 pounds carbon dioxide.

According to a story published in Treehugger.com, planting beans can return nitrogen to the soil and can save 600 kilograms of carbon emissions per hectare. Herring and tuna, meanwhile, produce only 0.56 g CO2/Kcal of protein and
5.75 g CO2/Kcal of protein. Meanwhile, Greeneatz.com released a ranking of each food’s carbon footprint (http://www.greeneatz.com/foods-carbon-footprint.html) and you can see that vegetables, fruits and lentils are among the food items that have the lowest carbon footprints.

But more than reducing GHG emissions, eating more vegetables can also encourage farmers to diversify their crops. As what several studies have shown, monocropping can deplete the soil’s nutrients and also make crops more prone to disease and pests.  Monocropping also puts most farmers’ livelihood at risk as one infestation can wipe out their crops—and ultimately their only source of income. The farmers’ welfare may not be one of our key concerns at the moment as living in the city has detached us from the real people who put the food in our table. But whether like it or not, the farmers’ welfare is a key concern for all of us because we all have a stake in our local farming systems.  And this is something I will discuss in my next column on community-supported agriculture.

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