What The Hell is a Sustainable Vegetarian?

What The Hell is a Sustainable Vegetarian?

Cameron Vaské

- Founder & Chief Editor
- EU & European Affairs Specialist
- Student of International Relations & Economics at Miami University
- Former DoS Policy Analyst Intern

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Often when I'm out getting dinner with a friend, my friends will ask me why I choose meals with no meat in them. "Why'd you get that sandwich? Are you a vegetarian?" My favorite part of this exchange is just after I respond with, "Sort of: I'm a sustainable vegetarian." Confusion makes people give the funniest faces. At about this point I get some question to the effect of, "What the hell is a sustainable vegetarian?"

This is not an unreasonable question. After all, "sustainable vegetarian" and "sustainable vegetarianism" are terms I came up with to describe my own eating habits and to give a name to what I perceive as a rising dietary movement.

A sustainable vegetarian is someone who avoids excessive consumption of meat on the basis of sustainability. In the United States today, the average citizen consumes somewhere between 215 and 220 pounds of poultry and livestock per year. Multiply that by the population of the Earth, and you'll quickly realize that were everyone on the planet to live a similar lifestyle, and we would very quickly need another planet on which to raise all of this livestock and grow the livestock's food.

Raising livestock is not only taxing on resources, but the methane (CH4) generated from livestock's waste is an incredibly significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport."

Adding to this the environmental cost of transportation, processing, and packaging of livestock products, and the opportunity cost of using the land on which livestock (and the food it consumes) is grown for food, rather than leaving it forested or otherwise naturally biodiverse, and the consumption of meats quickly adds up to become one of the greatest drivers of climate change.

After suffering through yet another record-setting hot summer, fighting wildfires as they burned through Spain, Washington, and elsewhere, and watching more than 6 devastating hurricanes tear through the United States and the Caribbean in just over a month, totally destroying Puerto Rico, the economic and humanitarian reasons for seriously addressing climate change and its driving forces are clearer now than ever.

As the Irish Statesman Edmund Burke stated over two centuries ago, "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” In other words, Every. Bit. Counts.

"Is it hard, not eating meat?"

The answer is, "Eh, kind of." I personally eat a great deal of food with rice, pasta, beans, and chopped (and occasionally fried) vegetables regardless of the amount of meat I eat, which made it somewhat easier to transition. It's somewhat more difficult to plan eating out, and you might occasionally find yourself drawn to eat more meat as you make the  transition in your diet.

The way I practice sustainable vegetarianism is by limiting the number of meals of meat that I eat per month to nine (i.e., limiting the quantity of meat I consume to the equivalent of 9 meals in which the main course is meat). This doesn't, however, mean I only eat nine meals with meat in them, but rather consider the amount of meat in each meal I eat.

Because I need to be economic about my eating habits, I like to buy my own groceries and cook my own meals. Often I'll cook and shred two chicken breasts to use later for sandwiches, burritos, or as a side to a meal. I'll count this as two meals of chicken (two breasts of chicken), and still be able to enjoy chicken sandwiches and make Midwest Mexican-American Burritos throughout the month (my recipe for which is at the end of this article).

When I go out to eat, I simply consider how much meat is in each meal I might order that has meat, and plan accordingly. Eating sustainably means I don't have to give up grilling or the occasional chicken-and-beer movie night with friends, but instead, eating meat is a special occasion.

After changing my diet, I also found that I had more energy and felt more awake and sharp of mind because I switched from heavier foods to more healthy alternatives. Knowing I'm making a real difference in the world by eating less meat, I feel affirmed every time I choose to eat sustainably, and enjoy eating meat more when I do.

Not only can consuming less livestock help us eat healthier and support other common causes for vegetarianism, but in doing so, we can also helping to fight climate change and ensure a safer world for ourselves, the rest of humanity, and for our future. 

I think the next time I'm asked why I don't eat so much meat I'll say, "Because I'm saving the world." Now that's pretty damn cool.

Banner Photo Credit: "Chicken Salad" by Timbo Brockbank, Pexels

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