We all feel it: The planet is dying, the media is shouting at us to change our diets to help save the world, and other generations are blaming us, the young adults of today. But — and I’m sure you’ve all questioned it as much as I have — what’s the science behind vegetarianism, and can changing our eating patterns to vegetarian or even vegan diets make that much of a difference?
To put it simply, no.
Ray Hilborn, a professor of ecology and resource management in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, suggested that eating a selectively pescatarian diet may be even better environmentally and ecologically than cutting out meat and animal products altogether.
“Seaweed, shellfish, mussels, oysters — they don’t need to be fed,” Hilborn explained. “They have very, very low impact, distinctly lower impact than being a vegan in terms of any measure you were to use, including water, pesticides, fertilizer, and land. They don’t transform the ecosystem nearly to the extent that farming does.”
The main environmental issue with farming and meat production is the destruction of land and ecosystems. It makes sense, then, that cutting down our meat consumption would help to save the world as there would be fewer animals grazing in artificial ecosystems, right? Wrong.
With a decrease in meat consumption comes a requirement for increased sources of protein and nutrition of other forms.
“When you harvest plants, you’re chopping up lots of animals that are living in those fields,” Hilborn said.
Soy products are one of the main protein sources for vegetarians and vegans. To grow enough soybeans to sell, a large area of land needs to be cleared, damaging the native ecosystem and creating a new, artificial ecosystem. From a moral point of view, Hilborn pointed out that the farming of land doesn’t only affect plants, but animals too.
“I think [even] if we solve the problem of climate change, which [we] may be able to do, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free solution,” College of the Environment lecturer Eli Wheat said. “We won’t have actually addressed the problems that caused climate change.”
Wheat suggests that the best way to eat sustainably is to establish a link with food and farmers: eat and buy locally. Hilborn agreed, candidly saying “the lowest impact thing you could do is step outside your door and shoot a deer, eating native animals is really low impact.” If this isn’t possible for you, or you don’t fancy killing your own dinner, then maybe a strict vegetarian diet is best. You’d be eating as low on the food web as possible, saving energy and reducing waste.
This “relationship with food,” Wheat suggests, can be quite difficult to define and achieve, especially as students. Good food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, is very expensive in comparison to unhealthy food.
Wheat owns SkyRoot Farm, a small certified-organic farm that involves integrating animals such as goats with their plant crops to create a full and efficient nutrient cycle. SkyRoot hopes to set an example of how we can get involved in sustainable eating with or without meat.
One of the issues with a plant-based diet is how the distance certain foods need to travel has a negative effect on the environment. On the other hand, getting involved in a community-supported agriculture program (CSA) means a higher upfront cost. In the long run, we need a more sustainable way of delivering vegetables regularly.
If, however, the main motivation for going vegetarian or vegan is an opposition to the farming of animals on the basis of animal rights, where the impacts on the environment are not the priority, then you’re probably doing the right thing.
A vegetarian diet can be just as healthy for the body as an omnivorous diet and may even have some health benefits.
“Studies consistently show an association between plant-based diets and reduced risk of a number of chronic diseases, from heart disease to Type 2 diabetes to cancer,” Elizabeth Kirk, senior lecturer from the department of epidemiology, said.
Although some supplements, such as iron and vitamin B12, may be needed as they are much more abundant in animal foods, a vegetarian diet can provide all the necessary nutrients for a balanced diet and may be beneficial for gut health due to increased fiber intake.
“People who eat more plant-based foods have a more productive and diverse microbiome, meaning the bacteria in the gut outnumber the bad guys,” Seattle nutritionist and lifestyle educator, Michelle Babb, said.
From the point of view of your body, food is food.
“After consuming foods, digestive and metabolic processes convert the food into biologically usable molecules, and at that point, your cells don’t know if a particular amino acid or fat molecule came from a plant or animal,” Kirk said.
So really, it’s up to you. Science has had its say and it doesn’t really know either. There are pros and cons to both sides. The take-home message from this is that an understanding of your motivations for changing your diet is critical in both a moral and scientific sense, meaning that unfortunately, we may be saddled with the millennial guilt — sorry.
Reach reporter Molly Slann at email@example.com. Twitter: @MollySlann
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