Some months ago a canteen at the University I work started to only offer vegetarian food only. The reason for this shift is based on the claim that meat would be bad for the climate due to the high CO2 emissions involved in the production of meat products. Interestingly the Foundation for AgriFacts filed a complaint to the Commission of Scientific Integrity stating that the claims by the University are wrong. This is apparently due to some incomplete data. In the media, one can read that AgriFacts states that by leaving out certain plant-based options but including the non-plant-based options, the calculations are biased to favor the plant-based options. I cannot check whether this is true or not and this is also not the intent of this blog post. Another interesting aspect is that AgriFacts states that the University is free to provide meat-free food, but that they should not claim CO2 reductions which are not correct.
Personally, I find this to be a very interesting case. I have a vegan diet, but I am not sure if this is always the best for the climate, or for the environment, or even for sustainability in general. As I like to say, it is complex. During my master studies, I was made aware of a study showing that buying tomatoes in Austria in winter, the CO2 footprint of imported tomatoes is lower than the footprint of those grown in Austria. This is as the heating of the greenhouse consumes more energy than the transport from Spain to Austria. Indeed, the other question is: Do I have to buy tomatoes in winter. These days we can get everything all year round and we hardly think of the implications. I suppose the best is to buy seasonally, regionally, and organic (or similar). With my vegan and gluten-free diet (which is for health reasons, not because I want to be fancy), eating seasonally, regionally, and organic at the same time is virtually impossible. To substitute grains, I eat rice. If I fancy a creamy sauce, I buy coconut milk. But even for products that would theoretically grow in the season and regionally, I can often not get them in organic quality. It may happen then still happen that you live in the country of potatoes, but you still have to buy potatoes from Egypt. This is for sure not good for the climate.
I have to admit that I try to eat seasonally because some foods are just not nice to eat off-season. Strawberries do not taste good in winter. As I am already freezing in winter, I really do not need to eat salad. I like to wait for the right season to eat certain products. This is not only because of taste, but also because I like the wait and the anticipation. Finally, asparagus, finally rhubarb, finally strawberries, etc. Though, as pointed out above, even if I wait for the season, it is not guaranteed that I get a certain product from regional production. For example, in Austria, it is hard to get cauliflower of organic quality because on Austrian grounds there is a certain pest making it hard to produce organic cauliflower. Apparently, the French do not have that pest and thus it is much more cost-efficient to grow it there and import it to Austria. I surely would get conventional cauliflower grown in Austria, but I would not buy it. It is a choice I make, and it has nothing to do with CO2.
Going vegetarian had nothing to do with the climate either. Later on, Going vegan was also not based on CO2 considerations. First, it was based on ethical considerations, and then due to health reasons. I buy organic because I do not want my food being sprayed with some nasty pesticide and I do want to support a certain type of agriculture. Climate change considerations were only added later. It is an add-on argument for why I have the diet I have, but not the reason for it. Thus, it is neither the rationale I apply when I am in the grocery store. Hence, I would not claim that my diet is the best for the climate.
I come from a meat country. Eating meat is part of my culture. I have eaten a lot of meat in my life. I used to snack thick junks of ham and have bread with a one-centimeter-thick layer of salami on it (also rather a snack). Knowing what I ate, I have no right at all telling others what they are supposed to eat. And quite frankly, it is none of my business anyway. But apart from my own bloody past, I know that eating meat and animal products should not generally be condemned. It is for a reason that Austria is a meat country. We all have it in our heads when we think of the Austrian Alps. What do you see? Meadows with cows on it. Sure, you can grow food in the mountains as well, but it is hard (well with climate change it might get easier, though the slopes are still steep). The cows maintain the specific Austrian landscape. The cows (and goats and sheep) allow food production in areas where food production would be hard otherwise. It is not that people ate the crazy amount of meat that “westerners” commonly eat these days. A cow is precious, you keep it and harvest the milk. To store the milk for a long time, people made cheese and butter.
All around the world, there are regions where crop farming is hard, but animal husbandry provides a way to produce food. This applies to hot regions, as well as to cold regions. I suppose from a CO2 perspective it is much better to eat fish in the Arctic zones than imported greens.
When it comes to food choices, or any other consumer choice really, only looking at CO2 is not enough. I think we should come from a point of respect. Respect for each other and respect for the planet. Sustainability does not only mean CO2. Sustainability means to buy responsibly, to be aware of the social impact of my purchasing decisions. This means thinking about the working conditions in big slaughterhouses. This means thinking about the working conditions for mostly illegal workers in Spanish greenhouses (most prominently Almeria). But also, for those coming from eastern Europe to work as seasonal workers in our fields. It means thinking about fair prices for farmers, it means thinking about packaging, about your health, about soil health, about animal health. If we would approach food from an angle of respect, certain types of food would disappear. That may not necessarily be meat. I think it would rather be convenience food, cheap food, and fast food. I think we would still have meat and cheese. But we would pay the right price for it, and we would understand its value. It would again become precious. Because that is what food should be, precious.
This photo was made on a typical Austrian Alpe. Friends of mine make cheese there in summer. They revived an old tradition there. There animal husbandry is done, how I think, it should be done. With respect.