The middle ground: Eating more plants and fewer animals. Photo: Getty Images
Just in time for Meat Free Week come two new studies to remind us why it’s smart to upsize portions of plant food and ease back on the meat. One was the study of more than 77,000 Seventh Day Adventists reported earlier this month that found that compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians had a 20 per cent lower risk of colorectal cancer (although, interestingly, adding fish to the veggies was better still, with plant and fish eaters having an even lower risk). The other was the analysis of the lifestyle habits of 451,256 Europeans that found those eating the most plant foods – around 70 per cent of their diet – had a 20 per cent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, compared to those eating the least plant foods.
But not everyone’s ready to swap bacon for beans which is why Brian Kateman from the Earth Institute Centre for Environmental Sustainability at New York’s Columbia University has come up with the term reducetarian, meaning someone who’s cutting down on, but not eliminating, meat.
So why is that any different to “semi-vegetarian” or “flexitarian” – words for those eating mostly plants with small amounts of meat, poultry or fish? Because it’s broad enough to include someone who’s taking baby steps to reduce animal foods – like doing Meatless Monday or eating meat once a day instead of twice.
It’s a long way from being vegan but the important thing is that a reducetarian has made a conscious decision to eat less animal food, says Kateman – and even a small reduction helps. Or as Australian philosopher Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and a supporter of reducetarianism puts it: “Reduce now, and next month reduce more. Maybe you’ll get to zero, and anyway, you’ll be doing less harm.”
Kateman also sees this approach as a way of soothing the hostility that can creep into debates between vegans and non-vegans by uniting everyone who’s reducing animal products at some level.
“It’s a message that allows us to focus not on our differences but on a shared commitment to eating less meat regardless of where we are on the spectrum,” he said in a TEDx talk last year. “If you can go meat-free, great, but if you can’t, just eat a little less.”
Easy ways to do this include using mushrooms instead of bacon or chorizo; swapping a meat meal for a lentil and veggie soup – or replacing ham in a sandwich with cashew or almond butter. It’s also surprisingly easy to de-flesh many dishes like curries or pasta sauces by swapping the meat or poultry for a legume like chick peas. You might sacrifice a little flavour but the payoff is that nothing died in the making of this meal – or lived its life shut inside a sunless shed.
But if arguments for better health and animal welfare aren’t enough to get us eating more plants and fewer animals, here’s another. Eating less meat is one of the most effective actions we can take to protect the climate, says Associate Professor Andrew McGregor of Macquarie University’s Department of Geography and Planning.
Around 30 per cent of the world’s non-ice surface is taken up by producing livestock, a key contributor to greenhouse gas production, he explains – but if we all ate less meat it would have two big benefits – reducing greenhouse gases directly from livestock emissions and freeing up more land where we could plant more trees to act as a sink to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“Changing meat consumption is something that can be done today, right now, by everyone,” McGregor says. “Rather than complaining about the lack of progress on climate change people can get active one meal at a time.”
There’s still time to sign up for Meat Free Week and raise funds for Bowel Cancer Australia, the animal advocacy organisation Voiceless and the conservation charity the World Land Trust – and check out the recipes for meat free meals.