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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

World Vegetarian Day: the social and environmental reasons why people are giving up meat 

We report on how increasing numbers of us are turning to a diet of fruit and vegetables to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce animal cruelty

Restaurants in the UAE are beginning to cater towards vegans with special menus and options. Getty Images
Restaurants in the UAE are beginning to cater towards vegans with special menus and options. Getty Images

Have you heard the one about carnivores killing the planet? That’s right, if you enjoy a bit of meat with your two veg, you’re as bad for the environment as a gas-guzzling automobile with a hole in its exhaust.

If you’re a social media user, you will no doubt have seen statements like these being bandied around by people seemingly on a crusade to stop others eating meat. And as worthy as their intentions no doubt are, it can be a little bothersome to those of us who can think of nothing finer than a nicely marbled rib-eye steak cooked medium and served up with chips and a dollop of béarnaise.

Do the beef-botherers have a point, though? Today is World Vegetarian Day, so it is worth questioning whether humanity, as a whole, would be better off if we didn’t eat any meat. Would the planet we call home have a brighter and longer future if we ate nothing but nuts, berries and kale?

More and more people are starting to think this way and, putting to one side for a moment the emotive subject of animal cruelty – a major reason for many people embracing vegetarianism – the damage that meat farming and associated agriculture is doing to our planet is garnering an increasing amount of attention.

David Robinson Simon, author of the book Meatonomics, which was published in 2013, says: “Forget carbon-belching buses or power plants. Animal food production now surpasses both the transportation industry and electricity generation as the greatest source of greenhouse gases. Yet astonishingly, if Americans could just cut back on animal foods by half, the effect on greenhouse-gas emissions would be like garaging all US motor vehicles and vessels for as long as we keep our consumption down.”

He goes on to say that there’s no sustainable way to raise animal foods in order to meet the world’s growing demand, and that “two acres of rainforest are cleared each minute to raise cattle or the crops to feed them. And 35,000 miles of American rivers are polluted with animal waste.

We’re watching a real-time, head-on collision between the world’s huge demand for animal foods and scarce resources. It takes dozens of times more water and five-times more land to produce animal protein than equal amounts of plant protein. Unfortunately, even ‘green’ alternatives such as raising animals locally, organically, or on pastures, can’t overcome the basic math: the resources just don’t exist to keep feeding the world animal foods at the level it wants.”

As far as logical arguments for cutting down our consumption of beef and lamb go, that’s about as clear as it gets, right? But human nature being what it is, we’re unlikely to pay much attention to the pleas of environmentalists unless we end up being hit where it really hurts – in our pockets.

Think about the other evil that threatens our planet: the automobile. As damaging as ships, planes and trains are, it’s the car that comes in for most flack, and only financial pressures, caused by huge fluctuations in oil prices and various taxes, have made us change our motoring habits.

Car manufacturers are supplying vehicles with smaller, more efficient and cleaner engines. Motorists around the world are voting with their feet, spurning showrooms full of huge, powerful motorcars and spending money on vehicles powered by electricity – they’re even doing it here in the UAE. So perhaps, if the science is proven beyond doubt and the lobbyists shout loud enough, we will have to change our diets, too.

But meat is big business, so this will take time. The scale of the industry is simply mind-boggling. A third of the world’s grain is consumed by the 1.3 billion head of cattle reared to end up on our plates, no matter where it’s served or who by.

According to Business Insider magazine, 5.5 million cattle are processed into beef products every year, just for McDonalds customers in the United States, who consume half-a-billion kilogrammes of the stuff. It’s reckoned by industry pundits that the brand, which was founded in 1955, is the world’s 90th largest economy, with an annual revenue of US$24 billion (Dh88.1 billion).

Just considering those little factoids shows us that the meat industry – even if it was just there to support one fast food company – won’t be going anywhere for the time being, whatever efforts are made by well-meaning activists.

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Read more:

Ethical beauty: Tried, tested and vegan

Where to sample some local creative vegetarian cooking

Vegetarian options in Abu Dhabi have improved, but vegans still forage

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So if your conscience is telling you to cut back on the meat, what do you need to know about vegetarian nutrition? Most dieticians and medical experts would agree that, if it’s planned properly, a vegetarian diet can be a very healthy way to eat.

“However,” advises Sarah Collins, an Abu Dhabi-based nutritionist and lifestyle advisor, “extra care should be taken when serving children and teenagers a vegetarian diet. This is especially true if meals don’t include dairy products or eggs [veganism]. So do your research and make sure that your kids get their vitamins and other essential nutrients elsewhere, through carefully chosen veggies or supplements.”

Veganism, nevertheless, is on the rise. There’s growing demand for products – food and otherwise – that have nothing at all to do with animals. In fact, luxury brands, even car companies like Bentley, are bowing to pressure from vegan customers – particularly in California – to develop materials from non-animal sources. “We are experimenting with seaweed and other organic materials,” said Stefan Sielaff, Bentley’s lead designer, just last month. “Many customers want no leather or wool in their cars at all, and this is a growing trend that we simply cannot ignore.”

Going back to our dietary habits, though, it’s obvious that what we put into our mouths has an impact on the world we call home. If your stance is that you want to cut out meat, or go further and have nothing at all to do with animal products (and that means no more Louboutins, remember), then you’re not an anomaly any more.

But do so knowing that untold millions will continue to chow down on their beef patties and chicken drumsticks. That is the nature of humanity in the 21st century.