By David Alexander
Bill Gates might just change the future of food as we know it.
The billionaire software pioneer and influential philanthropist – how do we feed a world that eats like North Americans? How can we satisfy growing demand for meat without sacrificing the health of the planet?
According to Gates, global meat consumption has doubled in the last 20 years. It’s expected to double again by 2050.
“But raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact,” Gates writes in The Future of Food.
His new report seeks to solve this problem.
The ecological impact of meat and other animal products
What’s the impact of meat, dairy and eggs on the environment?
For one thing, animal agriculture is responsible for about one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture also requires feed inputs, transportation miles and other processing. Each of these steps has its own energy requirements. As a result, producing animal foods is a major cause of climate change, about 18 per cent according to the United Nations.
Air pollution, water contamination and soil erosion are also problems. One factor is the sheer volume of animal waste in the world. The global livestock population is about 22 billion animals. That’s a lot of poop to manage, and contributes to nitrous oxide and methane emissions.
But waste runoff can also impact other ecosystems. Grazing land has displaced natural grasslands and runoff from factory farms has poisoned nearby water systems. This runoff can create dead zones – areas where marine life is no longer possible.
But to feed the developing world what North Americans eat poses another problem.
“Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for nine billion people,” Gates said.
A solution that feeds dveryone
The Future of Food report suggests alternatives to meat and eggs that “are just as healthful, and produced more sustainably and taste great.” You can read the full report, here .
Intrigued? Toronto has its share of tasty meat alternatives. At Loblaws, you’ll find freezers stocked with vegetarian chicken and meatless ground beef. Most grocery stores also stock a selection of familiar meat alternatives.
Local restaurants are also experimenting with meat alternatives. Thomas Lavers Cannery & Delicatessen in Kensington Market is one example; their handmade vegan meats are delicious and their vegan reuben is a particularly satisfying.
How much can eating meat alternatives help the planet?
What kind of impact can one person have by replacing meat with these new meatless alternatives? I offer myself as a case study. Over the last 12 years, I’ve gone from meat-reducer to vegetarian to vegan. As you’ll see, each step in this chain made a significant environmental impact.
2002 to 2005 – Meatless Mondays
When I started university in 2001, I didn’t think much about my food choices. That changed as I learned more about the environment. In 2002, I took up David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge. I vowed to use public transit. I switched to energy-efficient light bulbs.
And I pledged to eat meatless at least one day each week. Meatless Mondays got me into the habit of eating less meat, and I picked up a some tasty vegetarian recipes along the way.
Environmental impact: During this period I probably ate about 15 per cent less animal products. This reduced my contribution to climate change by at least one tonne of greenhouse gas emissions.
2006 to 2009 – A vegetarian diet
Late in 2005, I chose to become vegetarian after learning about animal suffering on modern factory farms. Over the next few years I also reduced my consumption of eggs and dairy. Cows have a particularly damaging ecological footprint, so replacing milk with soymilk was a big factor in reducing my impact.
Environmental impact: My switch to a vegetarian diet probably led to an additional 50 per cent reduction in my consumption of animal products. This prevented at least four tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
2009 to present – Vegan diet
In 2009, I decided to adopt a vegan diet in order to lessen animal suffering and further help the environment. It was easy and rewarding to make this change since I was already cooking with great vegan cookbooks and enjoying Toronto’s many excellent vegetarian restaurants .
Environmental impact: Cutting out all animal products was a further reduction of 35 per cent. That’s a savings of at least six tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
Over 12 years, I was able to reduce my greenhouse emissions by at least 11 tonnes just changing my eating habits. That’s even higher when we add the indirect emissions caused by things like deforestation to clear land for pasture or feed. I’ve also reduced the demand for animal products enough to save more than 200 land animals and almost 1,000 sea creatures.
It wasn’t hard for me to stop eating meat once I learned the benefits to animals and the environment. But with Gates on the case, I have a feeling it’s going to get even easier.
David Alexander is the executive director of the Toronto Vegetarian Association. For the latest news and info about All Things Veg, check out the group online at veg.ca, Facebook or twitter.com/TorontoVeg