Foto: Olga Shavrina

How your food can change our world

One of my biggest surprises whilst living in Tromsø was not that the buses are almost never on time. Even the fact that back in 2008 Norway knighted a penguin to colonel-in-chief of the Kings guard has not left me as puzzled. Instead, it has to do with food. The bastion of Arctic research, front row seat to observe the heating of the earth, seems to be reluctant to ask this question and I am wondering why. Here it comes: Should we maybe, eat a little bit less meat?

Text: Marc De Hoop

In the traditional Norwegian cuisine, vegetarian cooking only happens by accident, when the shops are closed and some international student ransacked your meat stack. This year, a proposal to introduce vegetarian food in the cantina was turned down at the Tromsø Kommune. Apparently, the opponents argued that in Northern Norway ‘no meat’, was not an option. Such a dogged rejection should not be seen as an indication of Norwegian shortsightedness but simply points out the persistence of traditions. In Bolivia, asking for a meal without meat (sin carne, por favor) can provoke a range of responses ranging from frowned pity, to outright contempt. The same can happen to you at UIT, for example at a conference on sustainability and the future of drilling in the Arctic where lunch included not a single meatless snack. And have you noticed that the Mix store does not offer warm vegetarian food? For many of us, a meal without meat is not a meal. Meat is something masculine and strong. A rudimentary cultural sentiment from a time when hunting a buffalo was more than pushing a button; food that will turn you into a warrior, instead of a tofu twat. However, this warrior food contributes to some pretty unpleasant problems on our pale blue dot.

Because the meat industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. There it is. Greenhouse gas emissions of the livestock sector are estimated to be 14.5 percent of the global total, that number exceeds the direct emissions of transport. So, if everybody would stop eating meat, it would have a bigger impact than if we would all stop driving our cars. Cows produce significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times as effective as carbon dioxide. But that is just the beginning, extensive use of fertilizers leads to over-fertilization of water, which may trigger algal blooms. This in turn can result in decreased oxygen levels, which might be harmful for fish. We see pesticides flowing into rivers and affecting water quality. Governments failing to act against logging which wipes out rich forests to clear pasture for grazing and agriculture. For the past five years, over 2 million hectares of forest have been cleared every year. A large part of this land is used to produce soy. If you were hoping to find a complacent finger to point to our tofu twat, hold your guns. Only 6 percent is used for human food, whereas 75 percent ends up in feed for pork, cattle, poultry and farmed fish. Ecosystems in South America are burned down, meter by meter, day by day to produce the steak that you eat with your mashed potatoes for dinner. Closer to home, intensive reindeer herding has led to overgrazing which has contributed to a systematic decline of lichen vegetation. Another aspect often overlooked is water. Consider this: one kilogram of beef costs around 15.500 liters of water to produce. In comparison, producing the same number of calories as meat in cereal takes 4000 liters. With clean water often mentioned as a potential cause for a third world war and 1 in 10 people lacking access to it, that is an interesting statistic. I have not even mentioned the dangers of excessive antibiotics use yet. The truth is that cheap meat is only made possible by polluting the environment.

If the costs are so high, how are they maintained? Long term ecological management; often paid for by the government. Subsidies that help to keep the price low such as the EU schemes; paid by governments. Low wages in abattoirs; a human cost paid for by foreign laborers with their life quality and perhaps our karma. Eventually, “external costs” are often paid for with tax-payers money, or degradation of livelihood. And the estimated global economic costs of climate change in the upcoming decades run wildly between hundreds of billions to trillions.

The question is: why do we not hear more about this? Environmental questions related to meat are the political equivalent of asking your kid to turn off the computer one day a week. Not a good idea if that was your strategy to spend some quality time on a Sunday. Perhaps politicians avoid the question for fear of a public opinion backlash and being punished by consumers during elections. On both a national, as well as EU level, meat is a sensitive topic with big interests. Nearly half of the European Union budget is spent on agriculture and fisheries through a framework that was designed in the face of widespread food shortages during the post-war period. This money goes to subsidies but also projects to promote dairy and meat consumption.  The production of meat alone presents about 28 percent of the total agricultural output of the EU, around 96 billion euro.

A research by Chatham House concludes that ‘climate change is not currently a primary consideration in food choices’. Consumers look at taste, price, health and food safety but not climate. In other words, there is a wide awareness gap regarding the link between food and the environment. But a lot of us do know about this, and it is easy to ask yourself to whether writing yet another article about it will change anything. Because this is not only about “knowing”, it is about trying something new and changing habits. Costs rising into billions are abstract numbers and the suffering of others is something faraway. As long as every day the sun rises and REMA1000 opens, what will make us care? I have tried to show why we should and the least we can do is to remember ourselves and others of these facts over and again. So that one day, in response to requests for a non-meat option, the Mix store will offer samosas and you might think “what the heck, why not”. Something to keep in mind when piously pledging to your new year’s resolutions: why not try a meat-free Monday? A vegetarian meal, including fish, will carve 48 percent of your dietary carbon emissions, which is around 13 percent of your daily footprint. This article is not a call to boycott meat. It is not written by a guy driving a fixie and only drinking ecological tea from Brazil that tastes like morning dew and rain forest. As matter of fact, I like meat a lot. I simply would like you to ask yourself: should we, maybe, eat a little bit less meat?