Science, Now + Beyond

Flexitarianism is the way of the future

Luckily, there’s another option, and no, it's not becoming a vegetarian.

I tried to be a vegetarian when I was twelve years old. I’d gotten permission from my mom to try it for two weeks because she wasn’t convinced I was ready to abandon chicken nuggets for tofu based on my very well researched reason – “vegetarians are healthier and stuff.”  I was doing pretty well until one day I chomped into a piece of chicken concealed in a Chinese takeout dish, shrugged and continued eating.

Fast forward ten years and I have once again been thinking about giving up my carnivorous ways, this time not just for my health but for the health of the environment.

Livestock production is an integral part of agriculture and one that has a big environmental footprint. It’s a main source of income for about one billion people, primarily for those in developing countries. But of course, we shouldn’t point the holier-than-thou finger at countries producing meat. Meat production is in accordance with consumer demand.

Ron Weasley from Harry Potter eating chicken leg in urgency
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So, why should we be worried about meat and the environment?

The biggest reason may be greenhouse gases: the exact numbers are contested, but a 2015 study estimated that emissions from livestock ranged from 8-18% of emissions worldwide. Cattle are are the biggest culprits, releasing methane gas that accounts for 65% of the greenhouse gases emitted from livestock production. 

A significant portion of greenhouse gases is also emitted by producing livestock feed, like corn and soybeans, and fertilizer. We tend to think that eating poultry is a better alternative to eating red meat, but this isn’t necessarily true. Poultry doesn’t emit as much methane as cattle, but their feed production is a major contributor. There’s a whole list of other reasons for why livestock production is bad for the environment, like threatening biodiversity due to deforestation and high water and land usage.

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Luckily, there’s another option, and no, it’s not becoming a vegetarian. I’m talking about flexitarianism. I know, this sounds fake, but I promise it’s real! Dawn Jackson Blatner is the nutritionist who first advocated for this diet in 2009. Advertised as a way to lose weight, the flexitarian diet was about adding more vegetables and plant-based proteins rather than eliminating foods. As the name suggests, flexitarianism is flexible. You don’t have to stick to a strict diet or vow to never touch meat again. Instead, the goal was just to reduce meat intake and increase eating your leafy greens. 

Flexitarianism has since evolved from a weight-loss method to a way of being more environmentally conscious. A 2013 study defined the flexible-vegetarianism lifestyle as a “voluntary reduction in excessive meat consumption.” As the study describes it, flexitarianism should be all about working your way to a healthier, meat-almost-free diet, and should be based on personal choice. It’s not about cutting meat out altogether or bracing yourself to be shunned if you eat meat one day. It’s about moving towards a more vegetable-heavy diet, and it doesn’t matter how fast or slow that transition is.

Any reduction in meat consumption helps the environment. 

Flexitarianism hasn’t gone totally mainstream yet, but it has been gaining popularity since last year in the UK.  If you search #meatfreemonday on Instagram you’ll see what it’s all about. People seem pretty happy about their new lifestyle, saying that it’s helped them become more aware of what they’re putting into their bodies and has been easier on their wallets. Best of all, they say, is that there’s no guilt when they do decide to indulge a meat or fish craving. 

While becoming a full vegetarian would do the most to help the environment, it’s not practical to expect everyone in the world to become herbivores. Making the switch from steak to sunflower seeds is a difficult change. It’s not as easy as the other environmentally conscious measures, like switching off the lights or turning off the faucet while you brush your teeth. It’s a big lifestyle change and something that would affect you noticeably every single day.

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For the picky eaters of the world, eliminating meat could mean eliminating most of the food that they enjoy eating. For others, meat is a staple part of their culture, and consuming it is about so much more than putting food in your body. Flexitarianism seems like it might just be the perfect balance between helping the environment and treating ourselves. 

So it turns out that flexibility is fun and environmentally friendly. Don’t you love a happy medium?