• Beef uses 28 times more land, 11 times more water and emitted five times more greenhouse gases than the production of either pork, poultry, dairy or eggs. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
An increasing number of people in Australia are eating an environmentally responsible diet.
Nicola Heath

5 Jul 2016 - 1:23 PM  UPDATED 5 Jul 2016 - 1:23 PM

Eating according to environmentally sustainable principles has a new name: the climatarian diet. 

Mark Pershin, founder of Less Meat Less Heat, says the fundamental principle of the climatarian diet is carbon-conscious eating, or “considering the carbon footprint of our food choices and shifting our diets towards ones that are compatible with a safe and stable climate for both current and future generations.”

Pershin first embraced the climatarian diet in while studying a Graduate Diploma of Environments at the University of Melbourne in 2012. When he learned the significant implications our diet has on the environment - agriculture is responsible for 15 per cent of global carbon emissions, and contributes to water pollution and land use – he decided to change the way he ate.  

One serving of red meat a week

One of the biggest carbon footprints in agriculture belongs to beef industry. A study published in 2014 found that beef used 28 times more land, 11 times more water and emitted five times more greenhouse gases than the production of either pork, poultry, dairy or eggs.

In Australia, we eat a lot of meat. Australians are the biggest consumers of meat in the world, consuming over 90 kg per capita in 2014, or about 250g per person per day (of that, 21.6kg was beef and 9kg was lamb).

The high environmental cost of meat production, and catastrophic climate modelling that forecasts a six-degree rise in global temperatures by the end of the century if demand for meat continues growing, led Pershin to the conclusion that a climatarian diet should include just one standard serving a week of red meat. “I treat beef and lamb as a delicacy, just like it was treated by previous generations and in the cuisines of other cultures,” he says.

The Climatarian Challenge app

Pershin is developing an app, financed by a crowdfunding campaign, that he hopes will help the climatarian diet appeal to the mainstream. Launching in September, the Climatarian Challenge invites people to monitor the carbon footprint of their diet for a month using an app on their smartphone.

Each participant starts the challenge with a carbon budget of 8000 points (where 100 carbon points equals one kilogram of CO2), an allowance which is “compatible with a safe climate,” Pershin says. “Over the course of the month they put in what kind of meat they ate and approximate portion size. The app will deduct the carbon footprint of their meals from their allowance/budget with the aim of the challenge being to stay above zero by the end of the month.”

Eating to reduce climate change

While the climatarian label and its accompanying app is relatively new, people have been modifying their diet in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint for much longer.

Joel Turner, a conservation planner who lives near Byron Bay on the north coast of NSW, made the decision to eat less red meat for environmental reasons back in 2004.

At a talk at a Sydney University, Turner heard a leading scientist tell the audience that although it wasn’t a popular sentiment somewhere like the US or Australia, one of the biggest things you can do to limit climate change is reduce your consumption of red meat.

For the next 12 months Turner, who comes from a family of butchers, cut beef and lamb from his diet. His family were initially resistant to the idea. “My grandparents in particular love their roast dinners,” he says. “It was tough trying to explain it to them.”

These days Turner eats meat about once a fortnight. “We have a great local butcher who grows all his own red meat,” he says. The grazing method is important too. “I’d never choose grain-fed over grass-fed.”

What about kangaroo?

Turner’s beef-free 12 months wasn’t entirely without red meat - he occasionally ate kangaroo. The product of a cull that would otherwise go to waste, kangaroo is more sustainable than farmed meat that requires the input of resources like land and water.

While kangaroo has a smaller carbon footprint than other types of red meat, there are ethical issues around the way animals are slaughtered. “It’s not always a clean kill,” says Turner. 

The dairy industry’s impact on the environment is another cause of concern for Turner. Dairy cattle produce large amounts of greenhouse gases and nitrogen-rich manure which can pollute waterways. “I lived six months in New Zealand a couple of years ago and the dairy industry over there is trashing so many river systems and catchments,” he says.

While he acknowledges the situation could be different in Australia, Turner worries about the effect dairy farming has had on the Great Barrier Reef in particular. His solution is to buy organic milk from local dairy producers, which also reduces the need for refrigerated transport. 

To Turner, eating environmentally responsibly means buying staples from bulk food stores, ordering seasonal fruit and vegetable boxes, and shopping at local farmers’ markets, bakeries and butchers.

“In some smaller regional places it would be really hard to find a good bulk food store that is going to be cost effective if you have a large family,” he acknowledges. “But you’d definitely be able to hunt out a decent butcher most places in Australia.”

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