More and more South African consumers are choosing veggies over meat as a powerful step towards eco-friendly farming. As the world celebrates World Vegetarian Day, consumers are encouraged to pay close attention to the farming methods used by food producers.
According to Wikus Engelbrecht, communications manager at ProVeg South Africa, vegetarianism plays a key role in promoting environmentally friendly farming practices, adding that consumers should be more concerned about the process by which they are cultivated.
“Not all farming methods are by any means equal with respect to sustainability, ecological impact, emissions, pollutants, and resource usage,” Engelbrecht explains.
For example, permaculture, he explains, is a naturally synergistic and regenerative form of agriculture which is based on principles of biomimicry and whole-systems thinking that aims to preserve the environment and enrich the soil. This, he says, is in stark contrast to industrialised monoculture methods. “[These methods] have little concern for preserving biodiversity and soil health, in effect designed for maximised output at any cost.”
The veggie revolution
While climate change is a massive threat to food security, water availability, and biodiversity worldwide, Engelbrecht says plant-based diets help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, the consumption of animal products is a key driver of various environmental maladies.
“When people think about emissions they tend to focus on transportation and industrial manufacturing, with agriculture often given less scrutiny. But consider for example that producing 1kg of beef releases between 16kg and 30kg of carbon dioxide, while producing 1kg of tofu releases only 1kg of carbon dioxide.
“Studies suggest that personal food-related carbon footprints could be halved with the adoption of a plant-based diet and that if everyone adopted a plant-based diet, worldwide food-related greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by up to 70% by 2050,” he says.
This means that growing plant-based foods can be restorative to the environment, rather than damaging, Engelbrecht highlights.
Restorative rather than damaging
“Pulse crops, for example, produce a number of different compounds that feed soil microbes and benefit soil health, utilising natural processes that replace the need to add nitrogen chemical fertilisers.
“Similarly for beans. Radish, garlic, fennel and thyme are a few of many plants that function as natural pest repellents when used as polyculture. Fruit trees absorb carbon dioxide and help prevent erosion.”
There are also squashes that reduce water evaporation and suppress weeds, says Engelbrecht, who adds that this is by no means an exhaustive examination. “But time and again given the right farming practices plant-based foods offer benefits to the environment and to agriculture that animal products.”
Food choices for a greener planet
Engelbrecht says food-buying choices are not merely personal nutrition choices or animal rights choices. The perimeter of ethical consumption widens considerably once you begin to take into account the impact your next meal has had on the land, air, water, and ecology at large.
“Every purchase is a deposit toward the health of the environment, in one way or another,” he says. “Plant-based consumers already tend to be mindful of the health benefits, and following a plant-based diet is already a huge step towards environmental preservation and creating a more equitable global food system.”
According to Engelbrecht, there are a number of ways in which consumers can support farmers who prioritise sustainable and ethical farming methods.
How consumers can help
Consumers, he says, can take the initiative to seek regional farms that are more environmentally conscious, supporting them through direct or online purchases, or by opting for their products that are available in the mainstream retail chain.
“Unless one is in a policy-making position, financial contributions in the form of sales and promoting these outlets to one’s circle of influence to grow the conscientious community is the best way to help.”
He also encourages consumers to buy organic and buy permaculture, when possible, however, simply transitioning to a plant-based diet is already a very significant step in reducing one’s environmental impact.
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