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Week Fourteen - Eat Vegetarian

Save 450 kilograms CO2e per person per year

· Weekly experiments

My preschooler

- I had a bad dream. Bad guys threw eggs at me.


- Were they free range?

Cartoon egg on a mountain top

What is a vegetarian?

Australians eat a lot of meat, but this is changing. 11% are now mostly or completely vegetarian. Some vegetarians shun all flesh. Others eat fish and seafood. Some omit eggs, dairy and animal products. Others don't.

There are as many different reasons to become vegetarian as there are ways of being vegetarian. Health, weight loss, the environment, animal welfare and religion top the list. The 'ick' factor also comes into play. I know people who don't like handling raw meat and are vegetarian by default.

As well as strict vegetarians, there's a growing population of "flexitarians", "reducitarians", "ethical omnivores" and those who follow the "French Restaurant" exception (if you ever find yourself in a good French restaurant, ditch the principles and enjoy the menu). These pragmatists eat a vegan or vegetarian diet most of the time but make regular exceptions. It might be that Grandma's roast smells delicious, it's only once a month and this is family time. Or perhaps ethically, the exception trumps the rule. Some Buddhist monks won't kill an animal but will happily consume roadkill or donated chicken meat. And personally, I'd eat cheese from a happy cow grazing on a nearby farm that I could visit, instead of industrial soy cheeze grown over bulldozed rainforests and produced by exploited factory workers. If anyone knows a happy cow cohabiting with a well-paid cheesemaker in the Canberra district, let me know.

What kind of vegetarianism did I test?

I ate a vegetarian diet for one week to measure the carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e). I included fish, seafood, eggs, honey, chocolate, cheese, milk, yoghurt and butter. I didn't eat chicken, beef or other land animals.

I ate less fruit and vegetables than during my vegan week, both in variety and quantity. Eating out was certainly easier than with veganism, but I feel like I ate a less healthy diet. Without noticing it, I consumed 10% more calories than usual. I have a stable weight and I eat to my hunger, but all those dairy fats slipped past unnoticed. I think I inadvertently tested out the most decadent style of vegetarianism.

I also spent more on groceries this week. Seafood is costly, financially as well as ethically (see below).

Tomatoes face mortality in a ketchup bottle


How much CO2e did I save?

My vegetarian diet generated 18.8 kilograms of CO2e for the week, which would be around 980 kilograms over a year. This is lower than where I started at 20.2 kilograms per week / 1.05 tonnes for the year, but not by much. I'd only save 73 kilograms CO2e each year if I ate like this year-round. It's nowhere near as good as my 600 kilogram saving with veganism.

Remember my typical Australian family, the Molloys? They'd do better, each saving almost 450 kilograms CO2e per year by going vegetarian. This is because they're starting out with a higher impact diet in the first place.

Different vegetarian options have very different carbon footprints. Butter, cheese and cream generate high emissions because they come from ruminant livestock (cows) and are highly concentrated. Yoghurt is much lower. Prawns, mussels and lobster are a bad choice, generating more emissions than chicken, pork, duck or roo. Eggs are fairly low emissions and backyard eggs are even better. If you become a vegetarian in order to cut carbon, think hard about what you include. Swapping chicken with a creamy seafood pasta may not work.

A vegan diet is simpler because every option has low emissions. It also saves much more carbon. But both vegetarian and vegan diets have a lower footprint than the average Australian omnivore. Vegetarianism may also be a gateway to veganism. Or it may simply be a high-carbon / high-cholesterol cover. On this one, the details matter.

Is seafood ethical?

We ate flathead, mussels, salmon and prawns during our week of vegetarianism. Ethically, this didn't sit well with me. While mussels and prawns have a high carbon index, the others are fairly low. However, I have good reasons to avoid them regardless.

Most species are overfished. There's a lot of bycatch (even of the cute warm-blooded things, like dolphins and seals). The fishing industry routinely trawls, which is like burning down a forest to flush out some deer. The person selling your fish may not know what it is, where it came from or how it was caught. And fish feel pain, despite what you might like to believe.

My local fishmonger sold long-lived and threatened species, like orange roughy, swordfish and shark. They had no information about how they were caught or whether they were sustainably managed. I won't name and shame them. They're typical of the industry.

Photo of an octopus and calimari on a plate

Three hearts. Blue blood. Uses tools. Talks in colour. Just an hors d'oeuvre?

For all these reasons, I wouldn't recommend anyone increase their seafood. If you catch it yourself or if you've found a sustainable fishery, then enjoy it. If not, be wary. Ask questions at your fishmongers. Consult the Sustainable Seafood Guide.

Be smart for the sake of your appetite, if not your ethics. If we don't get this right, we will run out.

Spreadsheet calculations, reference list and data discussion in the 'Notes' section, Week Fourteen.