The Green Space | Going Veggie

The Green Space is a biweekly blog about all things environmental — whether we’re talking a mason-jar compost heap or the entire world.

By Sarah Stager, Contributing Editor

Recently, my mom’s garden has been producing squash. A lot of it. Round, ripe heavy-hitters of golden gourdy goodness. This, combined with the fact that the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, trains, planes and ships combined, convinced me that it was finally time to try going vegetarian — for a week, at least.

Now, I want to preface this entire experiment with a few disclaimers. Please, don’t do what I did! I pitched this article to our lovely digital manager a day before my meat-free week began, with absolutely no research beforehand — only a vague idea that cutting meat out of my diet would help the environment. Only afterward did I realize that my diet would have been much more effective if I had also cut back on dairy, with meat and dairy combined producing 14.5% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions.

I would also like to make it clear that I’m not a nutritionist, and I don’t want to pressure anyone into changing their diet. That decision is entirely up to you, and I understand that it is somewhat of a privilege to have access to nutritious and delicious alternatives to meat. Remember, even if you’re not willing or able to go meatless, there are plenty of other ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

That being said, from my week-long experience, going vegetarian is not at all difficult. Though I did at first experience some disparaging grumbles from my family, they eventually got onboard — my dad kindly prepared some vegetarian chili for me, and my mom was thrilled by my voracious appetite for her overabundant garden squash. They, of course, continued to eat meat, which was fine — it wasn’t even a temptation.

Most of what I ate were dishes that were already in my repertoire and relatively easy to make — tabbouleh, grilled cheese with onion, what my roommates and I like to call SPOE (an acronym for Spinach Pepper Onion Egg, basically scrambled egg with a bunch of veggies tossed in), corn on the cob, peaches and excessive amounts of squash. I didn’t go out of my way to avoid other animal products but I ended up eating a lot more fruits and vegetables than I usually do. 

This was a happy change because vegetarianism can have little effect on your carbon footprint if you consume higher amounts of other animal products because of it. In fact, limiting meat or dairy to once per day has the potential to limit your carbon footprint more effectively than going cold, hard vegetarian. You don’t have to commit to a totally meatless or dairyless lifestyle to make a positive impact, and all the innovative vegan and vegetarian recipes littering the internet make it quite easy to cut back.

I made use of one of these recipes, a tofu vegetable curry from Struggle Meals. Because I’m not the best cook, and because I also didn’t have enough coconut milk, it turned out pretty mediocre, but still edible. I still enjoyed making it and forcing my family to eat it despite the lack of meat. Experimenting with my diet encouraged me to expand my culinary repertoire a bit, which I usually don’t do because I feel like I don’t have the time to cook anything new. And I guarantee if I can cook a vegan dish with my lack of experience, slow-moving knife skills and compulsion to tweak every recipe for the worse, you too can concoct meatless meals for yourself.

The only challenge of the week came on Friday. It was my grandmother’s birthday, and we celebrated by holding a socially distanced gathering and ordering Japanese takeout. Like a good vegetarian, I decided to order a teriyaki tofu bento. This item happened to be a sampler of a few different items from the restaurant, including gyoza. Because the main dish was tofu and everything else was vegetarian-friendly, I assumed the gyoza would be as well. But when I bit into one — meat. Very obvious meat. 

Oh well. I had already ordered them, so I ate the rest of the first one, and the second one too, figuring it would be more damaging if I let that food go to waste. There’s no need to be super militant in your vegetarianism unless you believe that is the only way you will stay committed, and I didn’t feel guilty about my temporary slip into meaty territory. But this did make me feel some sympathy for all the folks out there with strict dietary restrictions for health reasons because it really shows how vigilant you have to be in order to make sure these mistakes don’t crop up. You have to constantly hound anyone who’s ordering food for you, or ask restaurant workers a million questions about the menu, or read those long, confusing lists of ingredients — just to be completely sure. For those with social anxiety or even just less forceful personalities, it could be almost impossible to keep up with the constant fight for the diet they want or need. 

I’m lucky that I have supportive family and friends and an abundance of food options — that’s part of what made this entire process so easy for me. Still, I did find that I had to fight the stigma against vegetarianism a bit, mostly because American culture is so meat-centric. Considering the potential cost of continuing overconsumption of animal products in wealthier countries and increasing consumption in less developed countries, I believe cutting down on meat is worth the ensuing disapproval. If we continue with our meat-eating ways, agricultural emissions are on track to take up the entire world’s carbon budget by 2050.

Although USA Today brings up the excellent point that our government should be doing more to halt global warming in its tracks, thus absolving the individual of the responsibility of reducing their personal emissions, I think that it’s important to be attacking the issue from all possible angles — which means, yes, doing all we can at the individual level as well. Participation on the ground becomes even more crucial when we consider that our government is actively rolling back many Obama-era regulations that required companies to mitigate their emissions.

Because some aren’t able to switch to a more plant-based diet, it’s all the more important that those who are able contribute as much as possible. I plan to continue reducing my consumption of animal products, though I don’t think I will go strictly vegan, or even completely discount eating meat on very special occasions. I’m sure I will catch some flack for this from both sides of the aisle — those who think I’m overreacting, and those who think I’m not doing enough. Despite this, I encourage you to consider joining me in adopting a more environmentally conscious diet. You could even start small like I did and go vegetarian for a week to see how you like it. Whatever you decide, make sure you do your research — unlike me — so that your body continues to receive all the necessary nutrients, and your choice is the most informed it can be.