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'Need to reduce': Moving to a plant-based diet could help Canada reach climate goals

The way Canadians eat could be a major help or hindrance to Canada's 2030 climate targets. If the majority of Canadians consumed less meat, Canada could cut its emissions in half by 2030, a new report shows.
There are a multitude of plant-based recipes online and many non-vegetarian recipes can also become less carbon-intensive with a few ingredient swaps.

Eight years — that’s all the time Canada has left to meet its 2030 climate targets.

While several federal government policies have been announced to help Canada meet the emissions targets, the Canadian Climate Institute reports that at least 43 per cent of these emissions are accounted for by policies that have yet to be implemented.

But how would these numbers change if Canadians decided to start eating less meat?

According to a World Animal Protection report, that lifestyle choice could be the push Canada needs to keep its climate targets in reach.

Transitioning from the average Canadian’s high-meat consumption diet to a more plant-based one could be significant enough to help Canada achieve both its 2030 and 2050 targets, the report states.

If more people chose tofu over steak, the report found greenhouse gas emissions could undergo a 50 per cent reduction by 2030. If this trend continued, a further 80 per cent reduction could occur by 2050.

“[With this report] we can show the government that we have the potential to meet those targets by moving Canadians in a direction that is better for the environment, better for health and is a sustainable pathway forward for the climate,” says Lynn Kavanagh, farming campaign manager for World Animal Protection Canada.

In May 2021, over 90 per cent of Canadians identified as beef eaters in a Dalhousie University survey. B.C. had the lowest rate of beef eaters at 58 per cent and Alberta had the highest with 73 per cent.

However, in the 12 months leading up to this survey, 25 per cent of Canadians said they thought about cutting beef from their diets, with the highest rate being in B.C. Of those considering, 46 per cent cited the environment as their reason. 

If more and more Canadians consider making the dietary switch, it could not only help ease Canadians' impact on the environment but also provide some relief to the economy. It will cost 11 per cent less for the economy to comply with Canada’s 2030 emissions targets if animal consumption drops, the report states.

“Compliance costs go down when we shift to more plant-based eating compared to animal-based eating,” Kavanagh said.

The data in the report was collected through an energy economy model by Navius Research that can simulate the impact of climate policy on emissions and the economy.

A changing plate

In a recent report by Glacier Media, a graph showing greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of food demonstrates that beef, lamb, prawns and cheese are all large culprits of emissions. 

These reports join the many before them citing the environmental impacts of certain foods. In 2019, the federal government even changed the Canadian Food Guide to promote a higher intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plant-based protein sources.

But for Kavanagh, it’s the following up with Canadians part that’s lacking.

“We're just asking the [federal government] to support and promote their own policy that already exists,” she said. “A lot of Canadians aren't even aware of the new food guide.”

Along with the promotion of a pre-existing policy, Kavanagh hopes the Canadian government seizes the opportunity at the upcoming COP 27 meeting in November to acknowledge the contributions of animal agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions.

“Acknowledging that cow in the room, as we call it, to say that animal agriculture is an important source of greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. 

“By doing that, they can then start to explore ways to address that and to sort of shift the way we produce and consume food.”

Same cuisines, different proteins

While remaining hopeful that the government will take notice of this report, Kavanagh said a great place to start for consumers is by harnessing the power of the internet.

“People can look online for their favourite cuisine and sometimes sub in the meat with beans or tofu,” she said. “I love beans in things, so I like stews and bean burritos.”

The Canada Food Guide also has a plethora of recipes online, some of which can be found in its vegetarian-specific section.

There may be certain plant-based foods with a higher carbon footprint than others, but overall, Kavanagh said plant-based foods consistently do better than animal products. 

“Certain foods… like nuts might have a little bit more of a footprint than, say vegetables and beans,” Kavanagh said. “But generally speaking, across the board, plants have a lower carbon footprint than animal products.”

However, according to Glacier Media’s report, plant-based foods like coffee and chocolate can still have a larger carbon footprint than lamb or farmed prawns due to the resources it takes to produce them.

Full transition unrealistic 

To convince every human on Earth to eat a fully plant-based diet is frankly, unrealistic, Kavanagh admitted. Especially, she added, in places where animals are relied upon for food security.

“I would say that by and large, we really do need to reduce it a huge amount. But there are certain instances where there can be small amounts of consumption of animal foods, and that's probably realistic.”

This is why the report encourages Canadian consumers to “move to a more plant-based diet” and have low-meat consumption. While many won’t make the full switch, it’s this seemingly smaller change that could have huge climate implications.

“People are gonna want to eat some animal foods. Some people will embrace vegetarian or veganism, but most won't,” she said.

“So small amounts is OK, but mostly plant-based is what we're advocating for.”

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