By Judy Nauseef
The Nature Conservancy in its Everyday Sustainability Guide suggests eating more plant-based foods. For a gardener, this might be easy. But we have people in our lives–husbands, parents, kids, friends, and others–who believe that meat is required at every meal and that vegetables have no flavor. They tell us we must eat meat to meet our protein needs. More about this later.
Why eat vegetables? We know that reducing the fat in our diet improves our health. Vegetables provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Vegetables are also good for the earth. Most of us would like to contribute to protecting the environment and even slowing climate change. Growing and buying vegetables can help. Simon Hill writes, what we eat is “at the heart of our global climate struggle.” (from a special edition of the magazine Nourish, https://nourishmagazine.com.au/culture/) Plant-based foods include vegetables and grains and foods made from them. Usually they have a much lower carbon and water footprint than meat. Conventionally raising animals for food uses large resources of water and animal feed and produces great quantities of methane gas, adding to the greenhouse effect. Eating a plant-based diet is responsible for a lighter footprint. As individuals we can find ways to reduce our carbon footprints.
What is a carbon footprint? It refers to the amount of carbon dioxide emissions resulting from our activities. Plants also perform another function. They pull carbon dioxide out of the air. This is carbon sequestration, a process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and held in solid or liquid form. Our landscapes of trees, shrubs, groundcovers, and gardens can do this and are called carbon sinks.
Like a glass greenhouse that traps the sun’s heat to create an environment for growing plants, certain molecules in the earth’s atmosphere absorb and trap the sun’s heat. These molecules are called greenhouse gases. The greenhouse effect keeps the temperatures on our plant mild for living things. Greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation and agricultural and land use have grown to the point where the excess heat produced cannot escape into the upper atmosphere. Our climate warms when the gases trap infrared radiation. These gases absorb and re-emit radiation, some of it returning to the earth’s surface and warming it.
Ok, let’s get to the fun part, cooking and eating vegetables as part of every meal. I am familiar with this. When I met my husband, he and I were meat eaters. His mother made a spaghetti sauce with sausage, chunks of beef, and meatballs. It was delicious. In my house, my mother made, meatloaf, meatballs, and roast and fried chicken. Sometime during the latter part of our kids’ elementary school years, he stopped eating meat, having lost a taste for it. My parents never truly reconciled our dining on vegetables alone and worried about the lack of protein in our diet. Tofu, tempeh, beans, and green leafy vegetables filled that gap.
About this time, we became serious gardeners and grew as many vegetables as we could. Our kids would not eat most vegetables at the table but loved standing in the garden eating sweet peas. Farmers’ markets became popular. Great vegetarian cookbooks appeared; we both cooked; and our food became tasty without meat. We have fallen off the wagon a little, me more than he, but still eat 95% plant-based foods at home. We have learned to cook delicious recipes with tofu and tempeh and found many unknown grains in the coop, now available in the grocery store. We still get plenty of protein. Peanut butter is a staple.
According to Project Drawdown (www.projectdrawdown.org), we can reduce the impacts of agriculture on the environment by reducing the amount of red meat we eat. This production uses more land and resources than does the growing of plant-based foods. Cutting consumption of meat can help address climate change. The sustainability of a plant-based diet includes the actions of choosing minimally processed, locally grown products, and of growing vegetables at home.
Judy Nauseef is a freelance writer and garden designer. She writes about her interests in sustainability and native plants in the book, Gardening with Native Plants in the Upper Midwest: Bringing the Tallgrass Prairie Home. Learn more about Judy and read her blog at https://judynauseef.com.