Never before in history have human gained such excessive access to meat. The two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century gave a rise to a more meat-prominent diet, relative to a potential plant-based one. The situation, described by a novelist, “These days nobody wept for horses, chickens, and pigs, either.” It is no longer a concern for the plight of animals when people are suffering just too much during the war. Meat was a status symbol for many Americans and European civilians as it was a rare treat to everyday meal. After the wars, Western people’s insatiable hunger for meat were satisfied when its production grew abundant.
In recent years, alongside the intensive meat eating habit, the number of vegetarians also witness an astronomical rise as a consequence of scientific researches showing the benefits of meatless diets. The pattern is somewhat the same for Vietnam in a sense.
A few decades after the initiation of economic reforms in the 1980s, Vietnam has totally transformed itself, from an isolated and indigent country to a flourishing economy, where the number of people with financial stabilization has risen up to 70 percent of the country’s population, according to a report by World Bank. Emerging from a famine in 1945, meat scarcity was no longer a reality since availability and affordability of animal products increases compared to the period before doi moi. Understandably, meat consumption begins to grow amongst Vietnamese – especially pork, beef, and poultry – as a result of the country opening its trade market to the world, improving its agriculture output and the increasing prevalence of eating out.
The average Vietnamese eats four times more meat now than one did 30 years ago. In the midst of a contaminated environment, people have begun to pay more heed to their food choices, many of those proudly claimed to be vegetarian. But the fact is the reality that is far from being true, as some of those vegetarians only abstain from meat on one or two days every month, and the reason is rather that of religion, specifically Buddhism. This is especially true for older generations who are often more devout in their religious beliefs. As for younger generations, their choices of diets are often factored in a healthy lifestyle, altruism, environment, and community.
So, why is eating too much meat such a big deal? What should we do about it?
It turns out what might end up on our plate matters a lot to the world and our body.
Firstly, taking into account of the environment in the country, intensive livestock farming used to sustain growing domestic demand has devastating effects: causing different types of pollution, deforestation for farming land. Based on a report from the World Bank Group, “Vietnam generates an estimated 80 million tons of animal wastes per year.” The report stated that only 60% of excretion from animals were treated, while the remainder were discharged directly into nature, making livestock waste as a leading cause to water, soil, and air pollution. There are just a few cases mentioned by newspapers and public media about dwellers living near commercial farms, small household farms or manufacturers, reporting the situations to authorities that manures without proper prior treatment were dumped into, rivers, lands, which polluted water usage, prompted high rate of diseases in local regions.
Secondly, regarding of health consideration, there has been an uptick in the number of non-communicable diseases among Vietnamese, with diseases such as cancer, or cardiovascular ones, and the reason is partly due to the country undergoing a structural change in diets which are heavily influenced by meat consumption. In fact, every year, deaths caused by non-communicable diseases swelled up to 70 percent, with 40 percent of people’s decease before age of 70. While other leading reasons may be traced back to unhealthy lifestyle, filthy food products, or polluted environment, eating an immoderate amount of meat like processed meat, or red meat has been proven scientifically to increase chances of shortening life expectancy.
Acknowledging the tremendous effect that diets have on climate and on health, however, it is never easy to immediately or completely abstain from meat consumption. In a study led by UC Santa Barbara researchers who examined the potential effects of healthier models for the United States, a U.S diet with the standard 2000-calorie-a-day was altered by a healthier model, changing the sources of about half of those calories. Fruit and vegetable, peas and beans were all doubled to compensate for the loss of meat protein. What they found was astonishing as the adoption of healthier model diets diminish the health risks of cancer and heart disease. Moreover, health care costs dropped down by $77 billion to $93 billion annually and direct greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 222 kilograms to 826 kilograms per person per year. Although the study is conducted to target consumers in other parts of the world, it shows that our food choices have enormous positive impacts globally and environmentally.
The research of connection between diet and climate change at the University of California have made it clear how we contribute to global warming through greenhouse gases emitted by the food products we create. For example, a portion of beef can send out 330 grams of carbon, whereas chicken of the same size only ends up emitting 52 grams of carbon and that number goes down fourfold for veggies. Considering the heavy load of emissions from massive livestock worldwide, personal choices for alternative food products and a balanced diet may probably be the best option to avoid further risks of diseases and lessen the challenge of environmental changes.
Eating meat does not make you a bad person, nor not eating meat make you a good one. But the important thing is that we are aware of how eating meat has its positive and negative influences on the world and our body. Consciously, we then make our decisions more judicious and healthier.