In New York City’s Union Square, the time is displayed digitally in huge numbers, sprawled across the broad side of an otherwise reflective building — part of an art installation called Metronome, created by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzil.
On Sep. 19, 2020, pedestrians looked up at the building to a sight different than usual. The clock, which usually counted down the minutes from the start of the day to midnight, now read “7:103:15:04:07.” It represented the time remaining until climate change becomes irreversible, down to the second.
Seven years, 103 days to save the planet — and the clock hasn’t stopped ticking down.
The appropriately dubbed “Carbon Clock,” created by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, counts down to the moment where global carbon emissions lead the planet to the point of no return.
You’ve heard it all before: rising sea levels, heatwaves, floods, and droughts. But should you believe it?
Take it from NASA. A study in collaboration with 18 scientific associations led them to state that, “observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.”
Climate change is here, possibly to stay if things don’t change.
But things can change — and we, as individuals, can make it happen.
I know what you’re thinking: “How could I, one of almost 8 billion people, have the power to do anything meaningful or capable of reaching policymakers?” And when 71 per cent of all recorded carbon emissions come from 100 of the world’s biggest energy companies, your skepticism is warranted.
But high-level change is a question for a different day.
Instead of focusing on what we can’t do right now, we can focus on what we can do to help stimulate positive change.
According to Statistics Canada, food production and consumption directly cause one-fifth of Canada’s contribution to global carbon emissions — a hefty 140,000 kilotons of CO2.
While it’s impossible to regulate industrial energy factories’ emissions as an average citizen, it’s much easier to manage the amount of food you eat. Altering your food intake is a more easily attainable target.
Beneath Canada’s societal norms, there’s a growing movement of people trying to make a difference. As food consumers, they don’t identify as omnivores or herbivores. They’re somewhere in between, away from the mainstream.
They call themselves “flexitarians.” In short, flexitarians live somewhere between a vegetarian’s meatless diet and a person who doesn’t restrict their diet at all. Essentially, flexitarians are making a conscious decision to eat less meat-based proteins, but not abandon them completely.
Because of the flexitarian diet’s relaxed nature, some people may be practising flexitarianism without even knowing what they’re doing. If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Huh. I do that,’ welcome to the family.
Unlike vegetarians and vegans, the dietary restrictions aren’t as strict. They get to choose when they eat meat and how much of it they eat. Even if they’re only consciously skipping one meat meal a week, they still fall under the flexitarian blanket.
Research says those that practice flexitarianism consciously rationalize their lifestyle in different ways. Some do it for health reasons, others for the ethics surrounding the treatment of animals in the food industries. According to a 2019 study by the Angus Reid Institute, the largest percentage of people who have started to consume less meat do it for environmental reasons — 31 per cent.
The same survey found that 39 per cent of people with unrestricted diets aged 18-34 said they wanted to cut down on meat products and 70 per cent of that population group thought the transition to plant-based meats was more than a fad — rather a lifestyle here to stay. As this generation of young adults becomes more independent and overtakes the majority of Canada’s workforce, it’s more than likely the flexitarian lifestyle will show its staying power and prove that it’s more than just a trend.
Data analysts at Barclays predict that the plant-based meat market — Beyond Meat burgers, Impossible Foods burritos, tofu hot dogs — will grow to a $140 billion industry in the next decade — capturing 10 per cent of the $1.4 trillion global meat industry. This is, in part, because of Canada’s food guide changing in 2019 to suggest people consider plant-based proteins more often.
As I’ve come to learn researching this article, for people hesitant to transition to a flexitarian lifestyle, it’s mostly about unanswered questions.
How hard is the transition? Is eating without meat hard?
Eating smarter isn’t as hard as one might think. But don’t take it from me, take it from a long-time flexitarian.
I FaceTimed Will Stewart, 25, over dinner. He talked to me through mouthfuls of one of his favourites — veggie tacos with mushrooms reduced in orange juice, soy sauce, and cumin.
For Stewart, eating less meat isn’t a recent change. He tried to give up red meat in high school but quit because he felt like an inconvenience at his parent’s house. Having them cook different food especially for him made Stewart feel like a nuisance.
A move to the Netherlands in 2016 reignited his mission to minimize meat in his diet.
Living with socially-conscious environmental science majors — most of whom were entirely vegetarian or vegan — played a huge part in Stewart’s flexitarian resurgence. He reasons because of a lack of space and an oven in his student housing, cooking with vegetables as the main course became second nature.
“I learned to cook with vegetables way better than I could ever cook with meat,” he said.
For Stewart, being flexitarian became a matter of convenience more than anything else.
“Obviously, there’s still the environmental stuff on the back-burner in my mind,” Stewart said, “I can’t really cook a regular burger all that well. But I can cook a bean burger from scratch pretty great.”
As a penny-pinching student, Stewart said his budget made straying away from buying meat easier.
Although it’s become easy for him to cook without meat, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like it anymore. It’s quite the opposite.
“I’m a fiend for fried chicken and fish,” Stewart said.
He doesn’t feel restricted by food. According to him,it’s simply about being more conscious of what you eat and how often you do. There’s no need to schedule on days or off days (though some do.) Flexitarians have the freedom to eat what they want, when they want — it’s up to the person to decide.
“I know that big change is hard,” Stewart said through a mouth full of taco. “At the end of the day, cutting out some meat and riding my bike instead of driving are some of the little things that I can do to help.”
When it’s a meatless night, Stewart has a few signature dishes in his repertoire: fish-less quinoa poke bowls, black bean burgers, and orange and soy-marinated mushroom tacos are all a part of his regular rotation.
According to Stewart, Canada lags far behind in vegetarian and meat alternatives in comparison to the Netherlands. In Winnipeg, meat substitutes and plant-based proteins are limited to small shelves in big-box grocery stores’ nooks and crannies. In the Netherlands, Stewart said there are entire freezer sections dedicated to all sorts of alternative meat products.
While it seems like Canada might be late to the party, they’re definitely on their way. The world’s largest pea-protein plant is set to open for business in Portage la Prairie in early 2022 — a project spearheaded by global plant-protein business Roquette.
But, if you’re like me and phrases like “braised orange mushrooms” and “fishless quinoa poke bowls” intimidate you, that’s OK — a lack of creativity in the kitchen won’t slow you down. A Winnipeg business called BUMP helps bridge the gap between vegetarians and people like me, who only know how to take ground beef, throw it in a pan, and call it a burger.
James Battershill created BUMP for people who want to reduce their environmental footprint but can’t commit to breaking up with meat. Though the environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption were in the foreground of BUMP’s creation, Battershill acknowledges it’s a useful tool for people who are consuming less meat for health reasons, too.
Produced in Calgary, BUMP Beef + Plant Blend combines Canadian grass-fed ethically sourced beef with plant-based proteins to create a more sustainable meat product. It’s right up the environmentally-conscious meat-lover’s alley. The ratio of meat to plant-based pea protein is 70 per cent meat to 30 per cent plant. Hypothetically, if someone ate BUMP for every meal, they’d cut back on their meat consumption by a third (a lofty goal for most flexitarians) without even feeling like they’re missing out on meat at all.
I was skeptical, so I put BUMP to the test. If I didn’t know any better, I wouldn’t have known it was anything other than ground beef. It allows me to cook the same low culinary IQ pan-burgers I’ve always made — only with a lighter conscience. You get the same meat you want, but your environmental footprint shrinks.
Can I still eat out?
Choice, or lack thereof, is another mental roadblock when considering flexitarianism. But it’s a myth. Let’s bust it.
Big-chain restaurants are adapting to the trend by offering more vegetarian and vegan-friendly options. For one, Earls Kitchen + Bar now has a full page on their menu dedicated to plant-based dishes. Highlights include Vegan Buffalo Cauliflower, the Crispy Tofu Zen Bowl, and the Vegan Hunan Kung Pao, which are all on their way to becoming staples on the Earls regular menu.
Say someone is invited out to eat and they’ve already capped their meat for the week. They shouldn’t worry. There’ll be an option at most places they go — to an extent. You can’t roll up to a BBQ joint and expect a bunch of vegetarian or plant-based options.
While big brands have jumped on board the flexitarian train, there’s also a culture of vegetarians and vegans running deep through Winnipeg’s communities. Social media accounts like @winnipegeatsvegan on Instagram suggest some of the best spots in town to get vegetarian and vegan grub. So, if you’ve reached your meat quota out but still crave a restaurant-made meal, there’s still a wide selection of places to go.
Some of the best:
- Roughage Eatery (126 Sherbrook St) – In Wolseley, a hub for grassroots people and subsequently vegans, Roughage Eatery offers a ton of tasty meat-alternative meals. Try their Mac & Cheeze (vegan cheese of course,) it’s divine.
- Affinity Vegetarian Garden (208 Edmonton St) – In the heart of Downtown Winnipeg, Affinity offers traditional Taiwanese and Pan-Asian vegetarian food. Their Sweet & Sour Soyapork is a plant-based fan favourite.
- Organic Planet Worker Co-op’s Vegan Deli (877 Westminster Ave)– Another Wolseley establishment brings everything to the table a traditional meat deli can — all while being plant-based and sustainable. They cater too. Try the Tempeh Reuben. It’s all anyone could want from a Reuben sandwich, with none of the meat – somehow.
Some people get their wires crossed and accuse flexitarians and vegetarians of being overly health-focused nuts who can only eat leaves and grass. The reality is a lot of them probably eat worse than the average joe.
According to the Angus Reid Institute’s study, flexitarian reasoning is more often about planet health than it is about self-health. Luckily, there’s a ton of craving-satisfying food still on the board, even for someone trying to wean off meat. Flexitarians might find themselves elbow-deep in party-size Doritos bags just as often as anybody else.
While in the past, veggie options that weren’t some variation of fries or grilled cheeses were harder to find when cruising through fast-food drive-thrus. Big-name restaurants have become savvier to the needs of the people over time. Several fast-food joints in Winnipeg have started to offer plant-based meats like Beyond and Impossible in-store. I tried a few options:
- A&W Restaurants’ Beyond Meat Burger– It’s great. All the same umami taste one would expect from a Teen Burger, but with less guilt.
- Qdoba Mexican Eats Impossible Meat– It’s not as tasty as the other products— kind of bland. It took me out of my burrito bowl experience.
- Harvey’s Lightlife Plant-Based Burger– Though Harvey’s has had its veggie burger since 1999, they recently rolled out a new plant-based Lightlife Burger in 2020. It’s also great. The choice of condiments is always a plus.
At the end of the day, maybe giving up meat just isn’t an option. Maybe sinking your teeth into a Dave’s Double from Wendy’s is an indulgence you simply can’t resist.
So, what if I care about our global environmental welfare but need a daily chicken breast to stay sane? Fear not. It’s still possible to make a difference by getting the meat held so dearly by some from the right places.
According to Statistics Canada, factory farming contributes to 37 per cent of North America’s methane output — a gas with 20 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Producing fertilizer for the crops that feed factory-farmed animals pumps a cool 41 million metric tonnes of CO2 into our atmosphere every year. Clearing forests to make room for grazing and feed crops for those animals? Another 2.4 billion tons globally.
Rather than supporting breed-to-kill industrial factories, ethically sourcing meat is a resource that weighs a lot lighter on the conscience. Free-range and ethical farming means no smokestacks pumping out CO2, poisoning the air. It means no deforestation to plant crops that fatten the animals up. All of the animals from ethically sourced farms live normal, grass-grazing, fresh-air-breathing lives until they’re killed — humanely, of course — and sold, usually to buyers in their area, lowering the environmental cost that transportation brings.
Take it from some who shop for ethical meat religiously:
Cory Stefanyshyn and his partner Caz Morgan started buying ethically sourced meat after moving to Saskatchewan last year.
“It just feels way better taking it out of the package,” Morgan said.
They’re cutting down on their meat intake too, but for more economical reasons.
“It costs more, so we buy less,” Stefanyshyn said.
Sure, the cost of buying a $120 locally-raised free-range turkey might be significantly higher than a $30 Butterball, but according to Stefanyshyn, the benefits are threefold.
“It’s better for our health, it’s better for the environment, and it’s better for the animal,” he said.
Stefanyshyn and Morgan cut out industrially farmed meats mainly because of the heavy presence of growth hormones and other detrimental chemicals that they say are in mass-produced beef. But, they say the environmental and ethical benefits are added plusses.
According to Stefanyshyn, making the transition to full-on ethical meathead wasn’t very hard, but he stressed the importance of getting to know a local butcher, if the luxury of doing so is available.
“I’ve gotten to know him pretty well over the past couple of months,” he said. “He hooks me up with all the best stuff.”
When Stefanyshyn and Morgan come to Winnipeg to visit, they cheat on their butcher back home in Saskatoon. Frigs Natural Meats & More in West St. Paul is their favourite spot.
“Elk, moose, they’ve got all the good stuff,” Stefanyshyn said.
There’s a bunch of other great spots to get ethically sourced meat in Winnipeg:
- Miller’s Meats (590 St Mary’s Road) – Miller’s Meats has several locations around Winnipeg. When in season, almost all of their meats are locally and ethically sourced from Manitoba farms.
- Mighty Meats and Deli (5-4910 Roblin Blvd) – Located in Charleswood, Mighty Meats and Deli is a family-run butcher shop. They prep the majority of their cuts in-house, and they’re ethically sourced from in-province farms.
- One Stop Meat Shop (1604 St Mary’s Rd) – One Stop Meat Shop is just that — a one-stop-shop for meats. All of their beef is grass-fed and sourced from ethical Manitoba farms.
In 1972, meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz coined the term “The Butterfly Effect” after theorizing a flap of a butterfly’s wings could cause a hurricane. The term’s true meaning insinuates minuscule, seemingly meaningless actions can have ripple effects that lead to events much bigger than those from which they stemmed.
As the Carbon Clock continues to tick down to zero and floods, droughts, and forest fires become increasingly common due to climate change, we may not feel empowered enough to challenge global elites and fix an industrial pollution system resistant to change. What we can do is look to the small steps we can take to make a difference.
Being more conscious of what and how often we eat is a good place to start. Though a new dietary normal may not seem like much, the ripple effects that emanate from our small actions may create a Butterfly Effect and lead to permanent, positive environmental change.