Commentary: Eating less meat could help the environment and our health – so what’s stopping us?
Singapore is ranked among the top vegan-friendly cities in Asia but going meatless can still be an uphill struggle.
SINGAPORE: A few months ago, my 30-something cousin made a surprising confession. He’s trying out a vegetarian diet.
I’ve always thought of my cousin as a hardcore meat-lover. I remember him (when he was a younger lad) vacuuming up all the beef slices in the hotpot, or extricating every bit of flesh from spindly crab legs.
But he and his wife – parents of two infants – have watched Netflix’s The Game Changers. The documentary explores how vegan diets have benefitted world-class athletes, from lanky marathoners to hulking weightlifters. Where vegetarians do not eat meat, vegans go the extra mile by not eating animal products, including dairy and eggs.
Both my cousin and his wife were convinced by the documentary’s argument that a plant-based diet provides sufficient protein, and reduces the risk of heart diseases and cancer.
My cousin also confided in me that his cholesterol level is four times higher than what’s considered healthy.
PLANT-BASED EATING GAINING TRACTION
The past decade has seen an uptick of interest in plant-based diets, which comprise grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables with few to no animal products.
People are growing more aware of the nutritional and environmental impact of their food. This awareness has been reflected in the growing appetite for sophisticated plant-based “meat” products – Barclays predicts that the global industry will be worth US$140 billion by 2029.
Plant-based meat producer Beyond Meat saw its shares rise more than 160 per cent after its market debut in May 2019, in one of the year’s best-performing IPOs.
Plant-based eating has been picking up in Singapore as well. Vegetarian and vegan eateries have mushroomed in Singapore over the past ten years, from international chain VeganBurg to homegrown outlets like Real Food and Greendot.
In 2016, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ranked Singapore the second most vegan-friendly city in Asia (Taipei clinched the top spot).
However, sometime during our family meal last week at a tze char restaurant, I glanced over at my newly vegetarian cousin and saw him eating pork ribs.
PLANT-BASED EATING NOT YET MAINSTREAM
I don’t blame my cousin entirely. As a vegetarian myself, I can empathise: The meatless pickings at our table that day were slim. I too wish for the day where I could order more than fried kailan, three-egg spinach and white rice.
And when your non-vegetarian family members order up a feast, you can’t help but feel that you’re being irritating with your dietary restrictions. It’s so much easier (and more polite) to acquiesce and eat whatever’s on the table.
Many experts say we should be eating less meat for health, economic, and environmental reasons. But if we truly accepted plant-based eating, surely any given restaurant would offer more meatless options.
Perhaps we could make more meaningful moves to exclude meat from our diets if we tackle the misconceptions around plant-based eating.
MISCONCEPTION #1: PLANT-BASED EATING IS A FAD DIET
People have asked me before whether I’m a vegetarian to lose weight. That question has always suggested to me that people think of plant-based eating as some fad diet that is no different from a juice cleanse.
But plant-based eating seems like a sensible orientation worth considering for the long term on an increasingly strained planet.
Globally, food accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions, and red meat has the biggest carbon footprint per kg of protein.
In Singapore, the total emissions of the food people consume will increase by about 19 per cent by 2030 due to population growth. Pork has the highest carbon footprint here, accounting for about 28 per cent of food-related emissions. The most straightforward way to reduce food-related emissions would be to consume less meat.
Shifting towards a less resource-intensive plant-based diet could also reduce the stress put on global food supply chains.
An August 2019 United Nations report suggests that global population growth has strained land and water resources. Coupled with extreme weather events brought about by climate change, rising food insecurity and hunger is an emerging reality many nations will face.
A plant-based diet also suits the reality of living in land-scarce Singapore. Singapore produces less than 10 per cent of its nutritional needs, half of which come from fruits and vegetables, but in March 2019, the Singapore Food Agency announced a target for Singapore to up this number to 30 per cent by 2030.
Supported by advances in vertical farming and urban agriculture, and investments in developing local farming talent, Singapore, in particular, aims to supply 20 per cent of the fruits and vegetables it needs.
In this context, a plant-based diet may be aligned with Singapore’s vision of becoming more self-sufficient in feeding its people.
MISCONCEPTION #2: PLANT-BASED EATING IS FOR THE WEALTHY AND VIRTUOUS
Another complaint I’ve heard many times is that plant-based eating is expensive.
Many imagine that plant-based diets entail kale shakes for breakfast, avocado toast for lunch, and quinoa bowls for dinner. It seems that the only people who eat that way are white-collar workers who can afford to take yoga classes during lunch breaks.
All those foods listed above are, or were at some point, health food trends. Their high price points do not reflect the cost of raw materials, but rather, of rent, labour and marketing.
We place a higher value on these food items because they’re sold to us as healthy and trendy, not very different from how much more people are willing to shell out for artistic Instagram foodporn or the newfangled fancy their favourite food bloggers gush about.
I readily admit that there can be an offputting aura around vegetarianism and veganism. The perceived exclusivity, coupled with the suggested moral superiority of its proponents, can sometimes add to a cult-like fervour around plant-based diets.
But plant-based eating isn’t some posh membership awarded only to a select few.
Such a diet could be cheaper than a meat-heavy one. Ordering three vegetable dishes at your cai png store sets you back less than ordering three meat dishes. Chickpeas cost less than chicken breast on a per-kg basis in an average supermarket.
Moreover, vegetarianism has long had a presence in Singapore. Many Buddhists and Hindus are vegetarians. Their vegetarian cuisines are a part of Singapore’s culture.
Hawker centres ranging from Chinese vegetarian stalls to social enterprises also provide some affordable, vegetarian fare.
ARE PLANT-BASED DIETS HERE TO STAY? TIME WILL TELL
Perhaps plant-based eating is too new a trend for us to judge whether it’s just a phase, or a first step towards a more sustainable and lifestyle. The sustainability debate hasn’t been around long enough and it admittedly takes time for habits and lifestyles to shift.
Maybe the climate crisis would push us to take real action towards eating more sustainably.
And maybe one day, we will have a greater diversity of vegetarian options in more restaurants, cafes and hawker centres – beyond vegetarian stalls, and beyond having just one vegetarian option on menus around Singapore.
For now, I’ll continue eating my plant-based “meat” – and hope with all my heart that these products are here to stay. And that meatless chicken wings would one day be made reality.