Emma at the age of 30
with her mum Ann Elms
Goal 13: Climate Action
What only a fourth generation vegetarian knows about a meat-free life
From being veggie in the 80s to getting your kids into butternut squash, a lifelong vegetarian on food and the climate crisis
By Emma elms
7 SEPtember 2020
Here’s the truth: I’m 45, have been vegetarian my whole life* but being kind to the planet has nothing to do with it. Instead, it’s a happy coincidence. A kind of buy-one-get-one-free. I promise this story isn’t going to be a guilt-trip. I just wanted to share this family quirk before we get to the important stuff, like how what you eat CAN help to beat climate change.
(*FYI The only meat I’ve ever eaten was a few cocktail sausages at kids’ parties until the age of four when I realised what they were. Oh, and a massive bite of a chicken sandwich from Pret that I thought was mozzarella before spitting it out.)
My great-grandfather was a conscientious objector during WW2 and his pacifist beliefs meant he was against the killing of animals. A powerful character, he convinced his eight adult children to turn vegetarian, who then continued the tradition with their own families. My grandmother was vegetarian from the age of 35 and my mother has been her whole life. At 76, she looks at least a decade younger so is a great advert for the health benefits of a veggie diet.
Growing up with a vegetarian mum (and 90% vegetarian stepdad) meant meat and fish never came into my category of ‘things to eat’. The look, smell and thought of them were repulsive to me (the foods, I mean, not my lovely parents obvs). People often say, ‘Don’t you miss bacon sandwiches?’ but you don’t miss what you’ve never had.
Emma's great-grandfather Stanley Dungey and his wife Lilian
Vegetarianism was such a deep-rooted family value, I never dreamt of the alternative and thankfully I wasn’t raised to be preachy or to lecture others about its benefits. Would I have been vegetarian, if my family wasn’t? Probably not until my teens once I’d developed the confidence to decide for myself. My main reason now is that I’ve ‘grown up that way’ - it’s part of my ideological make-up to only like veggie food, plus I love animals. Even as a teenager, that was more of a driver than the eco credentials of my veggie diet. Back then, no one really mentioned that it was better for the planet – though of course we all know that now.
Emma, back in her 20s, with 'Grandma Tomalin' who was vegetarian from the age of 35
Unfortunately growing up in the 80s, being vegetarian was seen as very odd. I was one of only two vegetarians at my school in Surrey. In fact, I was such a novelty that at a sleepover party in my teens a group of boys entertained themselves by throwing a sausage at my face while I innocently slept.
Another time, while strutting around town with my friends on a Saturday I was suddenly hit on the back of my head by another flying sausage hurled by another boy from school.
At a 40th birthday party five years ago, an old classmate (who I’d slightly fancied at school) told me that he and his friends used to secretly rummage through my bag in class then slip tiny pieces of ham into my sandwiches as a prank.
The older generation were even worse. Back then, being vegetarian meant you were ‘fussy’ or showing early signs of anorexia. On a school holiday to France my baffled teacher snapped, ‘Can’t you just eat meat while we’re here?’ but I wasn’t picky at all. I LOVED my food and ate large quantities of adventurous cuisine from a young age.
My mum is a fantastic cook and despite working long hours, would prepare elaborate, restaurant-quality meals for us every night. My favourites were parmesan souffle tomatoes, cashew nut paella and chilli bean casserole. Our culinary gurus were Sarah Brown and Rose Elliot (Rose later emailed my family, thanking us for a life-long commitment to her recipes). My packed lunches were the talk of the table at school, with my friends gathering round to try Mum’s cheese and mushroom wholemeal tarts and ‘golden slice’ (cheese and carrot savoury flapjack).
Emma trying to woo her daughters with home-made veggie food
Well, confession time - my great-grandfather clearly had more clout than me. My three daughters are so fussy, they won’t go near the delicious vegetarian dishes I make (bread and cheese pudding and butternut squash risotto are rare exceptions). I’m just grateful for anything they’ll eat, so have accepted they won’t have a veggie upbringing like me.
Their dad eats meat so is their primary chef, but he also cooks a delicious array of veggie food for us. Two different meals a night, dammit. Thanks to him, our eldest daughter gnaws into a bloody steak with great delight. We couldn’t be more different. It’s not always easy for me. The other day, I was overheard complaining about my toddler’s ‘dog breath’ after she tucked into a beef stew. I won’t cook meat from scratch for them either as I can’t bear touching it. My limits are fish fingers and chicken nuggets (safely encased in breadcrumbs).
I’m definitely not perfect – as well as serving frozen fast food, I eat cheese and eggs and wear leather (not necessarily all at once) so I’m probably setting myself up for a whole load of criticism here. (Please be kind.) I know some vegans may feel me being veggie simply isn’t enough. But even a vegan lifestyle can have its eco issues – for instance, is vegan leather worse for the environment than real leather? Some versions are made from plant-based materials, whereas others contain plastic.
My secret hope is that one day my three girls might share my enthusiasm for a steaming Thai veg curry, perhaps switching to a mainly veggie diet in their teens. Luckily, in today’s world where 2-3% of the UK population are vegetarian they won’t need to worry about falling victim to a flying sausage.
Sorry, I digress. Back to the important bit. Here are four vital reasons why, for the sake of the planet, you too might consider making the switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet…
1. To help reduce greenhouse gas emissions
A 2018 study by Oxford University found that a quarter of the planet’s global emissions come from food. More than half of those food-related emissions come from meat and other animal products, even though they typically only make up a fifth of our diet. Of all the farmed products, beef and lamb were found to the worst for the environment, producing half of all farmed animal emissions. Not surprising then that a UK group called #NoBeef is campaigning for caterers to remove beef and lamb from student menus.
According to Oxford University, if everyone adopted a vegetarian diet, by 2050 this would reduce food-related emissions by a staggering 63% and if everyone went vegan, by 70%.
In real terms, by going veggie for a year you could save the same amount of emissions as taking a small family car off the road for six months, says The Vegetarian Society.
2. To make better use of our precious land resources
A UN report published in July estimated that almost 690 million people worldwide (8.9% of the population) went hungry in 2019 – up by 10 million from 2018 and by nearly 60 million in five years. It predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic could tip over 130 million more people worldwide into chronic hunger by the end of 2020, so at the moment the world is off track to achieve UN Goal 2: Zero Hunger by 2030. Instead, if recent trends continue, there could be at least another 83 million people going hungry by 2030, due to the economic recession.
As the earth only has a limited amount of viable agricultural land, how this resource is used is crucial to our ability to feed the world. The Oxford University study reported that if everyone ate a plant-based diet, there would be a 76% reduction in land used for food production. For instance, livestock in the UK eat more than half of the 20 million tons of cereal grown. That’s over 50% of wheat and 60% of barley.
3. To reduce water consumption
Water scarcity affects over 40% of the global population, according to the UN and is projected to rise. It takes far less water to produce plant protein than meat. A 8oz chicken breast takes over 542 litres of water to produce – enough to fill a bathtub over six times, according to The Vegetarian Society.
4. To save our seas
Cutting fish intake could help to reduce sea pollution and restore the world’s oceans to their natural balance. Around 85% of fisheries are fully exploited or over-fished, threatening sea life. Destructive fishing techniques in some parts of the world, such as using poison or dynamite, pollute our seas. Other practices such as bottom-trawling and dredging can destroy our seafloors. Another key issue is ‘by-catch’ - the marine life caught unintentionally while catching other fish. An estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die in fishing nets every year.
Small changes all help
According to Google trends, interest in veganism has increased seven-fold in the five years between 2014-2019, so there’s been a powerful shift. From an environmental point of view, eating a vegan or 100% plant-based diet will have an even greater effect on the planet, instead of being a vegetarian who eats dairy, like me. But even if you simply opt for meat-free Mondays or Veganuary, your small part could help make a difference to our planet.
Check out the UK’s best vegetarian and vegan restaurants here. Join us and pledge your support to UN Goal 13: Climate Action.