As we saw in our first feature about the water footprint of food, meat products are some of the most water intensive aspects of our diets. With Australians eating as much as 90 kilograms of meat per person per year, one of the highest averages of all countries, the subsequent impact of that consumption on the national water footprint is clear. Making a switch to a plant-based diet, either vegetarian or vegan, or taking steps to limit your personal meat consumption is an easy way to substantially decrease your own water footprint.

What is a vegetarian diet? Are there multiple types of vegetarian diets?

A vegetarian diet can most broadly be defined as a diet based primarily on foods of plan origin. In Australia and around the world, there are a number of different types of vegetarian diets that are defined by the amount of food derived from animals.

  • ‘Semi-vegetarians’ eat poultry and/or fish as well as dairy products and eggs, but not red meat.
  • ‘Lacto vegetarians’ skip meat, poultry, fish, and eggs but eat dairy products.
  • ‘Lacto-ovo vegetarians’ avoid meat, poultry, and fish but eat eggs and dairy.
  • ‘Pescetarian’ diets typically include fish and other seafood while skipping meat or poultry, and sometimes eggs and/or dairy products.
  • ‘Vegan’ diets are comprised only of foods of plant origin.

Beyond decreasing individual water consumption, adopting a version of a vegetarian diet can also have a range of other environmental and health benefits. As long as you plan your balanced diet in accordance with typically healthy eating guidelines, decreasing or eliminating meat products can be a particularly tasty way to make a positive environmental impact.

So how much of a difference does it really make?

According to the Water Footprint Network, the yearly water footprint for the average Australian decreases from 957 cubic metres for average meat consumers to 868 cubic metres. (high meat consumers have a water footprint that is approximately 100 cubic meters greater than average meat consumers).

And what does that mean?

One cubic metre is the equivalent of 1,000 litres of water. Just one cubic metre is enough water for 13 baths or 28 showers or 111 toilet flushes. Multiply that times 100 and you can see how eliminating or minimizing meat in your diet can be as effective a tool for decreasing your personal water footprint as many of the products that Smart WaterMark approves. Because Australia’s national water footprint is nearly 45,000 million m3, a statistic that puts Australia on the high side of industrialised nations, a concentrated effort by Australian citizens to decrease their meat intake, and by extension their personal water footprints, could have a significant impact on the country’s total environmental impact.

What if I’m not sure I can make the commitment?

Cutting out meat, a big staple in the typical Australian diet, can be a big adjustment personally or for your family. There’s nothing wrong with not being able to or not wanting to eliminate meat entirely but we do have some suggestions to help you decrease your meat consumption, and in turn your personal water footprint.

A great way to start is incorporating Meatless Mondays into your weekly routine. The Meatless Monday campaign, challenges individuals and families to eliminate meat from their diets every Monday. Taking this step one day a week is a great way to transition into meatless diet. Mondays work great because many of us associate them with a fresh start and focusing on positive behaviour change on Mondays can help us to continue that effort throughout the week. Start by committing yourself or your family to Meatless Monday and if it fits your tastes and your lifestyle, continue to extend your efforts for as many days a week as you’d like while you reap the benefits of an eating lifestyle with a reduced water footprint.

The Meatless Monday campaign was started in 2003 in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Centre for a Liveable Future. The movement, dedicated to increasing environmental stewardship and healthy, aware eating has now spread to 38 countries and is an accessible way for individuals to explore plant-based eating and incorporate it into their lifestyles.

Stumped about what to cook for a tasty and healthy vegetarian meal?

Despite stereotypes of the past, a meatless meal can be so much more than under-seasoned tofu or a boring salad. With more and more people choosing to embrace lifestyles with less or with no meat, a variety of blogs and websites filled with vegetarian recipes for all tastes have emerged. Additionally, an increasing number of restaurants have started including at least one vegetarian option on their menus in the past decade, making it even easier to stick to your meat-free commitment than ever, no matter your plans!

The Meatless Monday campaign website has an expansive archive of meatless recipes to get you started.

Written by Grace Foster, Research Manager


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