07/03/2014 08:20 EDT | Updated 09/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Cutting Back on Meat Doesn't Have to Mean Fewer BBQs

Some in the media would have us believe that the rising cost of meat is a summer-time tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Yet the fact is, we Canadians could stand to cut back a little on our meat intake -- eating too much of it harms our health, the environment, pushes family farmers out of business, and causes suffering to animals on factory farms.

"Will you BBQ less given the rising costs of ribs?" several newspaper polls have asked, forgetting that we can fire up our BBQs every day this summer without running our grocery bill over budget, and without creating the problems associated with meat overconsumption.

Charred to perfection on a sizzling summer grill, sweet potato, eggplant and corn all make for mouth-watering mains. Personally, I go crazy for Portobello mushrooms drizzled with olive oil and minced garlic. Kebabs of cherry tomatoes, marinated tofu, button mushrooms, slivers of red onion and cubed zucchini are guaranteed crowd-pleasers. And for even heartier meals, I go with protein-packed veggie burgers, veggie dogs, and chick'n patties.

Meat-free grilling is a simple solution to a complex problem. Supply and demand issues and the outbreak of a deadly diarrheal virus on North American pig farms have sent meat prices through the roof in the last year. Yet the truth is, the meat on our supermarket shelves has been unrealistically cheap for a long time. Which isn't to say that we haven't been paying the price -- raising hundreds of millions animals to slaughter disproportionately taxes our health, the environment and family farmers.

Heart disease, diabetes and obesity -- all conditions linked to higher meat consumption -- kill tens of thousands of Canadians every year. Meat-free fare isn't just less expensive in the short-term, the long-term savings could be the difference between seeing your grandchildren take their first steps or not.

It's not just our internal health that's being adversely affected by too much meat consumption. The externalised costs of cheap meat are staggering -- the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributing sectors to human-induced climate change. The David Suzuki Foundation recommends eating low on the food chain -- aka, meat-free -- to help cut our individual carbon footprints. Anyone who makes an effort to recycle, ride public transport, use green cleaning products or cut down on their electricity and water use could take a big bite out of their environmental impact simply by sinking their teeth into a succulent black bean burger every other BBQ.

Choosing fewer meat options also means the ones we do reach for can be higher quality products, meaning better returns for family farmers. Over the last few decades, Canadian farms have been disappearing at an alarming rate -- in 2011 there were 74,000 fewer farms than in 1991. While farm numbers have dropped, however, production has increased. Individual farms are bigger than ever, and this is bad news for animals and family farmers. Putting cheap animal products from industrial farm factories on grocery store shelves means fewer workers to care for more animals, lower returns and huge debts for producers.

Huge industrial farms are referred to as "factory farms" because it is simply impossible to call them anything else. Animals raised by the thousand in windowless barns have become nothing more than units on a production line. These animals virtually never receive any individual attention or veterinary care, and are rarely granted the opportunity to express natural behaviours like foraging, playing, or even stretching their limbs. For the majority of animals on Canadian farms, their first -- and last -- breath of fresh air will come on the day they are sent to slaughter.

As consumers, we have been making a difference with our purchasing power for years by prioritising products that match our values, like fair trade coffee and local produce. By choosing more meat-free meals this summer, we'll be cutting back on our environmental impact, reducing our risk of life-threatening disease, helping minimize animal cruelty and placing more value on humane and sustainable agriculture that benefits family farmers and rural communities. But there's no reason to cut back on barbequing.


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