At climate talks in Poland last week, delegates considered the issue of farm emissions. Globally farm animals generate 18 percent of greenhouse gasses—that’s more than cars, planes, and buses. According to The New York Times (“As more eat meat, a bid to cut emissions”), delegates considered some technological solutions, such as converting waste methane gas into an energy source. This elegant approach has already shown great promise. San Francisco Bay-area consumers know the Straus Creamery has a methane digester that creates more than enough energy to power its organic milk, butter, and yogurt processing operations.
The possibility of capturing energy from methane offers a tremendous opportunity for reducing greenhouse emissions and water pollution from farm animal industries and should be vigorously pursued in the policy realm.
Yet just as important, especially in the near term, may be the simple personal approach of eating less meat.
According to Dr. Pachauri, head of the IPCC, if everyone ate less meat, it would be more effective at reducing green house gasses than switching to hybrid cars. (shifting to a non-meat diet would reduce 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year, while trading a sedan for a hybrid would reduce emissions by roughly 1 ton per year). This revelation prompted one Huffington Post blogger earlier this year to pronounce: “Vegetarian is the new Prius.”
While eating less meat would seem to be a relatively easy solution, whereby each individual could take some personal responsibility to address today’s most pressing global problem, the idea of eating less meat has long been a difficult and charged topic in America.
Thirty-seven years ago, Frances Moore Lappé made brillliant arguments in Diet for a Small Planet about eating less meat as a way to reduce world hunger. The book sold over 3 million copies and inspired a small set of readers to experiment with lentil loaf and consider other ways to take personal responsibility for global-scale issues.
Yet Lappe’s ideas were controversial. Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s response was unyielding. “Americans are not going to eat one less hamburger a week. They are going to eat one more hamburger a week. Furthermore, they need have no sense of guilt as they do so.” His solution for world hunger was to make it an opportunity for American business. He pressed farmers to tear up windbreaks, and produce more grains for still more meat production and exports.
And indeed, as he predicated, our nation’s appetite for meat continued to grow. According to the USDA, in 2000, American’s annual meat consumption reached a record 195 pounds per person—57 pounds more than the average consumption in the 1950s.
The tone of Butz’ response captured the fact that meat-especially beef—was not just another food item on our dinner plates. Eating meat has long symbolized prestige and even national pride. Since European immigrants began flocking to the U.S. in great numbers in the late 19th century, the availability of cheap meat has been considered one of the key advantages of being American-one that the developing world now wants to get in on.
Moreover, meat has long been a powerful business in America. As Michael Pollan recently chronicled in An Eater’s Manifesto, it is politically almost impossible to say anything about reducing meat consumption in America—let alone to develop policies along those lines, health and environment issues notwithstanding. Oprah would surely agree.
As a result, our nation’s all-or-nothing discourse about eating meat—that one should eat it or not, should feel guilt or not, should be a red-blooded American or a quirky vegetarian—has generally prevailed.
However, given the urgent press of climate change, the idea of eating less meat is gaining new attention, especially among consumers.
As more people consider ways to take personal actions to conserve energy and reduce carbon, food choices have already come under greater scrutiny, with more people talking about eating local and food miles. Cutting back on meat consumption, and choosing meats that generate less carbon, such as chicken, will likely become more common, too.
The idea that one need not go “cold turkey” and avoid all meat also makes the prospect of changing diet more palatable. New York Times food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman has recently adopted an eat-less-meat habit, sharing low meat recipes as part of an easy, delicious modern approach to cuisine. As Bittman has pointed out, it’s much easier to go low on meat than to say no to meat. Indeed, with greater availability and variety of high-quality vegetables, beans, and grains-plus more appealing and varied recipes, inspired by a more cosmopolitan cuisine, the possibility of eating very well with a low meat diet is now greater than ever before.
As health problems associated with overeating have become more widely known, it is becoming clear, too, that eating less in general will be important for reducing obesity and improving public health. How this awareness will translate to shifting Americans’ diet remains to be seen, but already we’ve seen the American Medical Association lobby for farm policies that favor production of more fresh vegetables.
Finally, Francis Moore Lappé’s arguments for eating less meat remain crucially important especially as global hunger issues resurge with grains diverted for ethanol production.
Despite long-standing cultural, political and economic barriers to the idea of Americans eating less meat, now is the time to break them. With concerns for health, the environment and social justice lining up, American consumers’ decisions about what to eat could play an important role.
While nation’s duke it out—and delay and punt—over who’s going to pay to cope with greenhouse gases, consider pasta primavera.
What do you think? Leave us a comment.
Ann Vileisis is the author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back, which was recently recognized as a Finalist for the Connecticut Book Award. Visit her website.