Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Is Eating Personal?

I want to contrast these words from Al Gore who spoke to Jeremy Paxman last week on BBC's Newsnight program ...

Paxman: "Have you become a vegetarian?"
Gore: "No, I have not. ... I don't plan to. I respect those who do. But it's a personal choice and will remain so."

... with these words from James McWilliams, author of the recent "Just Food," writing in The Washington Post yesterday:1

First he set the scene:
"I gave a talk in South Texas recently on the environmental virtues of a vegetarian diet. As you might imagine, the reception was chilly. In fact, the only applause came during the Q&A period when a member of the audience said that my lecture made him want to go out and eat even more meat. "Plus," he added, "what I eat is my business -- it's personal."
Then argues the opposite of Gore:
"It's hard to avoid concluding that eating cannot be personal. What I eat influences you. What you eat influences me."
And gives these statistics to argue his claim:
  • The livestock industry -- as a result of its reliance on corn and soy-based feed -- accounts for over half the synthetic fertilizer used in the US, contributing more than any other sector to marine dead zones.
  • Livestock consume 70% of the water in the American West -- water so heavily subsidized that if irrigation supports were removed, ground beef would cost $35 a pound.
  • Livestock accounts for at least 21% of greenhouse-gas emissions globally -- more than all forms of transportation combined.
  • Domestic animals -- most of them healthy -- consume about 70% of all the antibiotics produced. Undigested antibiotics leach from manure into freshwater systems and impair the sex organs of fish.
  • If all the grain fed to animals went to people, you could feed China and India.
He also addressed animal welfare, including the ludicrousness of the term "free-range," the crass disposal of "economically worthless" male chicks, the cutting-off of body parts from live animals without anesthesia, and others.

He wraps it up:
"Now, if someone told you that a particular corporation was trashing the air, water and soil; causing more global warming than the transportation industry; consuming massive amounts of fossil fuel; unleashing the cruelest sort of suffering on innocent and sentient beings; failing to recycle its waste; and clogging our arteries in the process, how would you react? Would you say, "Hey, that's personal?" Probably not. It's more likely that you'd frame the matter as a dire political issue in need of a dire political response.

Vegetarianism is not only the most powerful political response we can make to industrialized food. It's a necessary prerequisite to reforming it."
Lots to chew on.

One last point. He said this about some popular alternatives:
"We've been inundated with ideas: eat local, vote with your fork, buy organic, support fair trade, etc. But these proposals all lack something that every successful environmental movement has always placed at its core: genuine sacrifice."
It's true.

See my follow-up post for more opinions and a poll.
1 Bellying Up To Environmentalism, Washington Post, Nov 16, 2009
The livestock picture links to the Food and Agriculture Organization's summary of their landmark 400-page report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," published in 2006.


Jim Purdy said...

Good information, but how can low-carb eaters apply this information?

HootMon said...

"Lots to chew on." Was that a pun?

Steve Parker, M.D. said...

It's hard to believe Al Gore's statistics when he's so wrong on the biggest issue: global warming.


Anonymous said...

In-vitro meat may be the key. The masses will give up meat about as readily as their cars, but as the shift toward plant based diets slowly progresses, the meat industry will seek to reclaim lost marketshare by investing in cultured meat; the farm once more transformed. I predict in 20 years americans will once again eat meat in large numbers.

caulfieldkid said...

The only problem with his analogy of a corporation committing the travesties: for the analogy to work properly, we are all employed by that corporation (with few exceptions). There is no immediate incentive to push for change. I'm not saying that's the way it should be; I just think that is where we are at.

The collective evidence certainly points towards a less meat centric diet on all fronts. It's better for us, the animals, and the environment.

I don't have any answers though. My best guess would be to start slowly pulling back the subsidization of meat production. Increasing the price, over time, will create less demand. That would at least be a start.

What are your thoughts Bix? You've been thinking about this for a little while now. Any conclusions?

Bix said...

About meat-eating being a personal decision? I see both sides of the argument. There's always personal choice, free-will, etc. (Except for those who don't have a choice, say, the institutionalized.) We must protect that. But our choices, taken together, have a big impact- on the environment, on everyone. Gore is unique in that he is a public figure; he has a podium. He has an opportunity to use his personal choices to make this point.

About meat eating in general ... I think it's fine. I still believe what I wrote here:


I don't see that Foer (in his book "Eating Animals") condemned eating meat. I see that he condemned the processes surrounding meat production. And while you might choose to eat meat that has not undergone these processes, he (along with McWilliams) argues that since only about 1% of meat falls into this category, it's impossible for the majority of people to make this choice. For the majority of people, you either eat the factory-farmed meat (supporting its further production) or you don't eat meat.

I agree with you, it makes sense to reduce meat consumption, "it's better for us, the animals, the planet."

No matter what we do voluntarily, I believe the price of meat will start to reflect its external costs. Things like the cost to clean up ground and surface water, aquatic dead zones, soil quality, and as you said, the cost for feed, which is now subsidized. As the price of meat inceases, demand may go down.

Ragamuffin said...

i think the personal component of eating needs a little defense. certainly, the choices we make to buy local/grass-fed/less/no meat affect the meat industry and our communities. however, that choice may not be so strongly dictated by preference as by physiology and/or personal income. for instance, i don't like that i eat chicken/fish five meals a week, but because my body has such a hard time with grains/vegetables/fruits/nuts i have to get my protein and calories somewhere else. similarly, my salary dictates that those meaty meals are only from trusted farms about a third of the time.

i would definitely prefer there to be a more mutual relationship between food industry and the communities they serve -- such as is mentioned above -- i'm just suggesting that eating choices are dictated by many other personal things than free-will.

Bix said...

Steve, were you saying that the planet isn't experiencing global warming? Or that some other claim Gore is making is false?

Bix said...

Cultured meat - I know PETA endorses it. I have to admit, I'm a little revolted by it.

Anonymous said...

I was pleasantly surprised to see Peta supporting cultured meat. Smart way to fast track their goal. I suspect most people will find it revolting at first, conjuring up images of frankenfood. Could be the crutch people need to get off CAFO.

Steve, I'm also curious to hear your clarification on global warming.

Anrosh said...

i don't remember which bigwig said on tv " my carbon foot print is not going to be small " so what are the little things that i can do around the house.

that pretty much sums up the attitude of the 1 percentages who will make policies to show favour to their industrial friends who generously fund their election campaigns.
And the plaza that will bring in the freshest meat from argentina because the man is celebrating his 50th birthday --- it is such acts of some people , industries and corporations eyeing to increase the ticker value that has landed the mess.

Attitude and ticker value are bottom lines..period ..