A couple of nights ago during the throws of dinner preparation, my husband mentioned that he had read in London’s Guardian newspaper that the United Nations had just officially recommended to the world that we move away from an animal based diet in order to combat climate change. So this morning I looked the article up, and then the original report itself (it is linked from the Guardian article).
Here’s a quote from the report:
Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth, increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.
Fifteen years ago, I took a very cool trip to the four corners region of the United States with a college anthropology class. Though the trip itself was a fantastic experience, it was actually just one conversation with a fellow student that was the most meaningful part of the week, and still has daily impact on my life.
The anthropology group, back in 1994. Jonas is in the middle of the back row with the groovy hat.
There we were, me and my friend Jonas, sitting on the curb of a Taco Bell. Each of us munched on our respective paper-wrapped delicacies; mine was meat-laden, his was not. “So why are you a vegetarian, anyway, Jonas?” I asked, making conversation. And he answered. He gave thoughtful responses about how being vegetarian was good for your health, the environment, economic justice, and of course animal well-being. He talked at length about all of these philosophies, and had the statistics to back them up. It was a solid argument. And then he smiled and asked “so why do you eat meat?” Of course this was the most brilliant bit, because the only response I had was “because it tastes good.”
That was the beginning of my life as a vegetarian. Over the next year, I began cutting out different types of meat, letting myself move into this new dietary world in stages. First I let pork go, then beef. Poultry was last, a whole year after I had started. (I still eat seafood on rare occasion.) That first year, I ate my weight in grilled cheese sandwiches, because I didn’t know what it meant to eat a vegetarian diet. But the longer I stuck with it, the more I learned about the incredible variety of healthy and delicious foods available to us non-meat-eaters.
It’s been 15 years now, and I am now raising my children as vegetarians too. They are 7 and 10, and healthy as horses.
There are still many improvements I can make in regards to my diet: eat more locally grown foods, cut out seafood altogether, leave off dairy (or at least cut back). But I think where I score the worst is my persistent unwillingness to provide the life-changing service that Jonas did: talk to others about the whys behind my choice.
I’m a Good Southern Girl, born and bred. We are Super Polite down there, and we don’t like to discuss politics or religion, or anything that might cause conflict in general. So when people ask me why I’m a vegetarian, I give some vague answer about it being good for the world, and then talk extensively about how I don’t judge others for eating meat, and how my own husband eats meat sometimes, and how I’m OK You’re OK and all that. But it’s not OK. It’s not OK to keep that precious experience of epiphany to myself. And so in honor of Jonas, and in solidarity with the United Nations, I give you my reasons for leaving meat out of my diet, complete with statistics and their sources:
1. It helps combat climate change. According to the UN report I referred to above (entitled “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production”),
…agricultural production accounts for a staggering 70% of the global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use, and 14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
2. It promotes economic justice. From the online Gaiam journal:
Food First’s Frances Moore Lappé says to imagine sitting down to an eight-ounce steak. “Then imagine the room filled with 45 to 50 people with empty bowls… For the feed cost of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full cup of cooked cereal grains.” Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer says that reducing U.S. meat production 10 percent would free grain to feed 60 million people.
3. It’s good for my health. From The Journal of The American Dietetic Association:
The results of an evidence based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates.
4. It is compassionate towards animals. From the Humane Society (click on HSUS Guide to Vegetarian Eating):
Ninety-eight percent of hens in U.S. factory farms are intensively confined in small wire “battery cages,” stacked several tiers high and extending down long warehouses. Hens are given less space than the area of a letter-size sheet of paper in which to eat, sleep, and lay eggs.
The Humane Society goes on to document similar conditions for pigs and calves, and mutually troubling conditions for adult cows. Also from the report:
There are no federal animal welfare laws regulating the treatment of the billions of animals raised for food. And while all 50 states have cruelty statutes, most explicitly exempt common farming practices, no matter how abusive.
All of these arguments can be applied to eating dairy products as well, and I recognize that I still have a long way to go to reduce the negative impacts of my diet. But giving up meat for me was a significant start. What I have found through my life as a vegetarian is that you don’t have to go “cold turkey” to make a difference. Here are some ideas:
- You can commit to eating a vegetarian diet one or two days per week. Or try one full week.
- You can visit the farms where you buy your meat and/or dairy.
- The next time you go out to eat, you can try one of the restaurant’s vegetarian choices, which are yummy and filling.
- You can ask your vegetarian friends why they choose that diet.
- You can read one of the plethora of good books on vegetarianism (just visit your local library) or do some google searches. There is an overwhelming amount of information about the benefits of giving up meat.
- And of course you can ask yourself the question Jonas asked me: “why do you eat meat?”