Diet and environment are tightly linked. Vegetarian environmentalism had been around for at least 50 years, but takes a while to take root. Cutting down on meat consumption can prevent deforestation and ecological disasters that affect us all, from Ecuador to the British Isles.
So Why are Environmenatlly-Sustainable Diets Not Taking Over Yet?
Recapitulating: Why a plant-based diet?
A predominantly plant-based diet, as they now like to call it, can help save:
- “The Planet”, or more precisely, human life, wild life, forests, marine life
- Our personal health and quality of life
- A lot of suffering animals
- The mushrooming costs of health care and the health care crisis
1. Deliberate Attempts by the Agri-Meat Industries
The Agri-Industrial Lobbies
Oh, a hhhuuuggge topic. I don’t presume to know the depth of the treachery and interests involved, but here are sample links to give an idea what we are up against.
This last article quotes unintuitive research that the food system is responsible for up to 30 per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide! This has to do with packaged and frozen foods, increased distances of food shipping and food waste.
But specifically, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) emphasizes that meat production alone now generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transport combined… And the salient source of these emissions is the rising consumption of meat and dairy associated with the expansion of industrial livestock and chemical-intensive feed crops.
They claim that traditional herding in poor countries and small farmers practising diversified food production are not the problem. Industrial farming—promoted by the meat lobby, corporate subsidies and free trade agreements—is the real climate culprit.
The meat industry is also the biggest land eater. It promotes the destruction of the Planet’s last natural lands (and indirectly, sea life) to raise crops and clear pastures for animals raised mostly for butchering (see “King Corn” below).
The FAO declares – “There is no way the world can continue down this path” …
But it does, and vigorously!!!
So do lemmings running towards the cliff…
The picture above shows a typical American corn field in the quaint state of Vermont. I found the field beautiful, but not everything beautiful is good, and sometimes there is too much of a good thing…. Farmers in North America find it more economical to grow the super fertilized, hybridized, manipulated corn for animal and car feed than vegetables for human consumption.
The vast majority of corn grown in North America is not raised to feed humans. Forty percent of it serves to feed cars (ethanol), 36% to feed cows and other animals. Much is exported. The tiny remainder is used predominantly to make American consumers sick and fat with high-fructose corn syrup, thus securing the ongoing outrageous revenues of the medical and drug complexes… I am not being cynical.
An in-depth Scientific American article makes the distinction between the corn crop and the corn system. Author Jonathan Foley also makes a distinction between farmers – in his words, the “hardest working people in America” – and what he calls “the corn system” – “a behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government“.
Farmers according to him would be crazy not to grow corn. They simply deliver what markets and policies are demanding. The “corn system” could care less for an environmentally sustainable diet.
Foley’s conclusion: what needs to change is the system, not the farmers.
The Maya actually believed humans were created from corn!!!
The Mayan corn god
Source: Wikipedia . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_maize_god
Not enough veggies to go around – America…
Corn, of course, is just one example of the agricultural imbalance, though a scary one. Scarier still is the estimate that were America to switch tomorrow to a healthy plant-based diet there would not be enough vegetables to feed its population. And this is true for a country with presumptions to feed the world.
Wheares the U.S. dietary guidelines recommend 2.5 cups a day of fruit and veggies, there is currently only 1.7 cup available per person.
And there is not enough variety, either. The more variety, the more nutritious is the diet.
Here is the American vegetable availability pie. Three vegetables are dominant: potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce, but fresh potatoes count for only 9% of the total, compared with 45% in frozen and processed. Fresh tomatoes count for 9% compared with 17% processed. Most of the potatoes are used for chips, fries and frozen foods. The tomatoes are mostly used for ketchup, pasta sauce and processed soups.
Not enough veggies globally either…
“We simply can’t all adopt a healthy diet under the current global agriculture system” says Prof. Evan Fraser of Global Food Security. At present, the global system overproduces grains, fats and sugars. Production of fruit and vegetables, on the other hand, is not sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of the population. Worldwide, 12 servings of grains are produced per person instead of the recommended eight; five servings of fruits and vegetables instead of 15; three of oil and fat instead of one; three of protein instead of five; and four servings of sugar instead of none.
The study emphasizes that adopting a more nutritious diet is not only good for us but also good for the planet.
I would state the same thing in reverse: Thank goodness that what is good for “The Planet” is also good for us! (Probably not coincidental…)
Switching to plant-based nutritious diets would bring a drop in the amount of land required to feed our growing population! Shifting production to match nutritional dietary guidelines would require 50 million fewer hectares of arable land, because fruit and vegetables take less land to grow than grain, sugar and fat.
An environmentally sustainable diet would necessitate, therefore, that consumers eat less meat, and that the agri-food sector would produce more fruit and vegetables.
According to Fraser, if we “continue down the same path”, feeding 9.8 billion people will require 12 million more hectares of arable land and at least one billion more hectares of pasture land.
In other words: bye bye planet!!! Was nice to know you…
The One-One Thousandth Against Planet Earth
The bottom line, which is really hard for a normal person with a minimal working conscience to grasp is: some of these billionaires, the one-one thousandth of the money hierarchy, don’t care about anything but their pockets. Not about you or your children, nor about their countries, the poor, other living beings (except perhaps their dogs), the planet at large, or anything else humans naturally cherish.
They find meaning in money per se, money in the abstract, power for self aggrandisement, and their personal luxuries. It is amazing indeed, since we have only one planet, on which they principally move and act like the rest of us, and from which all their wealth and power derive. Even if they succeeded to get scientists to transport them to another planet and leave us all to perish behind, I don’t see how their bank accounts would follow… or their jacuzzis…
The way I see it, then, is that EVIL is not just horrendous. It is basically stupid, ignorant.
But why should we enable them, if the one thing we can all easily do is to quit or at least diminish our meat, soda and garbage food consumption for our own good?
2. It's Manly to Eat Meat
The Male Hunter Genes
Historically, hunting was a male occupation. Meat to this day is not perceived as gender-neutral. By and large in modern societies, men tend to consume more meat than women, and with a preference for red meat. Women tend to go for chicken or fish. Men worldwide are much more likely to engage in preparing meat than other foods. That is true for African tribes and equally true for modern Bar-B-Q-uers.
The idea that virility and meat-eating are connected persists, even if this meat is now slaughtered in slaughterhouses and the animals are raised domestically, often in awful conditions. It is considered virile to eat meat. “Real men” are carnivores. Men are made to be hunters. Meat keeps their muscles strong. Negev petroglyph showing an ibex hunting scene. Har Karkom, Israel. Source: https://www.sipurderech.co.il/ישראל/עריף-כרכום
I am not dismissing this argument offhand. Even in largely vegetarian India, warrior castes used to eat meat, which they saw as necessary for strength.
Prehistory is rich in the glory of hunting, and the glamor surrounding hunting persists to this day. Petroglyphs around the world show this was the most esteemed male activity for millenia. However, that does not necessarily mean that hunting supplied the main on-going basis for the daily diet in most places and at all times. There was also gathering (see below). And then agriculture. And then civilization with various controls on our natural impulses.
A New Look at Gathering
In her article, “Hunter-Gatherer Diets – a Different Perspective”, scientist Katharine Milton relates to the popular “paleo” diets, and debunks common views about the primacy of hunting in the paleolithic diet. Gathering, apparently, had always been the primary way of getting nutrients.
She concludes her discussion with a recommendation: “It seems prudent for modern-day humans to remember their long evolutionary heritage as anthropoid primates… heed current recommendations to increase the number and variety of fresh fruit and vegetables …rather than their intakes of domesticated animal fat and protein.”
Manhood is Not Necessarily Linked to Meat-Eating
For centuries, a large percentage of the Indian population – men as well as women – has refrained from eating meat. Nonetheless, they have created a grand civilization. The legendary Japanese samurai were pescatarians. Not manly?
During the thousands of years of the agricultural pre-industrial period, working people in Europe had much less access to meat than the leisure classes. Peasants in the early modern world commonly ate a diet that consisted of “gruels, pottages, and … grains”. They also ate coarser bread, richer in fiber than the upper classes. “Game” was a sport that most lower classes did not have access to. But nobody would deny that their muscle power sustained society … Not virile?
Which leads to the next point:
3. Class and Culture
Europe and America
Historically in Europe, rich people could allow themselves to eat meat frequently, while the rest of the population was practically vegetarian “by force”. As people rose to middle class status, they wanted to erase any memory of early deprivation. Eating meat is status, and eating more meat is more status, and everything else be damned.
Specifically, “game”- meat acquired by hunting – transferred from the European aristocracy to the common people in the U.S. and Canada. Easily accessible to all in this new wide continent, it became a popular “sport” for the masses. Americans hunt about 200 million animals a year, and carry the carnage outside their own borders to a tally of about 70,000 a year.[Additionally, according to Mark Braunstein’s non profit “Culture Change”, a million animals die on American roads daily. A small percentage of it makes its way to kitchens. I was horrified with the roadkill I witnessed on my North American trip.]
As the settlers reached out West, a new and a very American mythology developed around cattle herding. Following the genocide of the buffalo, the vast spaces of the American West (and also of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay) turned free range for cattle grazing. The enduring culture of the glamorized cowboy or gaucho evolved around that.
Nowadays, the “avergae American” believes meat should be consumed three times a day! Historically, working class people were happy to have meat on their table once a week or on special occasions. Impoverished Jews in Eastern Europe struggled to have a fish for Shabbat eve.
Immigrants to the “developed world” from countries where they were mostly vegetarians “por fuerza” are fascinated by the cheap fast food available. They catch on rapidly to this status symbol, often to their own detriment, as obesity and related diseases come with the package deal. This happens at the same time middle class educated westerners start to finally size down on their own meat consumption…
According to sociologist Ilana Redstone-Akresh quoted in the above article, immigrants may not have the nutritional information necessary to “accurately assess the value of increased meat consumption or they may choose to ignore this information” .
I am unhappy to report that Israel measured fourth in the world in meat consumption and seventh in beef consumption. Many Israelis do not consider a meal (other than breakfast) without a killed animal on the plate to be “real food”. Here, too, many people probably over-compensate for deprivation of the past generations. Once society is more affluent, people overdo the class symbols, or simply enjoy the opportunitiy to eat a lot of something they like. And there is a masculine mystique around meat here as well. The comparison of vegetarian meals to rabbit or bird food is common among certain sectors (see below about the Indian Kayashta).
But simulatneously, Israel also ranks high on the percentage of vegetarians (5-13% according by different estimates), and scores highest on veganism. Tel Aviv out-does Berlin, New York and Chennai as a haven for the vegan traveller.
For these stats to all be true simultaneously, those of us who do eat meat, must therefore eat a lot of it… Perhaps some of these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt (or carrots…).
On another level, as can be seen in my pictures of the Southern Arava, Israel is very advanced in terms of extreme desert crop agriculture. Technological innovations expand cultivation into lands that were previously considered unusable.
To summarize, meat-eating in the West is asssociated with a gain in social status and with affluence.
BUT – This link is not intrinsic.
It ain’t necessarily so!!!
Brahmins and Dalits
Indian culture has a different take on the issue of meat eating. Due to perceptions of purity and hierarchy, only the lowest castes eat meat!!! The higher the social standing, the less chance of seeing meat on the table. This is changing somewhat with westernization, but is still mostly true.
A brahmin will not eat food made by a Dalit (the meat-eating “untouchables”). They will not rent apartments to non-vegetarians, thus excluding lower castes and Muslims.
When in Rajasthan, I was surprised to sometimes see pigs on the streets. I was told they were used by “lower people”.
A complex picture
The picture is not entirely straightforward. The article cited also mentions that the Kayashta, a warrior class, ate meat which they saw as vital in building the physical strength needed for battle. In their view, vegetarianism was for rabbits (see above about the association with manliness).
Interestingly, the article states that the lower castes ate meat because it was cheaper than grains! Pork and beef were a welcome treat from the standard meal of a dry chapati, made of millet, because only the upper castes could afford wheat and rice!
Even with all these exceptions, India is overwhelmingly vegetarian and meat-eating is associated with lower social status, not the other way around.
The picture above shows one of the happiest moments of my trip to India. I will later elaborate more about the wonderful time I spent in the Buddhist village of Likir, Ladakh. The point I’d like to make here is that the entire hosting family, young and old, men and women, joined in the hard physical labor of the wheat harvest executed manually with sickles. The older ladies were singing happily as they worked! When done, a hearty vegetarian meal was served to the workers (and me!) in the field
In Japan, eating meat from four-legged animals was prohibited for more than a thousand years. Buddhist taboos against eating flesh, and Shinto concepts of defilement and impurity brought the government to ban the consumption of animal meat in 675 AD. Certain groups called Eta or Burakumin, who were engaged in animal killing and consumption, were banished from the general society, but still provided leather for samurai armor. Prejudice against these people persists to some extent even today.
Milk from domestic animals was not drunk either. Fish and seafood fulfilled the nutritional requirements in this island nation. Unfortunately, whales were considered fish, and the Japanese government insists on breaking the international ban on whaling as I speak!
Encounters with Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries brought some Japanese to appreciate meat-eating. Although generally the beef-eating habit was perceived as barbarous, the physical strength of Westerners was admired and associated with their diet. The ban was lifted by the emperor himself in 1872.
Still, meat consumption in Japan even today is very low, and longevity and health are some of the highest worldwide..
Yes. After we have all been brain-washed for decades that we will not get enough protein/calcium/ nutrients/etc. from a mostly plant-based diet, how can we change the conditioning fast enough to “save the planet”? Since the debate is raging everywhere, even a well-intentioned person cannot sift through the “alternative-facts”, pseudo-studies, opinionated conflicting “research”, etc. to figure out a sound nutritional approach.
In my opinion, the ecological argument for a predominatly plant-based diet is paramount, even as I believe all arguments are valid and interconnected. The number of rain forest hectares planned to be cleared for cow grazing is what we should be the universal concern. That information and its meaning and ramifications should be common knowledge.
It is very helpful to recognize that plant-based diets, pescatarianism and low meat diets go hand in hand with longevity and health (see my discussion of the Adventists and “The Blue Zones“). Naturally we all care, first of all, for ourselves and our loved ones, but also –
it feels good to know that our individual health and the planetary health go hand in hand.
A spiritual connection, when existing, can contribute a lot, too, both to stop animal suffering and to elevate humans. But being a Brahmin or a vegan does not automatically mean you are a good person, and being a carnivore does not mean the opposite. We are all striving in our own ways and acting according to belief systems that, often, we never questioned.
As we can see from this short discussion, culture and societal values go many different ways!
Let’s make the right choices that will keep this small and beautiful Planet sustainable to all of us for the long haul!
And if not...
You can read about my historical analyses and not too happy future predictions in the upcoming posts:
What’s at Steak? Lessons from Down Under
*A note of caution: A predominantly vegetarian diet has to be more consciously balanced and monitored than a meat diet. Junk vegetarian food can be worse for your health than a traditional meat meal, and not too great for the health of The Earth either. A good rule is to keep away from processed foods as much as possible. Guidelines like Dr. Fuhrman’s books mentioned in my other post are recommended.
**Also in very cold climates a plant-based diet might not be feasible.