For several years now I’ve been eating less and less meat. As with many other positive developments, this began as a result of feminine influence, namely that of my daughter, Jenny, and my wife, Nancy.
Jenny has been a great animal lover for as long as I can remember and became a vegetarian many years ago. Sometime, early in this present century, she took Nancy to see a film about how animals are treated in the meat-producing industry. After that we began eating much less red meat and more free-roaming poultry. Eventually, Nancy stopped buying any kind of meat to bring home at all.
Although I’m also an animal lover, what really convinced me to cut back on eating red meat was when I realized the environmental consequences of consuming it. In the course of research on environmental developments in the twentieth century for my book An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008), I came across information that I summarized in Chapter 6 of the book. Here is an abridged version (minus endnotes) of my relevant text.
A surprisingly significant contributor to diminished resources . . . was the sharp increase in global meat production. . . . A 1998 report noted that “if the 670 million tons of the world’s grain used for feed were reduced by just 10 percent, this would free up 67 million tons of grain, enough to sustain 225 million people. . . . If each American reduced his or her meat consumption by only 5 percent, roughly equivalent to eating one less dish of meat each week, 7.5 million tons of grain would be saved, enough to feed 25 million people.” A later UN publication summarized the environmental impact as follows: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.” Specifically, the report stated that if the land needed for the direct care and grazing of animals was added to that required to produce food for them it would account for 70 percent of all farm land. It added that “the livestock sector is a key player in increasing water use, accounting for over 8 percent of global human water use, mostly for the irrigation of feedcrops,” and that the “expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America where the greatest amount of deforestation is occurring” . . . .
Another major cause of increased global warming was the increase in meat production. . . . An article posted on a UN site in 2006 proclaimed “Rearing Cattle Produces More Greenhouse Gases than Driving Cars, UN Report Warns.” The report itself stated that “the livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport.” These increased emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, like methane and nitrous oxide, came from such sources as deforestation (in order to create more land for pastures and feedcrops) and manure.
The present shortage of water in California, despite the recent heavy rain, has led to an article in The New York Times entitled “Meat Makes the Planet Thirsty.” It begins “California is experiencing one of its worst droughts on record.” The author goes on to present much important information about how much water it takes to produce various crops as opposed to meat and concludes:
Changing one’s diet to replace 50 percent of animal products with edible plants like legumes, nuts and tubers results in a 30 percent reduction in an individual’s food-related water footprint. Going vegetarian, a better option in many respects, reduces that water footprint by almost 60 percent.
It’s seductive to think that we can continue along our carnivorous route, even in this era of climate instability. The environmental impact of cattle in California, however, reminds us how mistaken this idea is coming to seem.
In addition to the negative environmental consequences of eating meat, there are numerous other reasons why one might choose to be a vegetarian. Two of the most significant are animal rights and one’s own health. In Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (2004), editors Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum present various views on the ethics of meat eating. In their introduction they state: “Some people would agree that meat eating is acceptable if decent treatment is given to the animals used for food. Such people do not object to killing animals; what troubles them is suffering. But if, as a practical matter, animals used for food are almost inevitably going to endure terrible suffering, then perhaps people should not eat meat.”
Many of us know friends who have cut out eating meat for health reasons. As the web site WEBMD reports: “Vegetarians usually weigh less than non-vegetarians. In one study, researchers found that while obesity is growing in the United States, it only affects 0% to 6% of vegetarians. Other studies show that vegetarian children tend to be leaner than children who eat animal foods. The vegetarian’s lower average body weight may be linked to the high fiber content of plant foods. Plant fiber fills you up quickly, and can result in less snacking and binging later in the day.”
The title of my essay indicates that I can’t really call myself a “vegetarian,” only an “almost vegetarian.” Sometimes when we eat out, I’ll have a bowl of chili with meat in it, and less often I’ve even eaten a hamburger, though more often now I’ll eat a black bean burger. If we go to someone else’s house for dinner, Nancy and I will eat whatever is served.
I’m not defending my almost-vegetarianism from any dogmatic ethical position—and perhaps my occasional meat eating would make it difficult to do so. I’m not convinced it is any more “sinful” to eat meat from animals that are treated humanely up until death than it is to eat fish, many of whom are not treated humanely on fish farms. In addition, I know (and know of) many ethical people, some good environmentalists, who eat more meat than I do.
In LA Progressive I have often written of my admiration for Wendell Berry. Here is what he has to say in a Forward to another author’s book, The Meat You Eat: How Corporate Farming Has Endangered America’s Food Supply (2005): “When I must eat away from home, I try to find a restaurant that buys its meat from local farmers. Failing that, I eat fish and shellfish from the ocean, if available. Failing that, and for the purpose of survival only, I may resort to a vegetarian diet, though that is not my favorite way to survive. I am a livestock man and a meat eater, by liking and by conviction, but I dislike the products of the corporate meat industry and I avoid them whenever I can.”
Nevertheless, I continue to think there are at least three good reasons for cutting back on meat eating: one’s own health, minimizing the suffering of animals, and, most importantly to me, sustaining our planet for future generations.