we are what we eat: thoughts on eating and believing

The face of malnutrition is becoming what I see more and more when I have a bite of meat.  Photo by John Stanmeyer via National Geographic.

The face of malnutrition is becoming what I see more and more when I have a bite of meat. Photo by John Stanmeyer via National Geographic.

I have a feeling I’m on a slow slide to vegetarianism.  It almost feels inevitable to me as a bleeding-heart liberal who weeps for global poverty and worries about the environment. The more I read, the more I feel that maybe, though I love it, meat is incompatible with many of my most deeply held beliefs.

Now, before anyone flips out, I’m not a PETA obsessive.  I do care about the cruelty involved in meat production, and would prefer that all meat come from animals who are raised without cruelty, with basic dignity, who are fed the kinds of things they were born to eat, and who are killed in as respectful a manner as possible.  I’m not morally opposed to eating meat based on ideas of animal rights.  Though I love animals, I do believe that we’re omnivores, that some animals are made for eating, though I support anyone’s choices and reasons for becoming a vegetarian.  I buy organic, free-range, cage-free, local eggs at $5 a carton, and as much as possible I try to do the same with the meat I eat, though I can’t always afford free-range chicken and grass-fed beef.  I’m just beginning to feel that I’m still not doing enough.

Today’s musings are fueled by a piece I read in my latest issue of National Geographic Magazine, to which my parents give me a subscription each year for Christmas, as I’ve loved flipping through it for as long as I can remember.  The piece, called “The End of Plenty” by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., is about the global food crisis.  Basically, even before the current economic crisis, we (the world) were consuming more food than farmers had been producing, and we’ve been doing that for over a decade.  This has caused massive increases in global food prices, the price of rice doubling in the past two years, for example.  This spike in prices hits the world’s poorest of the poor hardest, as they typically spend 50-70% of their incomes just on food alone.

What is contributing to this shortage and spike in prices?  For one thing, environmentalism can sometimes be at odds with feeding the hungry of the world.  Biofuels, for example, consumed 30% of the US corn crop in 2008, according to the article.  Bourne writes, “The corn used to make a 25-gallon tank of ethanol would feed one person for a year.”  Now, this is something that advocates for the poor have been warning about at least since I started reading about biofuels while taking a Green Political Theory class in college.  We have got to get off fossil fuels, no doubt, but food based ethanols are not the way to go.  I’m much more in favor of using non-food plants like switchgrass to make biofuels, which is actually much more efficient anyway.

Another cause of the grain shortage? MEAT PRODUCTION. (Here’s where we get into my increasing conviction about meat consumption.)  Meat demand is actually rising world wide.  Though no other nation eats as much meat per capita as the US, rapidly industrializing China, for example, seems to have an insatiable demand for pork.  According to Bourne, 35% of the world’s grain is used to feed livestock instead of people.  Think about that.  I’ve read that it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, and more and more, that bothers me.  It gets to me to see photographs of starving babies and know that the tasty meat I eat is contributing to the food scarcity that is killing children all over the world.

We have to increase the global food supply, but we have to be careful about the way we go about it.  Demand for farmland is already causing deforestation in some of the world’s most important rainforests.  Bourne writes, ” Increased demand for food, feed, and biofuels have been a major driver of deforestation in the tropics.   Between 1980 and 2000 more than half of new cropland acreage was carved out of intact rainforests.”  Later he notes that more than 9 million acres of rainforest were damaged or destroyed in the last year.

In addition to being careful about increasing farmland to the detriment of ecosystems like rainforests, we must also be wary of using the same methods that helped cause the most recent boom in yields: fertilizers, which for one are made from fossil fuels, but which also contaminate water supplies and cause cancer and other illnesses, and which are often too expensive to be a solution over the long haul for most of the world’s farmers.  This is important to note, because one of the world’s most high-profile anti-poverty efforts, the Millennium Villages Project (you’ve probably seen celebrities talking about it) relies heavily on subsidized fertilizers.  This project has been very successful where it’s been implemented, but when it relies on dependence on expensive inputs from elsewhere, you have to wonder how sustainable it is for the locals to keep up when, inevitably, the fertilizer stops flowing so freely.

That’s why it’s heartening that more environmentally friendly practices are also providing great results in villages similar to the MVPs.  According to Bourne, “Sustainable farming methods such as composting, agroforestry, and interplanting with legumes have been shown to improve degraded soils, increase yields, and reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.”  This bears out in a Northern Malawian village where these methods have been implemented.  One farmer’s story was quite typical: “By incorporating legumes into his rotation, [Ackim Mhone] has doubled his corn yield on his small plot of land while cutting his fertilizer use in half…[this enabled] him to improve his house and buy livestock.”  And not only are the legumes good at enriching the soil and helping with weed and pest control, they also provide an important source of protein to the farmers and their villages.  This has helped to combat malnutrition in a documented way–local children are actually gaining weight.  This is key, as the problem of malnutrition is not just a problem of not enough food, but not enough variety of nutrients.  Who knew beans could do as much as fancy foreign fertilizer?  And unlike the Millennium Villages “green revolution” it relies on local resources and skills, rather than creating just another kind of dependence.

The time to take action on this front is now, as climate change is only exacerbating the problem.  2 billion people live in the driest parts of the world, and those places are only getting drier.  Bourne notes that Glaciers in the Himalayas that provide water for people, livestock, and farms in China and India could be completely melted by 2035, reducing yields in that region by 10-15% just as we need to be increasing them.  We have to solve the food shortage in ways that won’t exacerbate the climate crisis and cancel out any gains.

So.  Now you see why, though I love the taste of meat, I’m thinking of giving it up.  As is, I’m pretty much only eating chicken and fish at home, and trying to have at least one meat-free meal per week.   And that does make a difference! According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “If every American had on meat-free meal per week, it would be the same as taking more than 5 million cars off our roads. Having one meat-free day per week would be the same as taking 8 million cars off American roads.”  So I’m down to one meat free meal per week.  Maybe soon I’ll cut down to an entire meat free day.  Then maybe 2.  I don’t know if I’ll ever give up meat entirely, as I said, I like it.  But more and more I question my own motives and my own choices, and how I can continue to justify those choices in the face of what I believe and what I know.  It’s all part of an ongoing process– trying to buy local to support local economies, trying to buy fair trade to support fair wages worldwide, trying to buy organic to have less of an impact on the environment, trying to grow more of our own food to be more connected to what we eat and to take less out of the system.  I will say this– ate our first tomato last night and it was the best I’ve ever had.