It seems you can’t turn around these days without hearing someone reiterate the same basic message about the standard American diet: Simply put, we need to eat fewer animals.
Of course, that’s a primary theme of New York Times columnist Mark Bittman’s new book, Food Matters. He writes convincingly about the benefits of switching to a more plant-based diet, asserting, “By reducing the amount of meat we eat, we can grow and kill fewer animals. That means less environmental damage, including climate change; fewer antibiotics in the water and food supplies; fewer pesticides and herbicides; reduced cruelty; and so on. It also means better health for you.”
Bittman joins Michael Pollan in his crusade to get us to eat lower on the food chain. After all, Pollan’s In Defense of Food last year popularized among sustainable food advocates the slogan, “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
But it’s not just food icons urging that we lay off the animals a bit in favor of a saner, more humane and environmentally friendlier diet. Even local government officials, recognizing the importance of reducing the number of animals in our diets, are joining the chorus. In the land of half-smokes and hot dogs, Chicago’s health commissioner, Dr. Terry Mason, made headlines last month when he asked city residents to go vegetarian during January. Indeed, this is Mason’s fourth year trying to bring Chicago’s waistlines in shape and blood pressure and cholesterol levels down by urging a vegetarian start to the new near.
And in Ohio, the official Green Cincinnati Plan task force is asking that citizens reduce their global warming contribution by choosing to eat more plants and fewer animals. The city is reportedly contemplating making t-shirts to promote the initiative that read “Fight Global Warming, One Bite at a Time” and “Cooling the Earth …With My Fork!”
Of all the changes we generally think about in order to shrink our carbon footprint, cutting back on meat, eggs, and dairy may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But it should be.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization found that the animal agriculture sector actually generates more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector, including cars, trucks, SUVs, airplanes and ships.
That’s to say that, of course, we should be concerned about whether we drive a gas guzzler or a gas sipper (if we drive at all), but at the same time we simply cannot ignore what we put in our mouths three—or more—times a day. Every time we sit down to eat, we can control how much we want to contribute to global warming, and by eating more plants and fewer animals, we can take a positive step in the right direction.
In addition to the clear environmental and public health benefits, choosing more vegetarian options is also helpful in preventing cruelty to animals. More than a million animals (nearly all chickens) are slaughtered for food every single hour in the United States alone. Most of them are raised in conditions so cruel and inhumane that few of us would even want to bear witness to their misery, let alone partake in it. So long as we’re raising animals in such vast numbers, extreme cruelty will continue to be the norm. As Mark Bittman writes, “If you hate factory farming (and you should), your primary concern should be reducing consumption.”
Very few issues have such clear connections among public health, animal welfare, environmental concern, and food sustainability. Whether we support one, some, or all of these movements, the time couldn’t be better to look down at our plates and recognize that we can simply live and let live—in so many ways—just by opting for the veggie burger.
Editor’s note: Listen to Mark Bittman speak about his new book Food Matters on yesterday’s Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio: