A Growing Chorus Asking Us to Live and Let Live—Each Time We Sit Down to Eat

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:

22 thoughts on “A Growing Chorus Asking Us to Live and Let Live—Each Time We Sit Down to Eat

  1. But it also, means that dual use, more eco-friendly, heritage breeds will die out. That seems like an equally bad consequence to me. Not that we should not adjust our attitudes about meat consumption, but that the opposite extreme is devastating to domesticated species everywhere. Would we really be better if the only chickens left were either the white eggers, like the Leghorns (which have had their mothering bred out of them) or the cornish x chickens that are bred to grow fast and have such large breasts that they can’t breed naturally.

    There has to be room in the conversation for sustainable meat consumption that benefits everyone. Also, if we remove meat from our diet, we aren’t being more environmentally conscientious … we need natural fertilizers that cannot be completely supplied by cover crops and green manures. Not to mention if we are going to be left to looking to commercial animal producers for our manure based fertilizers then we have to consider that all those hormones and antibiotics are being excreted along with their mostly corn/soy diet. None of this is good for anyone.

    We need to support our local, meat producers, that use natural, time tested techniques (read: sustainable) that don’t endanger the population or expose us needlessly to more chemicals and hormones. Go grass fed! Just say no to more corn and soy!

  2. I have to disagree in part with this article. While most American should cut back on meat products for health and environmental reasons, we need to specify the difference between humanely raised pastured animals and CAFO meats that are processed in plants.

    I’m sure the beef and eggs and raw milk from my local farm have much less environmetaly impact than the broccoli that I would buy at the local grocery store. Eating local pastured meats and local produce will greatly reduce the environmental impact of the foods we eat, whether of animal or vegetable origin.

    We should focus not on reducing the amount of specific foods, but reduce the environmetal impact of all of the food we eat. Anything that is highly processed and had traveled a great distance is not a good choice (even if it is organic or humanely raised). We should choose things that were raised locally (humanely), have minimal processing and packaging and have not traveled is a great distance. This is by far the best way to reduce the environmental impact of our food choices, and it’s much better for the local economy as well.

  3. I only eat meat a couple of times per week.

    However, eating less meat to reduce the environmental impact of the meat we eat, doesn’t address the problem.

    We should reduce and remove the environmental impact of most meat by working to change the laws. Laws on pesticide and antiboitic usage, for the amount of space required to raise an animal, and for the amount of allowable methane gas emissions and groundwater contamination caused by factory farms. If we don’t feel as individuals we can change the laws, we should demand and only buy meat that is raised and slaughtered humanely.

    Skip the McBurger and buy a pound of grass feed beef from your local farmer.

  4. Considering the wide-ranging availability of locally grown, organic produce thanks to the ever-rising popularity of CSAs, farmers’ markets, and community gardens, eliminating meat from our diets is easier, and greener, today than ever before. When we think of the environmental impact of our diets, we should not only consider the greenhouse gas emissions, but also the inherent violence and cruelty that goes into producing meat. Whether locally grown or “humanely” raised, an animal always has to die for someone to eat meat, and in today’s society there is simply no reason to continue this outdated practice. Shapiro rightly points out that each time we dine we have the ability to make a choice that betters the environment, public health, and reduces the suffering of animals.

  5. I assume the author would agree that when someone is going to eat meat, they should eat grass-fed and local; know your farmer!

    But it’s a simple fact that meat is inefficient and polluting–even local, even grass fed. Clearly local and grass fed are better, but better still for the environment are beans, whole grains, and nuts (that’s the comparison, not broccoli—no one substitutes broccoli for beef).

    Of course, it’s a simple fact that other animals are made of flesh, blood, and bone—just like we are. And they have the same five physiological senses—just like we do. For me, it really does come down to “live and let live.” I don’t want to kill animals, and I don’t want to pay people to kill animals.

    And my health and the environment are both better off as a result—nice fringe benefit!

  6. This is a fantastic article, and I’m in complete agreement- we need to be focusing on reducing our meat consumption and adopting a vegetarian diet.

    Whether the meat you eat is factory farmed or organic free-range, it still contributes to global warming. Livestock in the US, regardless of how it was raised, generates over a billion tons of manure a year, which produces massive amounts of nitrous oxide- a major cause of global warming.

    There really is no way around it- if we want to combat global warming and protect the environment, we need to significantly reduce our meat consumption.

  7. The author is right: reducing consumption of animal products -preferably to none- is definitely the way to go.

    Regarding comments that have been posted, there is no such thing as “humane meat,” and to imply such a thing is misleading. See: http://www.humanemyth.org

    Meat production is inherently inefficient. With the growing global demand for meat, there is no way it can be produced in any sustainable manner without it becoming a very elitist pursuit. Given our privileged position, we should be setting a good example for developing countries and the rest of the world by practicing and promoting veganism.

    So-called heritage breeds would not die out. There will always be people who keep them as companion flocks and herds. There are also feral herds and flocks of such animals, who make such a successful transition they are quickly deemed “nuisance” animals.

    If we want to get serious about sustainability, folks, we are going to need to start large-scale composting of the immense of amount of human manure that is produced for use as fertilizer.

    There is no valid reason for societies such as ours to continue exploiting animals for food. It is, in fact, quite possibly the most irresponsible thing we can do.

  8. Crying for everyone to go meat free will not win “normal” people over to the environmental eating cause. It’s far better to get the majority of the population eating local organic vegetables and meat, this alone would make a huge environmental impact. If we keep telling people that it’s meat free or the highway people will throw up their hands and keep eating the way they are and never make any kind of change. Perhaps local organic vegetairianism is the best option, but the reality is that the majority of Americans will never make that choice.

    I think many miss the fact too that many animals still die while producing beans and other vegetables (and the animals killed definitely don’t die humanely, I have seen bunnies and other anmials that have been run over by combines, not pretty). No food is death-free, even vegan items. Unless you grow it in your own yard with seeds you saved yourself you cannot guarantee a humane food product.

  9. It is such a simple way to help with global warming, just to make the choice at every meal to choose to eat healthy and humanely.
    Why not ask people to be Vegan? It’s truly the way we are going to save ourselves, the animals and the planet. There’s no need to eat meat. It’s commonsense to adopt a vegan diet. It’s really our only choice if we want to see things get better.

  10. Pingback: Taste T.O. - Food & Drink In Toronto » Food For Thought - Wednesday, February 26th

  11. Thank you for this article and for trying to persuade people to consider a veg diet. I am a vegetarian and I am very proud of my choice. By becoming a vegetarian one sets a good example for others to follow (hopefully) and it also shows that person’s concern and respect for other things than just themselves. Being a vegetarian is good for your health, the animals and the environment! http://www.KindnessNotCruelty.org

  12. “Very few issues have such clear connections among public health, animal welfare, environmental concern, and food sustainability.”

    And indeed very few issues have such clear connections. Even this “sustainable” meat that some have commented about take an exorbitant amount of energy to produce compared to producing grains and vegetables. Land use issues and heart disease are also problems that are clearly associated with eating meat. And maybe the most telling is the fact that these “humanely raised” animals still go to the same slaughterhouses as the broiler hens, dairy cows, and other animals grown in industrial farms.

    It is for these reasons that I choose a vegetarian lifestyle; because there is no getting around the connection between the pollution, disease, and cruelty that all meat production creates. For the health of our planet, future generations, and animals, I hope that many others choose this lifestyle as well.

  13. To me, my food choices are about living my values. I want a world of fairness, justice, and peace, and I don’t think we can reap these things when we sow misery, pain, and suffering on our fellow animals.

    Vegetarianism shows my commitment to peace and freedom for everybody.

  14. Excellent article! I’ve been vegan for 5 years and am excited to see more attention paid to this issue. As Paul points out, there are many reasons why we should all be eating plant-based diets. Thankfully, there are many great options to choose from. I’m a distance-runner and triathlete and have more energy today than I ever did on a meat-based diet. If you don’t make the change for yourself, then do it for the animals, or for our environment. Whatever your reason, both your body and your conscience will benefit from your decision to choose a plant based diet.

  15. I couldn’t agree more that we should at least eat fewer animals, and preferably no animals. No one diet is totally “cruelty-free,” but the fewer animals we raise and slaughter, the better off we’ll all be.

  16. Thank you for this well-reasoned piece encouraging a reduction in meat-eating. As our national obsession with dieting grows in pace with our expanding waistlines, the value of a vegetarian diet becomes more obvious. According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians and vegans enjoy lower body mass indices, which means those who choose plant-based foods over animal products are slimmer.

    As the author points out, diets that reject meat are also good for the planet and they help reduce the suffering of billions of animals. By eating vegetarian foods, we deny support to an industry that forces factory farmed animals to exist in horribly overcrowded conditions and that continues to engage in such cruel practices as tail-docking, castration, toe removal, and branding — all performed without painkiller.

    Whether one is looking to avoid the many negative health issues associated with eating meat, eggs and dairy foods; to reduce harm being done to our environment; or to help the billions of farmed animals needlessly slaughtered each year in the United States, becoming vegetarian has never been easier or more mainstream. Each of us has the power to improve the world every time we take a bite.

  17. Thank you for this piece. It’s not talked about nearly enough. We can all make a choice to help fight global warming and cultivate peace every time we sit down to eat. Factory farming is indefensible on every level.

  18. Mr. Shapiro – the piece is great.

    A shame that many of those who posted comments know nothing of the horror that chickens and fowl are subjected to during slaughter. Search for the video of Sarah Palin talking while a turkey is bled to death behind her (from late last year). This is a best case. More likely is the PETA video of live turkeys thrown against the wall in the slaughterhouse.

  19. by Chiot’s Run: we can’t guarantee totally “cruelty free” vegetables either – I agree – However, there’s a world of difference betweeen the accidental harm done to animal during grain/plant harvesting than what is done *deliberately* to billions of beings grown for flesh… Who by the way, also must be fed plants in order to be “fattened”. Either way, a vegan diet limits suffering to animals.

    And of course it’s better for health and the environmnet. Global warming, deforestation, land use, and contaminated ground water are but a few of the issues with animal agriculture. It’s high time that we evolved above this primative and unnecessary use of animals for “food” by adopting a vegan diet.

  20. As a retired science teacher, an environmentalist, and a humane advocate, I believe in and support Mr. Shapiro’s views. As soon as I learned about the horrors and cruelty of factory farms, their contribution to land, water, and air pollution, I stopped eating meat. I feel so much better for doing it. Thank you for writing this article. I once read a saying that I really like, “Peace begins on our plates.”

  21. Paul, great article. I would like to respond to the “Go Grass Fed Beef” commenters at the beginning of this discussion:

    This issue is very simple:

    Killing ANY living being is wrong.
    Killing is NOT a personal choice.
    Murder means that a life has been taken.

    A person cannot get out of this crime by paying money to someone for murdered, chopped up pieces of a once living animal. Murder is a serious crime and treating this crime as though there are options, further delays spiritual peace for the entire world.

  22. EC Garrison: AMEN to everything you just said.

    I love that “Killing is NOT a personal choice.”

    I like to say that veganism is MORE THAN a personal choice because otherwise the meat-eaters are probably going to get antsy! But when you change it from veganism to “killin,” it sounds right on!!

    The comments on the article are grave evidence to me of the inefficacy of asking people to “eat less meat.” That’s something virtually NO ONE will argue against, and so it’s not a challenge of the status quo. It’s pinning most of the blame on the producer. History tells us that this is a useless endeavor with regard to animal rights and eating animals at all contributes to increased animal suffering, animal oppression, and animal slavery.