In my eating habits I tend to be omnivorous, equally happy with squid, fufu and Five Guys. But a recent health issue had me on a vegan-plus-fish diet for three months, and this dietary change coincided with teaching a class at GW called People, Land & Food.

With a subtext of exploring the geographies of what we eat, the 50 undergrads and I kept track of everything we ate and drank, and everything we did to burn calories. In this and other activities we stared into the eyes of an inescapable truth: nothing we do has as much of an impact on the environment, climate and our energy use, as what we eat. Considering that our environmental impacts are embodied in us, and therefore driven by a powerful homeostasis, it’s easier to talk about change than to actually live it.

Meat is a $140 billion-a-year industry, and as such it takes pains to hide the fact that the “billions and billions served” can actual mean something besides the wide bodies filling the booths at Mickey-Ds. Smithfield Foods’ stealth acquisition of Animex in Poland could symbolize a victory of industrial food over small-scale competitors. The long march of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) into every corner of the world won’t be stopped as long as people remain blind to the devastating climate and environmental consequences – not to mention the basic inhumanity – of factory-produced meat.

It’s hard in a country where 1 in 5 children is obese not to blame our ingenious corporate delivery systems for our woes, but it’s actually worse than that.

The role of food – and particularly meat – in the climate crisis is like carbon monoxide: you can’t see or smell it, but it might kill us all. Anna Lappe’s Diet for a Hot Planet attributes our blindness about food’s climate impacts partially to a disconnect between environmentalists and farmers. It’s also due to our carbon-centrism, in that we think about climate change in terms of carbon dioxide, while methane is far worse an energy-trapper in the atmosphere.

The statistics are stark, especially for the carnivores among us. Animal agriculture in all makes a 40 percent greater contribution to global warming than all forms of transportation (and that includes Hummers and 747s) combined.

I digested Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and Anna Lappe’s Diet for a Hot Planet thinking these would help me with get a handle on my own habits, as well as help me teach my class. Much better actually was Michael Pollan’s essay An Animal’s Place, a passionate defense of meat-eating, though not CAFO-produced meat. I found myself mentally paralyzed by the fact that the act of producing and consuming cheeseburgers could produce as many greenhouse gas emissions as our national fleet of SUVs (The Cheeseburger Footprint). Ecological HOOFprint, anyone?

It’s the rhetorical equivalent of empty calories to say we need to be more mindful of what we eat. But ridding ourselves of our flesh-eating, climate-warming habits (even if only temporarily and incrementally) should open our eyes to the climate-meat connection. Whether we do anything about it is immediate as what’s for dinner.

Comments

  1. Matthew
    May 2, 2011, 4:58 pm

    Consumer awareness and education is important as you say to help drive human consumption and behaviour to more sustainable alternatives. Public policy needs to support this – frankly it’s shocking coming from Europe to the USA and finding the loudly promoted concept of free and fair trade is anything but practiced here. But the real power is in shareholder action – these companies that operate greedy and exploitative farming practices, get publicly subsidized for it, and then to sell to ignorant and under-educated consumers are doing so in our name. What’s in your 401k or Retirement Plan? – are you SURE it’s not invested in Monsanto or Cargill or ?

  2. Joseph Furtenbacher
    Ottawa, Canada
    April 28, 2011, 6:34 am

    An excellent article; I only wish you could’ve squeezed the concept of a meat tax in – personally, I’m lovin’ it…

    p.s. Any chance I could throw my two lentils’ worth in when I advertise, er, recommend, a piece on Facebook?

    • David Rain
      April 28, 2011, 12:45 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Joseph. You know us Amurricans don’t like to talk about taxes.. but it’s insane and immoral how much we prop up industries that don’t really need our help, in order to grow food that makes us stupid and sick before it kills us.

  3. Joanna
    Philadelphia
    April 27, 2011, 10:50 am

    To provide a brief explanation before people go read the whole Pollan essay… Non-factory-farmed meat means meat from animals that’ve been raised on pasture, using rotational grazing practices that improve the health of the land and infuse the meat with nutrients from healthy grass. Pasture-raised animals can be part of a biodiverse system, place-aware and environmentally-efficient.

    • David Rain
      April 28, 2011, 12:43 pm

      Joanna- Consumers interested in eating animals that were raised outside and given a good life should walk past the meat display at the supermarket and instead go online to find local ethically-produced meat. One resource to check out for this is Eatwild.com Another resource to find a local farm/farmers’ market in your area is localharvest.org