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.