On returning from camp last summer, my daughter, Sophie, announced she wanted to become a vegetarian. Given all that's wrong with conventional meat production, I couldn't help but approve of her decision -- nor see that it provided a great excuse for the whole family to eat less meat. The question was whether I could manage the change.
Though I was already accustomed to cooking meatless (and fishless) meals two or three nights a week, I tended to rely on pasta. Meeting a vegetarian's nutritional needs would require that I expand my range. And taste would be an issue. For I knew that when Sophie called out "what's for dinner?" she'd expect as happy an answer as before -- as would my son, who didn't look kindly on tofu or beans. All of which meant that saying yes to Sophie would mean extra work for me.
I decided it was worth it.
The problems with today's meat industry go well beyond animal welfare, though that is Sophie's chief concern and important to me as well. Take pollution. On today's factory farms, where thousands -- or hundreds of thousands -- of animals are raised, the vast amount of waste produced is channeled into open air pits, euphemistically called "lagoons." Not only do they smell disgusting, they emit noxious gases that cause respiratory and other health problems for farm workers and neighbors alike.
Periodically, farmers spray the contents of the lagoons on surrounding crop land as fertilizer. When more waste is applied than crops can absorb, which is often the case, the excess runs off into nearby waterways and seeps into groundwater, contaminating drinking water supplies with E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens. Contamination also occurs when lagoons leak, overflow or rupture.
The danger isn't just to humans. High levels of nutrients from animal waste can kill fish and cause algae blooms that deplete the water of oxygen, producing dead zones where little else can live. Witness the giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by excess nutrients in the Mississippi.
Factory farms don't just pollute water, they consume large quantities, too. Both waterwise and landwise, it is far more economical to produce a pound of grain than meat. This wouldn't matter if it weren't that fresh water and arable land were becoming scarce, leading to groundwater depletion and rainforest destruction as we press the limits of what the earth can support.
Meanwhile, consumption of meat is on the rise worldwide, not just because the population is growing, but because the proportion of meat in the human diet is increasing, especially in developing countries. In the poorest places, this will likely improve nutrition and well-being. In the United States, the reverse is probably true: we'd do our hearts a great favor if we cut back significantly on meat.
So, is the only smart choice, or right choice, to become a vegetarian? Well, yes, if you feel, as Sophie does, that killing animals for meat is wrong on the face of it. But if your goal is simply sustainability and health, it's enough to do the following two things:
1) Eat less meat. Either reduce the quantity in your meals and/or eat it less often. Be sure to replace it primarily with plant-based foods, not eggs and dairy, as producing these animal products causes many of the same environmental problems as meat.
2) Buy organic meat from free-range animals. Look for the word "organic" on the label, as well as either the "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" or "Free Farmed" logo. "Organic" is a government-regulated designation, indicating the animals were raised without chemicals or antibiotics. The other two are certifications by independent organizations that the animals were not raised in overcrowded, factory-farm conditions.
Because cutting back on meat is something you can do by degrees, it is not particularly difficult. The key is finding some favorites among plant-based dishes. If traditional American vegetarian fare doesn't move you, look farther afield -- to Italy for pizzas, pastas and risottos; France for quiches and gratins; the Middle East for falafel, hummus and tabbouleh; China for stir-fries; Southeast Asia for curries; and India, above all, for an entire vegetarian cuisine. Give in to your fun-loving side. There's a wonderful world of meatless foods out there, and this is your chance to explore.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
FOOD EFFICIENCY (left). Using water and land to grow feed for livestock, rather than food for people, is inherently inefficient. That's because much of the protein in the grain is "wasted" on keeping the animals alive. For instance, it takes 100,000 liters of water to produce one kilo of beef, compared to 900 for a kilo of wheat and 500 for potatoes, according to calculations by Cornell professor David Pimentel.
FLAVOR COMPLEX. To enrich the taste of plant-based dishes, try these techniques:
1) Use homemade vegetable stock to give depth to soups and sauces. You can make a batch with whatever vegetables you have on hand. Potatoes, carrots, celery, squash, leeks and mushrooms are all good choices, while onions and garlic are musts. (Do not include strong-tasting items like cabbage.) Cut the vegetables in chunks and put in salted water to cover with a bay leaf, parsley and thyme. Simmer for 30 minutes, then strain. For a more concentrated flavor, boil the liquid down. Store what you don't use in ice cube trays in the freezer.
2) Flavor your dishes with citrus and herbs for a bright, tangy taste. Cilantro, mint, basil and Italian parsley all work well. Chop a large quantity and add at the end of cooking with a squeeze or more of lemon or lime juice. For more punch, add some sugar, additional salt, sliced scallions and hot pepper.
3) Cook with whole roasted spices, which add complex undertones to the flavor of foods. My favorites are cumin, mustard and fennel seeds. To roast, cook them in a dry pan over medium heat for a minute or two, just until they begin to give off their aromatic smell. After roasting, you can grind them to a powder or use whole. For ideas on cooking with spices, consult an Indian cookbook.
--------------------------------- Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.