A year and a half ago, I caused a minor stir by suggesting in my Down with Meat column that people eat less meat. Some environmentalists fretted that I'd gone too far by getting into people's personal business. I guess they were concerned about alienating the troops. At the same time, I was attacked by some vegetarians for not going far enough. They couldn't see that something was better than nothing -- or, in this case, that less was better than more.
The one thing that critics on both sides seemed to agree on was that the problems associated with livestock farming -- air and water pollution, deforestation and groundwater depletion -- were not serious enough to warrant compromise on what, for them, were more important goals.
My question is: what if we added global warming to the mix? Could everyone get behind the idea of changing our diets -- not completely, but just a little -- if it would help with the biggest, scariest environmental problem of all? Because it could.
As surprising as it may seem, the livestock business is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing even more to global warming than transportation, according to a 2006 United Nations report. One reason is the carbon dioxide released when forests are cleared to create land for grazing or the growing of feed crops. Another is the emission by ruminants, through their digestive processes and manure, of potent greenhouse gases.
The U.N. is pushing a number of steps to bring the rate of emissions down. These include improvements to animals' diets, methane capture systems and restoration of carbon in soil through a variety of esoteric (to me) agronomic measures. Of course, I am all in favor of any technical changes that would help. However, I also believe that some restraint in our personal eating habits is in order.
The Worldwatch Institute reports that in 2005, those of us living in the industrialized world ate 85 kilograms of meat per person -- or approximately half a pound a day each -- which is almost three times as much as the 31 kilograms consumed in the developing world. That is more than our share, more than our climate can afford and more than our hearts can stomach.
Meat isn't the only problem. Whether we over-consume the animals themselves or just their byproducts (dairy and eggs), the impact is similar. The answer isn't milk in place of meat, but a more plant-based diet overall.
I can tell you, from personal experience, it isn't that hard to achieve. Two years ago, my daughter became a vegetarian. I decided at the time to take the opportunity to do my part for the planet as well -- and for the vast population of animals living on factory farms under cruel conditions. (Yes, I do think animal welfare is an issue worth consideration and personal change, too.) While I did not go so far as to become a vegetarian myself, let alone a vegan, I did significantly decrease the amount of animal products my whole family eats.
Prior to that time, I would serve a traditional American dinner -- consisting of a piece of meat, chicken or fish, accompanied by one or two vegetables and a starch -- around four nights a week. Since then, I do it about half as often. The rest of the time, I prepare meals that use meat as a condiment or are completely meat-free.
Here, by way of example, are the last few dinners I cooked:
Pasta with cauliflower, tomatoes and black olives, and a green salad on the side. (Animal products used: 1 1/2 tablespoons of cheese per person.)
Curry coconut noodle soup with vegetables, tofu and hard-boiled eggs. (Animal products used: one egg per person.)
Tacos stuffed with black beans and peppers, with sides of rice, salad and sweet plantain. (Animal products used: 1 tablespoon of cheese per person.)
Mozzarella rice and braised fennel and carrots. (Animal products used: 4 tablespoons of cheese per person.)
Warm potato salad with celery and mustard, a cucumber and chick pea salad and bruschetta. (Animal products used: 3/4 tablespoon of cream per person.)
Braised beef with celery and onions over pasta with glazed, roasted carrots and turnips. (Animal products used: 1/3 pound beef per person.)
All six meals were nutritious, all filling and all flavorful. Though the braised beef was good, it wasn't anyone's favorite. My son liked the tacos best, while my daughter preferred the curry coconut soup, as did my husband and I.
Admittedly, the change to a more plant-based diet was made easier by the fact that my husband and I saw eye to eye on it. My son, who is constitutionally opposed to the idea of plant food (bread, pasta and potatoes excepted), was another story. If I'd ever explained the new diet to him, I'm sure he would have complained. But I never did and he never noticed. Whenever the food gets a little too foreign, I give him cheese to sprinkle on top or a small piece of meat on the side. He does ask longingly for chicken parmesan from time to time -- and from time to time, I make it for him.
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.
Livestock farming on the rise. The U.N. projects that global milk production will almost double by 2050, and meat production will go even higher than that. Should such increases come to pass, the impact on our climate could be disastrous.
Beware of false conclusions. Just because the U.N. study found that livestock farming was responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the transport sector doesn't mean that your personal eating habits have a greater impact than your driving choices. The question of personal impact wasn't studied -- and in some sense doesn't matter. Gas-guzzling and overconsumption of meat both need to be addressed.
--------------------------------- 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.