Reducing meat consumption may just help solve the world’s environmental problems
“Eighty percent of Americans, in polls, say they are environmentalists … And yet, most of us have remained unaware of the one thing that we could be doing on an individual basis that would be most helpful in slowing the deterioration and shifting us toward a more ecologically sustainable way of life.” – Excerpt from “The Food Revolution” by John Robbins
To mark the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, bestselling author John Robbins made his rounds on the talk show circuit, appearing on major shows of the day like Donahue and Geraldo. Robbins made waves by urging Americans to change dietary direction in his 1987 book “Diet For a New America,” which remains a big seller today. He would go on to become one of the world’s leading experts on the relationship between diet and the environment.
“It was especially hard back then for people to recognize the link between what was on their forks and their eating habits and the environment,” says Robbins, a Santa Cruz County resident, adding that he has happily watched that gap be bridged over the years.
But with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day just around the corner on April 22, he says there is one dire environmental problem that remains unaddressed: Eating meat.
“We are going to have a lot of Earth Day celebrations, surely that was the case for the 20th anniversary,” he says. “And at a lot of the celebrations, there will be meat served—and I find that hard to understand.”
Forty years after an estimated 20 million people celebrated the first Earth Day, the budding environmental concern that sprouted the tradition has become full-fledged fervor. Deforestation is rampant, key resources are tapped or limited, and global warming is, it can seem, all we hear about. Also in that time, environmentalism has become synonymous with “being green,” a new millennium whirlwind trend that, we’re told, means changing to energy-saving light bulbs, using reusable grocery bags, and driving hybrid cars. But when it comes to the world’s most pressing ecological problems—climate change, land degradation, air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity—it is now a documented fact that a plant-based diet is the most effective way to help curb all of them.
“It’s phenomenal to me that groups come out with articles and lists like ’20 Things You Can Do To Change the Environment,’ and will list things like drive a fuel-efficient car and change your light bulbs, but they won’t say ‘eat less meat,’” says Robbins. “In not saying ‘eat more plants and fewer animals,’ they are omitting the single most significant, most powerful, most meaningful action you can take.”
A Food Revolution John Robbins has been making a case for a plant-based diet since before “global warming” was a household phrase. He is now a leading world expert on health, food habits and environmental vegetarianism.
Photo: Charles Mixson
In 2006, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization released “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” one of the most thorough and referenced reports on the environmental impact of animal agriculture. The study found that animals raised for food are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Broken down, they say that livestock account for 9 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 37 percent of methane emissions (which is more than 20 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere, making it that much more harmful), and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions (which has 298 times the global warming potential of CO2).
The 18 percent figure was raised to 51 percent in late 2009, when two Worldwatch Institute researchers released “Livestock and Climate Change,” in which they re-examine the figure and consider “uncounted, overlooked, and misallocated livestock-related GHG emissions.” (These included emissions from animal excrement, gas, and breathing—dangerous discrepancies considering livestock in the United States produce more than 130 times the excrement of the human population.) But whether you look to the UN’s more conservative percentage or WWI’s 51 percent, livestock remains the primary contributor of greenhouse gases.
“It’s not just that it’s a contributor, it’s that it’s a huge contributor,” says Robbins, adding that greenhouse gases are just the tip of the environmental iceberg. “Livestock are the most significant contributor to today’s most serious environmental problems.”
The report, and several other studies since, also concluded that animal agriculture contributes more greenhouse gases than the global transportation sector—that’s every single car, bus, plane, train, etc. on this earth. It reads, “[Livestock] currently amounts to 18 percent of the global warming effect—an even larger contribution than the transportation sector worldwide.”
As we aim for a more sustainable future, it’s a no-brainer that we need cleaner fuels, smaller cars, better mass transit, and weaned-reliance on single-occupancy vehicles. But what about this piece of information? A 2006 University of Chicago study found that adopting a vegan diet is more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than driving a hybrid car. In the frenzy to be eco-friendly, can vegetarianism join the ranks of trends like driving a Prius?
Despite the ubiquity of climate change conversation, talk about how to reduce carbon footprints has, until recently, largely left out the fact that reducing or eliminating meat and dairy from your diet will help you achieve the greatest reduction of emissions. Al Gore failed to mention it in An Inconvenient Truth (let us note here that his family has deep ties to the beef industry), and the mainstream media has kept mostly mum. But this Earth Day it is time for all of us who are the slightest bit inclined to be green to ask ourselves: does loving Mother Earth mean eating less meat?
It’s a stormy Santa Cruz day, and six members of Banana Slugs for Animals have braved the slapping wind and broken rain to picket outside of the McDonald’s on Mission Street. Despite a thin showing, the protestors are strong in spirit, wielding signs and passing out literature to passersby and reticent McDonald’s customers.
Eric Deardorff, the group’s founder and a philosophy and ethics major at UC Santa Cruz, waves to passing cars, soliciting honks of support and a few of displeasure. It is his 29th birthday, and, as the event’s planner, he is content to be celebrating by holding a “McCruelty” sign in the wet and cold.
Deardorff’s journey to veganism began at the age of 20 on a family dove-hunting trip (“It was the weirdest experience I’ve ever had,” he says), and culminated with a bad experience with a chicken burrito. “I’d known there was something very wrong in the world for a long time, but I didn’t know what it was,” he says, remembering how the injustices finally became clear. In the nine years that followed, Deardorff spent four working for People’s Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the last two as the leader of UCSC’s only vegetarian organization. “Becoming vegan is the most fundamental change I’ve made in my life, and will probably be the most fundamental change that I will ever make in my life,” he says.
The McDonald’s demonstration is one of several that his group has held to expose the corporation’s cruel treatment of animals. But while today’s message is one mostly of animal welfare, Deardorff is leading a broader vegetarian movement up on campus.
“Students come to UCSC knowing the school is supposed to be a leader in sustainability,” he says. “But if you look at certain things—like serving meat—they aren’t doing a great job of being sustainable.”
Campus Crusader Pictured here with fellow Banana Slugs for Animals members at a February demonstration outside of McDonald’s, UC Santa Cruz student Eric Deardorff (second from left) is leading the movement to reduce meat consumption on campus. Photo: Kelly Vaillancourt
Four other UC schools—Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara and San Diego—have adopted Meatless Monday, a movement sponsored by a non-profit of the same name that advocates for cutting meat out one day a week. Meatless Monday has also caught on at countless universities outside of the UC system (and elsewhere, such as in all 200 schools in the Baltimore, Md., public school system), but has yet to become a fixture at UCSC.
Banana Slugs for Animals recently helped UCSC Dining Services coordinate the first meatless dining hall day—a test run at the Crown/Merrill Dining Hall where students could choose from entirely vegetarian and vegan breakfast, lunch and dinner selections.
Deardorff has spent the months since tirelessly pressuring dining administrators to make meatless dining hall days a regular thing. According to Candy Berlin, program coordinator for UCSC Dining, the school will have its second trial Meatless Day at the College 8/Oakes Dining Hall during the week of Earth Day.
“This is easy to change and it’d be received well,” says Deardorff. The group is also busy with its Cage Free Eggs campaign, for which they’ve gathered over 2,000 signatures asking the school to switch to 100 percent cage-free eggs, and circulating other petitions like PETA’s Meat’s Not Green, which asks industry producers to put warning labels on animal products (think “WARNING: This product is a primary contributor to global warming!”).
While Deardorff mans the movement at our city on a hill, superstar Sir Paul McCartney is campaigning for a meatless day on a much larger scale. McCartney, with a little help from his daughters, runs Meat-Free Monday (supportmfm.com), an organization with the same goals as the similarly monikered Meatless Monday. The well-known vegetarian spoke about the need for Meat-Free Mondays before the European Parliament (EU) in late 2009.
Much like Earth Day founder Senator Gaylord Nelson once asked Americans to set aside one day a year to pay tribute to our planet, the Meatless and Meat-Free Monday campaigns are asking conscious Earthlings to forgo meat one day a week as a favor to our planet.
Back at the McDonald’s, a young woman takes a pamphlet from a BSA member. “You know, I agree with you, but I only have $2 for lunch today, so this is what it’s going to be,” she says.
Jennifer, one of the protestors, frowns as the girl walks away toward the Golden Arches. “It’s cheap, but it’s subsidized in other ways,” she says, raising her voice over the wind.
In fact, while the menu price may be as low as a dollar for a fast-food burger, the actual cost is closer to $200 when hidden costs are taken into account, according to Raj Patel, author of “The Value of Nothing.” The hidden costs are varied and extensive. From large water subsidies for the agriculture industry to the long-term costs these products incur on public health (meat consumption is linked to high rates of heart disease, obesity, certain types of cancer, and more), the true cost is externalized into society.
“When I drive by McDonald’s and see the big banner—1 Billion Sold!—I think, ‘how many heart attacks were produced from those 1 billion burgers?’” says Robbins. “’How many animals were tortured? How much harm has happened to the environment? How many people haven’t been able to eat because the grain that could’ve fed them was fed to the animals whose flesh was put into those burgers?’”
In strictly environmental terms, Robbins refers to the hidden cost of water used in the industry. “We don’t pay for it at the cash register or at the restaurant, but we pay for it in our taxes and the likelihood of a drought,” he says. “Water is Precious” is the sign we see on restaurant tables in Santa Cruz, but most Cruzans would be shocked to learn how much water is required to produce their steak dinner. Robbins points to a study by Soil and Water Specialists at the University of California Extension in 1978 that found that it takes 5,214 gallons of water to produce one pound of California beef.
“I ask people to look at it this way,” says Robbins, plunging into an arithmetical example. Let’s say you shower everyday, he says, and that your showers average seven minutes long, totaling 49 minutes of showering a week. He rounds that up to 50 minutes, and poses that the flow rate in your shower is two gallons per minute (on the higher end for Santa Cruz County).
“At that rate you’d be using 100 gallons a week for showering,” he continues. “That is 5,200 gallons a year to shower—the same amount required to produce one pound of beef. You would save as much water by not eating one pound of beef as you would by not showering for a whole year.” That’s a big steak, or, depending on your tastes, maybe four McDonald’s quarter pounders.
This number is contested, however, and differs depending on which expert or study you refer to. A more common figure than 5,214, which Robbins expounds upon in his book “The Food Revolution,” is about 2,500 gallons of water per pound of beef. This was the amount concluded on by the late Dr. Georg Borgstrom, the former head of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at Michigan State University, and very close to the 2,464 gallons determined by The Water Education Foundation after analyzing data from hundreds of experts in their report “Water Inputs in California Food Production.” In their book “Population, Resources, Environment,” Stanford University professors Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich claim that it takes between 2,500 and 6,000 gallons to produce one pound of beef. On the flip side, cattlemen associations use figures as low as 840 gallons.
Regardless, the amount of water needed to produce a pound of beef is strikingly higher than the amount needed to produce a pound of fruits or vegetables (between 19 and 70 gallons), the 25 to produce a pound of wheat or even the 250 needed for a pound of soy. Meatless Monday, which is an initiative of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, claims that by not eating meat on Mondays, an individual can save enough water to fill his or her bathtub 22 times each week.
“You see people who are environmentalists trying to conserve water washing their cars less often, installing low flow sinks and toilets, drought resistant landscaping, and legislation passing requiring low flow shower heads and so forth,” says Robbins. “These are all prudent and helpful measures, but all combined they don’t even compare to what you save by eating one less hamburger.”
Here, in this comparison, lies the hang-up for environmentalists today: You can abide by as many green tips as you want, but if you are eating meat, you are still participating in the most detrimental practice. “The simple fact is that you can’t be a meat-eating environmentalist,” says Deardorff, matter-of-factly. “It would be going against everything that environmentalism stands for.”
Family Farms and Other Pseudo-Solutions
A main point of concern Deardorff has with dining services at UCSC is the emphasis they put on buying local and organic, while making what he considers to be a minimal effort to do what would be most sustainable.
And he’s right. Buying local foods is a positive trend—especially in Santa Cruz, where we are lucky enough to have a delicious bounty of foods growing—but it’s a meager environmental effort when compared to going veg. A 2008 study at Carnegie Mellon University titled “Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” found that eating no meat one day a week reduces personal greenhouse gas emissions more than eating an entirely local diet all week long.
“Think of the savings if, hypothetically, we made one of the dining halls completely meatless,” says Deardorff. “If you do meatless seven days a week, that’s the environmental equivalent of doing 50 days local.”
Keeping it Local Although Eleanor Taylor and Noah Pinck don’t eat meat themselves, they offer local meat and dairy products through their business SantaCruzLocalFoods.com with the hope that if people must have meat, they will at least buy it locally. Photo: Kathleen Rose
Although less ecologically effective than vegetarianism, eating local is still a sustainable lifestyle choice, and one that many conscious Santa Cruz residents have made. Eleanor Taylor and Noah Pinck estimate that their diets are made up of 85 to 90 percent local foods; but they also ride bikes to get around and stick to mostly plant-based diets. The eco-couple owns SantaCruzLocalFoods.com (SCLF), an online business that aggregates regional food producers into a virtual all-local grocery store. Although they refrain from meat and dairy themselves, they offer eggs, chicken, lamb, beef and pork through their business. “The demand is really high,” says Taylor, adding that their one-year-old company is expanding in all respects.
Customers often ask the pair why they sell animal products if they don’t eat such things themselves. “If people want to eat some meat here and there, they can make that choice—and what we’re offering is a lot less harmful,” says Taylor. “It’s important to offer that option.”
Over the years, Pinck has gone from a self-proclaimed “militant vegan” to testing meat from his clients as a co-owner of SCLF.
“I’ve seen the animals, I know they are roaming on 500 acres, it feels a little bit better,” he says. “I know the producer, and I know it was raised humanely and humanely slaughtered.”
The animals sold through SCLF are from local ranches and family farms, smaller operations that have become increasingly popular among consumers as awareness about the myriad horrors behind factory farm operations grows.
“One of the criticisms of ‘Diet for a New America’ is that I don’t speak in it about free range, grass fed, and other forms of humanely raised livestock,” muses Robbins, whose book written more than 20 years ago becomes more relevant with each passing year. “The reason I didn’t is because they didn’t exist commercially when I wrote it in the late ’80s. They have come to exist since then partially in response to the growing awareness in the public consciousness of how cruel factory farm products are.”
More humane and better for the environment, are family farms the solution for those wishing to continue a mixed diet?
Although these less-harsh products have gained popularity, they still represent less than 1 percent of the meat production in the country. Factory farms currently produce more than 99 percent of meat, dairy and eggs in the United States, and, according to “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” the meat industry plans to double production by 2050.
“It would be a major positive step [if meat-eaters bought locally] but you can’t produce nearly the quantities of animal product that way as you can with factory farms,” explains Robbins.
However, he continues, “I think that’s a good thing because we shouldn’t be eating the quantities that we are. If there was much less of these products available but they were healthier, less cruel to animals and less cruel to the earth, that’d be a great thing.”
Creatures of Habit
The average American eats 45 percent more meat every day than the USDA recommends, totaling an average of 185 pounds of meat per person, per year, according to 2006 USDA findings.
There are a lot of factors in play when it comes to why we eat meat, and so darn much of it at that. There is strong industry pressure on, and involvement in, government regulations, advertising and nutritional education, as well as sentimental attachments, cultural habits, masculinity issues (“Real Men Eat Meat,” right gents?), stigmas against vegetarianism and a downright assumption that it’s not only necessary, but also superior, to eat meat (a point made in Robbins’ forthcoming book, “The New Good Life,” on shelves in May). Just ask Homer Simpson, the cartoon icon who once said to his vegetarian daughter, “If I went to a barbecue and there was no meat, I would say, ‘Yo Goober! Where’s the meat?’ I’m trying to impress people here, Lisa. You don’t win friends with salad.”
When it comes down to it, despite the facts, despite the health risks, despite the environmental implications, it may be as simple as that some people don’t want to be told what to eat.
“I don’t want to be told what to eat either,” says Robbins. “People’s food habits and preferences are very personal. There are a lot of issues involved: emotions surrounding eating and food, pleasure, our right to enjoy, and if you think that giving up meat or eating less of it would make you deprived … well, no one wants deprivation.
“But what we’re talking about here is a higher quality of life,” he continues. “If you’re feeling better, if you’re contributing to a healthier future for yourself and the world community, there is a strength in that that is more pleasurable than any self-indulgent food choice.”
Robbins gave up much more than most people would have to in order to live by vegetarian principles. He grew up in Southern California with a mapped-out future: his father was Irv Robbins of ice cream giant Baskin-Robbins, and was grooming him—his only son—to take over the family business. But before this could happen, Robbins had a change of heart and mind that led him to shun animal products and, eventually, to turn down the Baskin-Robbins fortune.
“I gave up the opportunity to be immensely wealthy in order to live a life that was in alignment with my values and that is congruent with my dreams for a better world,” he says, speaking from his home in Aptos, Calif., where he has made a healthy, happy and successful life of his own. Now primarily vegan for four decades, Robbins often wonders what keeps so many others from making the switch.
“I do honestly find it difficult to understand why someone would hold on to a habit that is harming them and the earth,” he says. “The only explanation is that it’s an addiction.” An addiction fueled by advertising, enabled by government, and encouraged by mainstream ideology—but one that he says green-minded people will find is well worth breaking. “To break through the corporate agenda, the cultural trance, is an act of rebellion and empowerment and a liberation,” says Robbins. “[Eating less meat] is like an acupuncture point: with a minimum amount of pressure you get a maximum amount of results.”
The Meatless and Meat-Free Monday movements are asking people to start small by reducing their meat consumption by 15 percent (one day a week), which, when added up, has anything but a small effect. Individual action like this will lessen the demand on unsustainable meat products—the first step in downsizing the enormous factory farming industry.
“Every time you buy something you are saying to that producer, do it again,” says Robbins. “If you care about the environment, don’t pay people to pollute it. Don’t buy the products, or at least minimize your purchasing from industries that pollute. When we lessen the demand for meat, that will, in time, lessen the supply.”
The 2006 UN report concluded on a similar note, stating, “In the absence of major corrective measures, the environmental impact of livestock production will worsen dramatically … Consumers, because of their strong and growing influence in determining the characteristics of products, will likely be the main source of commercial and political pressure to push the livestock sector into more sustainable forms.”
While he believes differences are made “one heart at a time,” Robbins stresses the importance of thinking big. “If we overemphasize the personal responsibility to the detriment of looking at what we need to do collectively—public policies, regulations on the industries—nothing major will change,” he says.
But until policy properly holds large-scale producers responsible for their ecological footprints, truth bearers from Santa Cruz’s Robbins to UCSC’s Deardorff are sounding the alarm, proclaiming “Veg Is the New Green,” and asking others to examine the facts for themselves.
“A lot of people like to say that people who are vegan or vegetarian are really sentimental because ‘Aww, they care about animals,’” says Deardorff. “But look who is sentimental: who is holding onto the past, who is holding onto something that just doesn’t compute for today. The people who are examining the facts and looking toward the future are choosing a vegetarian diet. They decide it’s the right thing to do based on these reasons.”
In Deardorff’s eyes, UCSC has the potential to be a leader in sustainability if it were to adopt regular meatless days, thereby decreasing its support of factory farming and lowering its own involvement in pollution, global warming, and other crimes against the planet. He spends his spare time between classes gathering student signatures in support of this, hoping that the collective power of many individuals will help make that difference. He presses individuals to go further than a 15 percent reduction: try cutting your meat consumption in half, or, if you’re a vegetarian, try going vegan. Up your ante. Raise the eco bar.
Eliminating or reducing meat intake can be a big sacrifice for some people, the creatures of habit that we are, but a decision that, environmentally speaking, is simple. “If you want to take your commitment to the earth seriously,” says Robbins, “if you want to walk your green walk, if you want your lifestyle to be as non-polluting as possible, the single most powerful thing you can do—by far—is to eat less meat.” What will you be eating this Earth Day?
Meat vs. Veggie – A meat-eating diet uses 4,000 gallons of water per day. A vegetarian diet uses 300 gallons of water per day. Source: “Diet For A New America”
Skippin’ Chicken – If every American skipped one meal of chicken a week and ate a plant-based meal instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be equivalent to taking more than half of a million cars off of U.S. roads. Source: Environmental Defense
Water & Fuel – In addition, 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land, 70 percent of all grains, half of all water resources and one-third of fossil fuels are used to raise animals for food. Source: Environment Defense
– Visit John Robbins’ website at foodrevolution.org to learn more about him and his work, including his upcoming book “The New Good Life,” on shelves in May.
– Consider joining the Meatless Monday movement at meatlessmonday.com or supportmfm.com for more information.
– Befriend Banana Slugs for Animals on Facebook, or e-mail [email protected] for updates on group meetings, events, and more.
Learn ways to celebrate the 40th Earth Day at earthday.net