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Clearing the Dinner Plate

A few weeks ago, another one of PETA’s perenially nearly-nude protesters headed for downtown Albany painted with various cuts of meat to encourage people to go vegetarian. In a far less posturing but no less serious (probably more, in fact) turn, Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op is about to send a referendum to its members about its new purchasing guidelines that will include a question about whether the co-op should shift from its current (unofficial) policy of selling meat only on a special-order basis.

For certain a segment of the world—where health food and activism overlap—meat is tricky business.

It’s also one where some of the arguments are getting a little muddied, especially because there’s so much overlap between animal-rights folks and environmentalists. It’s a natural inclination of all big-picture thinkers to assume that all of our causes neatly dovetail and back each other up. But sometimes those assumptions obscure their slightly more complicated interactions.

As far as I can tell, there are four major reasons for vegetarianism/veganism: health, avoiding animal cruelty, supporting animal rights, and reducing environmental impact. The first one I won’t really touch—what constitutes a healthy diet is so variable, based on context and person.

Animal cruelty is rife in the meat industry. There’s abundant evidence that most factory farms (and some small farms, to be fair) perpetrate on their livestock conditions that are inhumane for any sentient creature, from small cages that don’t allow a calf to stand, to force feeding of ducks, to burning off chicken’s beaks. There seem to be two possible ways to avoid ever supporting these conditions: veganism (eating no animal products at all, including dairy or eggs). Or, as is my own partially realized goal, limiting oneself to animal products from animals that were raised and killed humanely: usually some combination of organic, free-range, grass-fed and locally produced.

Now, if you are a supporter of animal rights, taking the position that animals should enjoy the same right to life as humans, you might make a distinction between meat and other animal products, even if they are all cruelty-free. This is a view that I respect, though I don’t hold it, and it’s as hard to argue about as any other core value.

All this said, what really gets tricky is the environmental arguments. I know them well, because they are what I based my own stint of vegetarianism on. The basic point is that meat is a resource-intensive way to raise food, and more people could be fed on less land with less pollution on a vegetarian diet., for example, notes that the fossil-fuel input required to produce a “meat-centered” diet is three times that of a “meat-free” diet, that 85 percent of topsoil loss is caused by livestock grazing, and that raising beef requires approximately 12,000 gallons (this is hotly contested; others estimate it’s more like 2,400) of fresh water (a resource getting ever more precious) per pound of meat, compared to 240 gallons for a pound of soybeans. Others have noted the environmental havoc created by the huge manure lagoons of commercial hog farms.

These are very serious concerns, and they clearly point to a need for the industrialized world to both drastically reduce its meat intake and drastically reenvision the way we raise our livestock. Cutting down rainforest for beef cattle, or overgrazing delicate deserts to feed a three-meat-courses-a-day society is a travesty. But swinging all the way to a meat-free diet isn’t necessarily the best response.

If the goal is, which at least it is for me, to end up with a sustainable food system that protects ecosystems, there will have to be a lot more drastic changes than lowering our consumption of meat products—shifting to local, seasonal food, moving away from dangerous pesticides, eating a wider variety of foods. There will be hard questions about how many people various ecosystems can actually support. In the context of this kind of system (which places like HWFC and our local farmers markets and community supported agriculture are doing much to support) raising animals as a small part of our diet makes a lot of sense, for several reasons:

First, farming is incredibly disruptive to ecosystems. There is quite a bit of land out there that is too hilly, too prone to flooding, too arid, or otherwise too marginal to plow and plant vegetables on, but can sustain a moderate amount of grazing, especially by animals that are native to the area (goats or sheep or bison, for example, depending on the locale).

Second, one of the major lessons that ecologists have been trying to bang into our thick skulls for decades is that monocultures are bad for the environment, are unstable habitats, and are susceptible to disease. Today’s vegetarian diet relies very heavily on one of the most genetically modified, pesticide dependent vegetable products out there: soy, in the form of whole beans, soy milk, tofu, tempeh, soy “cheese,” soy “burgers,” textured vegetable protein, edamame, miso, etc. Obviously one can and should have a vegetarian diet that has more varied protein sources than that, but livestock can eat things that humans can’t, adding further variety—and stability—to our food system. (Of course the meat industry still feeds its beef several times more soy than humans eat—another argument for “grass-fed” meat.)

Finally, a revamped and sustainable food system is going to rely heavily on small organic farms, which are, at least at the moment, a very tenuous economic proposition. Often keeping a coop of chickens or a few pigs to eat scraps provides a farmer with both valuable fertilizer (hog manure is only toxic in the quantities that come out of a commercial factor farm set up) and additional income that can help them stay afloat.

There are probably other arguments out there, but the point is that opposition to the meat industry is different from opposition to the eating of animals, just like opposition to agribusiness is different from opposition to the eating of the products they grow. Those who are interested in vegetarianism out of concern for the environment—and those who have other reasons for it and try to draw others in with environmental arguments—need to be careful to make that distinction. It would be a shame to let too much focus on a contextless argument about meat or no meat distract from the goal of building a truly sustainable food system.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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