Friday, June 24, 2011

The Externalities of Eating


People are starving because so many of us eat meat. If meat were to become more expensive, and folks began trending towards plant-based diets, world hunger would be substantially alleviated.
Ezra Klein

So many people tell me, 'I could be a vegan if it weren't for bacon,' and I tell them, 'Be a "vegan" who eats bacon.'
Tal Ronnen, vegan chef

If you can't buy a Prius you can certainly eat like one.
Jonathn Kaplan, the Natural Resources Defense Council

School's out for summer, so let's have some awkward conversations over dark beverages. If I were to rank issues in regards to their sensitivity (the ability to create emotional reactions from "feeling judged"), here are the top 4:

1. Race
2. (Homo)Sexuality
3. Economic Injustice
4. Food

Our goal here is absolutely not to be over-critical or bring judgment or to provoke wealthy white heterosexual meat-eaters. As always, we want to create a more loving, nuanced space to dialogue vital topics that are usually framed in highly dualistic (either/or) and scripted manners. More than anything, we take seriously our role as seed-sowers, locating these issues on our collective radars so that we can intentionally take them a step further into more humble & compassionate lifestyles (the opposite of self-absorption). With that said, let's eat...or at least talk about eating.

The thing that makes food so important is that we do it a lot...and have to in order to survive. And that's the problem. Everyone else does too. And because we live in a globalized world, what I eat in Orange County not only affects what James Adagibe eats in Aba, Nigeria, but it affects the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and the poisonous fertilizer in the soil that runs off into bodies of drinking water (etc, etc, etc). This is what economists call "negative externalities" or "spillover costs."

With that said, if every American ate a plant-based diet, we would greatly reduce world hunger, food-borne illnesses, water scarcity, worker injuries/illnesses, animal cruelty &, of course, our own health. All of this transformation and healing by simply eating differently. But that's the catch. We are tremendously patterned to eat meat and dairy products because "we need protein" or "we want to feel full." Quite simply, we like the taste and the short-term outcomes.

Tal Ronnen is a sort of rock-star vegan chef who was hired by the Wynn Hotel and Casino to revamp the menus of their restaurants and who recently did Ellen DeGeneres' all-vegan wedding reception. He advocates for chefs to embrace vegan recipes that are high in protein, not just shoots, leaves and something that tastes like cardboard.

I just can't do the 'throw some vegetables and a starch on a plate' thing. That's the problem with most vegan dishes. It's a portobello mushroom cap, or a pasta primavera, and when you're finished with dinner you have to hit the drive-through. You have to give people something that will satisfy them. And that's a protein-based plate.

It seems as though restaurants are starting to take this very seriously, spawning establishments like Veggie Grill and Native Foods, places that produce dishes that are great tasting, filling...and vegan.

Over at the NY Times Food Blog, Mark Bittman recently provoked his readers to take on a different mentality of eating:

...veganism, or at least near-veganism, or a very very plant heavy diet, or “less-meatarianism” or whatever you want to call it: a diet of mostly plants, none or very few animal products, and certainly no junk or ultra-processed food.

Bittman included some great resources that drive home why this is such an important challenge for families, communities and nations. Here are some highlights:

--> The meal plan of the average American family accounts for 2.8 tons of CO2 emitted annually, compared with 2.2 tons for driving. Worldwide agriculture contributes some 30% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, far more than transportation.

--> More than 37% of the world's land is used for agriculture, much of it ground that was once forested--and deforestation is a major source of carbon. The fertilizer and machinery needed on a modern farm also have a large carbon footprint, as does the network of ships and trucks that brings the food from the farm to your plate. On average, it takes seven to 10 times as much fossil-fuel energy to produce and ship food as we get from eating it.

--> Raising cattle takes a lot more energy than growing the equivalent amount of grains, fruits or vegetables: most produce requires about 2 calories of fossil-fuel energy to cultivate per 1 calorie of food energy; with beef, the ratio can be as high as 80 to 1. What's more, the majority of cattle in the U.S. are reared on grain and loads of it--670 million tons in 2002--and the fertilizer used to grow that feed creates separate environmental problems, including surface runoff that leads to dead zones in coastal waters like the Gulf of Mexico.

--> It takes about 16 pounds of grain to "produce" one pound of animal flesh. That's grain, of course, that the poor can't eat, because it's bought by richer countries in order to feed livestock. And what grain remains is pricier, because the market for grain is tightened by the 756 million tons going to animal feed.

--> And for visual learners:



Changing our diets is not a mercenary affair. It has tremendous benefits for us. We not only feel better physically. We feel better spiritually and emotionally. Our diets become adventures, trying new combinations of plates that are masterpieces, crafted with regard to our fellow human beings, the earth and animals. But eating should not be an all-or-nothing affair. If you believe that bacon or buffalo wings are too sacred to give up, keep them. And the rest of the time, be vegan.

Progress-Not-Perfection is the motto for our journey towards a more radical discipleship. The two most important steps are the first two: exposure and intentionality. Once we learn these "inconvenient truths" and realize how linked they are to our faith, then we can put together a strategy of more sustainable and healthy eating. We need not give up the whole enterprise when the In-n-Out double-double just sounds too good to pass up.

1 comment:

  1. Progress not perfection is so key. I started the vegan gig about 9 months ago as a decision in living out my convictions after learning these type of things about the food industry. But then I started feeling guilty if I slipped up, rather than give myself some credit for what I was doing. Progress (a step forward) is a bad ass thing to do. As for me physically, I am stronger and more fit than ever.

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