|How long will our craven blogger make it without meat?|
In last week’s episode of the Green Smackdown, I learned that despite my good intentions at home, air travel is a hurdle to my eco-victory over Little Miss Never-Leaves-Brooklyn. My darling fiancé and I are working out a long-term solution for that (for the short term, I’m paying out the wazoo for carbon offsets), but right now I’m setting my sights on behaviors that are more immediately modifiable—like eating. Now, that might sound incongruous in the context of your usual CO2-reducing tips, like “change your lightbulbs” and “unplug your computer,” but hear me out for a second, because I’m about to say something crazy.
I’m going to stop eating meat.*
God, that hurt a little. Anyone who knows me well knows that there are few things I love more on this earth than foie gras and slow-braised pork shoulder. I am a foodie, through and through, who believes that the world is rightest in front of a plate of lamb sugo or pan-seared sweetbreads. But I also believe that what we eat, as a culture, is of global economic and ecological importance. I’ve known for a long time that it’s best to eat foods grown locally and sustainably. I’ve made a point of buying produce from the Greenmarket here in NYC, and I even subscribed last year to a local farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program to get weekly bags of Long Island–grown fruits and vegetables. The next step toward eating in a way that’s environmentally healthy is to reduce my personal consumption of meat products. Delicious as they may be, the chickens, cows and piggies I’m so fond of cooking are not very efficient sources of energy. In other words, the input of water, fossil fuels, electricity and chemicals required to process an animal for the market are many, many times greater than the input required to produce plant-based foods.
According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the production of one calorie of animal protein requires more than 10 times the fossil-fuel input of a calorie of plant protein—so that meat calorie packs 10 times the carbon emissions as well. And the USDA reports that almost 50 percent of all water used in the U.S. goes toward irrigating livestock feed crops. Vegetarians love to quote a 1981 Newsweek story (“The Browning of America”) that stated, “The water that goes into a 1,000-pound steer would float a destroyer.”
There are plenty of other environmental arguments for eating less meat: crop monoculture for producing livestock feed causes topsoil erosion, feed-lot runoff pollutes groundwater with nitrogen, the need for more land to raise animals necessitates forest clear-cutting, etc., etc. Crazy stuff if you get into it, but I’m not going to bang any more drums here (although if you’re interested in learning more, you can visit goveg.com), because it’s time for me to explain that little asterisk up there in paragraph three.
*I do not intend to give up meat entirely, because I derive immense pleasure from the occasional over-the-top beautiful meal, and I’m not about to reject the tasting menu at Per Se in favor of roasted veggies. In ancient times, people ate a primarily plant-based diet with the occasional supplement of meat during special occasions like feasts, festivals or when hunters were able to make a big kill. Meat wasn’t an everyday staple; it was a celebration food, and the eating of animal flesh was done with some reverence. That’s the sort of attitude that I’d like to work toward in my own home. My ground rules are these:
- On a day-to-day basis, when I’m cooking for myself or ordering a casual meal at a restaurant, I eat vegetarian food—maybe a little seafood from time to time, but not much (ocean over-harvesting is a big problem too).
- If a friend or family member has been kind enough to cook for me, or if I’m visiting a country where food is scarce, I’m not going to be “that guy” who asks for a special menu. I’m going to eat whatever they serve, meat included.
- On the rare occasions (a few times a year) when I have the opportunity to eat a really fine restaurant meal, I will order the best stuff on the menu—which will certainly be meat-related—and I will eat it with glee.
As I get older, I realize that the thing about sustainable living is that it does truly need to be sustainable, as in holding your fastest sustainable pace in an endurance race. It’s not about being hardcore or extreme, it’s about maintaining your best possible performance over the long haul, and that means something slightly different for each of us. Yes, I just got back from a trip to touchy-feely Santa Fe, where I evidently drank the water. Come back next week for your regularly scheduled snarkiness. —Megan Miller