My name is Eva McNamara, and I’m a senior here at Smith. I’m also a proud member of the new Sustainable Food Concentration, and this semester I am SO excited to be writing about all things food for CEEDS.
This week I thought I would start things off by discussing personal diet. It was only when I began to think about what I was putting into my body that I really realized how much of an effect my personal consumption has not only of my body, but also on my community, as well as the world as a whole. When I first arrived at Smith, I had never really thought much about limited diets (and by this I mean diets that exclude certain types of food—meat, dairy, gluten, etc), nor had any desire to explore them. In my mind, people became vegetarians because they had watched too many PETA videos, but oh my, was I mistaken! There are so many reasons for giving up different types of food, and so, as an apology for being so near sighted in my youth, this week I’m going to explore one of the most well-known of these diets, vegetarianism!
Vegetarianism (And a brush of Veganism!):
Vegetarianism is the most mainstream of “alternative” diets—nowadays most restaurants offer vegetarian options, from veggie burgers to fried tofu. But why would someone choose to cut meat and other animal products out of their diet? Here are a few things I’ve discovered about this choice.
Morality: The choice to not eat animals simply because one believes that they should not be consumed for our benefit (or pleasure), is quite a common one. This idea sometimes develops because of religious doctrine (many Buddhists, for example, do not consume meat, and many Jains are known to advocate for Veganism), or it is simply a personal belief. Vegans go even farther than this—strict vegans do not consume any products that come from animals (such as milk & eggs) or wear things made of animal products (such as leather). Farming practices that are intensive (meaning that animals are raised in close, crowded quarters) also deter people from eating meat, as some people believe these animals should not be treated as commodities, but rather as emotional creatures worthy of our respect.
Health: There are many conventional livestock practices, especially in the United States, in which animals are raised in tight quarters and are fed a mostly corn-based feed diet. Along with this, animals that are being intensively farmed, like chickens, are often given antibiotics to prevent and treat diseases. Some people who choose not to consume these animals do so because they are wary of introducing these drugs into their diet, and while it perhaps may not have an immediately recognizable effect on their health, they are suspicious of long-term consequences. Some vegetarians and vegans also claim higher energy levels, more clarity of mind, higher happiness levels, longer and leaner muscles, and weight loss—which they attribute directly to cutting meat and animal products out of their diets.
Sustainability: By the National Corn Growers Association’s calculations, about eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish. To put it more simply, this means that most of the corn grown in this country (about ten billion bushels annually, which is almost half of the world’s production!) is going to feed livestock. It is also common that cattle are unable to digest this corn-based feed, and this issue is combated with more antibiotics. About 400,000 farms in the US produce corn—using huge amounts of water and pesticides, while also depleting huge amounts nutrients (such as nitrogen), and destroying the soil quality. Because our world is not made of quickly renewable resources, some believe that eating these animals and their products (while they may be tasty!) is perhaps unnecessary.
Environmental Concern: According to the EPA, ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, buffalo, and goats) account for about 28% of annual global methane emissions (that are attributed to human-related activities), which is about 80 million metric tons of methane! While these animals have digestive systems that allow them to break down tough plant materials, they produce methane (and also nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide) as a by-product. This fact alone is enough to turn many people away from these meats, especially beef! But dairy cows are also part of the problem (they contribute to about 23% of these emissions), which can lead people to avoid milk-based products as well. Another example for environmental concern is overfishing—the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. Bottom trawling nets, along with destroying coral reefs, often also catch unsuspecting, and unwanted, creatures. In the Gulf of Mexico, scientists estimate that for every pound of shrimp caught, between four and ten pounds of marine resources (think sea turtles!) are also trapped and die before they can be thrown back overboard. Huge amounts of fuel are also used to ship products nationally and internationally, which only contributes to our carbon emissions.
Product Uncertainty: Scandals which revolve around animal products (especially meat) are not uncommon, and just this week consumers in Europe were told that a product labeled “Beef Lasagna”, actually contained horsemeat (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21406778). Because our food can travel thousands of miles and pass through many hands across the globe before it gets to our plates, thorough inspection and monitoring of products is not always as common as we’d like to think it is.
It’s unnecessary: Although many people have argued about this, and special circumstances sometimes occur, most humans today (and throughout our history) have the ability to sustain themselves on a meat-free and/or vegan diet. Vegetables contain huge amounts of vitamins, are versatile, tasty, and can be just as (if not more!) filling than a meat-based diet. Kale alone contains 2 grams of protein per cup, more calcium than milk per calorie, and more iron than beef per calorie. Vegetables are also (usually) cheaper, and until recent eras it was only those who were geographically unable to grow (or import) produce, or those with more financial resources who ate meat and animal products regularly.
So, given all this, why would anyone want to eat animal products—and should we be eating them?
Well, along with certain animal products being hard to avoid in a lot of places around the world, they are also a huge part of many traditions, cultures, economies and religions. But, in many cases, people have no idea where there food is coming from—nor any easy way of finding out! However, there are many farmers that do understand and care about the negative environmental and health impacts that raising livestock can have, and they are attempting to farm in more sustainable, and less destructive, ways. The Pioneer Valley especially is full of farms who raise their animals without the use of antibiotics and pesticides, and treat them humanely. Grass-fed beef (meaning beef from cattle who are not fed corn based feed) and free-range chicken (meaning chicken that comes from birds who are kept in spacious, less confined enclosures) is becoming more commonplace in the supermarket, as customer awareness and demand rises. Buying these foods locally also cuts down on the fuel used (as the farm to market distance is shorter!), and it’s definitely nice to be able to drive to the farm where your milk and meat is produced. However, in many cases (because of government subsidies and mass production), these local products are more expensive and less available than their conventional counter-parts. So, while many people would like to purchase them, sometimes it is just not financially viable. However, one must remember that consumers have the ability to change the systems with their purchases, and should be especially wary of the effects these foods could be having on their health. If the consumer does not demand a product, chances are it will never be provided! Supporting local farmers means supporting local economies, as well as decreasing environmental, and, in some cases, health risks. But that’s a topic for another week!
Thanks for reading!
P.S. Wondering where I got these numbers and facts? Here are my resources, and a few suggestions for further reading!
Biello, David. That Burger You’re Eating Is Mostly Corn: Scientific American. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2013. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=that-burger-youre-eating-is-mostly-corn&page=2>
Kaza, Stephanie. 2005. Western Buddhist Motivations for Vegetarianism, Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, 9(3): 385-411, 29 October 2012. http://www.shabkar.org/download/pdf/Western_Buddhist_Motivation_for_Vegetarianism.pdf
Nuttall, Nick. “Overfishing: A Threat to Marine Biodiversity.” UN News Center. UN, n.d.Web. 13 Feb. 2013. http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/06/story.asp?storyID=800
“Major Crops Grown in the United States.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2013. http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/ag101/cropmajor.html
“Ruminant Livestock.” Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2013. http://www.epa.gov/ruminant.html/faq.html
Sapontzis, Steve F. Food for Thought: The Debate over Eating Meat. Amherst (N.Y.): Prometheus, 2004. N. pag. Print.
Stiles, Margot L., Julie Stockbridge, Michelle Lande, and Michael F. Hirshfield. “Impacts of Bottom Trawling on Fisheries, Tourism, and the Marine Environment.” Oceana, May 2010. Web. <http://oceana.org/sites/default/files/reports/Trawling_BZ_10may10_toAudrey.pdf>