The Low-Carbon Diet
Change your lightbulbs? Or your car? If you want to fight global warming, it’s time to consider a different diet.
Full disclosure: I love to eat meat. I was born in Memphis, the barbecue capital of the Milky Way Galaxy. I worship slow-cooked, hickory-smoked pig meat served on a bun with extra sauce and coleslaw spooned on top.
My carnivore’s lust goes beyond the DNA level. It’s in my soul. Even the cruelty of factory farming doesn’t temper my desire, I’ll admit. Like most Americans, I can somehow keep at bay all thoughts of what happened to the meat prior to the plate.
So why in the world am I a dedicated vegetarian? Why is meat, including sumptuous pork, a complete stranger to my fork at home and away? The answer is simple: I have an 11-year-old son whose future—like yours and mine—is rapidly unraveling due to global warming. And what we put on our plates can directly accelerate or decelerate the heating trend.
That giant chunk of an Antarctic ice sheet, the one that disintegrated in a matter of hours, the one the size of seven Manhattans—did you hear about it? It shattered barely a year ago “like a hammer on glass,” scientists say, and is now melting away in the Southern Ocean. This is just a preview, of course, of the sort of ecological collapse coming everywhere on earth, experts say, unless we hit the brakes soon on climate change. If the entire West Antarctic ice sheet melts, for example, global sea-level rise could reach 20 feet.
Since the twin phenomena of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gore, most Americans have a basic literacy on the issue of climate change. It’s getting worse, we know, and greenhouse gases—emitted when we burn fossil fuels—are driving it. Less accepted, it seems, is the role food—specifically our consumption of meat—is playing in this matter. The typical American diet now weighs in at more than 3,700 calories per day, reports the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and is dominated by meat and animal products. As a result, what we put in our mouths now ranks up there with our driving habits and our use of coal-fired electricity in terms of how it affects climate change.
Simply put, raising beef, pigs, sheep, chicken, and eggs is very, very energy intensive. More than half of all the grains grown in America actually go to feed animals, not people, says the World Resources Institute. That means a huge fraction of the petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers applied to grains, plus staggering percentages of all agricultural land and water use, are put in the service of livestock. Stop eating animals and you use dramatically less fossil fuels, as much as 250 gallons less oil per year for vegans, says Cornell University’s David Pimentel, and 160 gallons less for egg-and-cheese-eating vegetarians.
But fossil fuel combustion is just part of the climate–diet equation. Ruminants—cows and sheep—generate a powerful greenhouse gas through their normal digestive processes (think burping and emissions at the other end). What comes out is methane (23 times more powerful at trapping heat than CO2) and nitrous oxide (296 times more powerful).
Indeed, accounting for all factors, livestock production worldwide is responsible for a whopping 18 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gases, reports the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. That’s more than the emissions of all the world’s cars, buses, planes, and trains combined.
So why do we so rarely talk about meat consumption when discussing global warming in America? Compact fluorescent bulbs? Biking to work? Buying wind power? We hear it nonstop. But even the super-liberal, Prius-driving, Green Party activist in America typically eats chicken wings and morning bacon like everyone else. While the climate impacts of meat consumption might be new to many people, the knowledge of meat’s general ecological harm is not at all novel. So what gives?
Roughly three percent of all Americans are vegetarians, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit that educates people on the benefits of a meat-free diet. Part of the reason, I know, is the unfortunate belief that vegetarianism is a really tough lifestyle change, much harder than simply changing bulbs or buying a better car. But as a meat lover at heart, I’ve been a vegetarian (no fish, minimal eggs and cheese) for seven years, and trust me: It’s easy, satisfying, and of course super healthy. With the advent of savory tofu, faux meats, and the explosion of local farmers’ markets, a life without meat is many times easier today than when Ovid and Thoreau and Gandhi and Einstein did it. True, many meat substitutes are made from soybeans, a monocrop with its own environmental issues. But most soy production today is actually devoted to livestock feed. Only 1 percent of U.S. soybeans become tofu, for example.
One day I get carryout veggie Pad Thai. The next I cook stir-fried veggies at home with soy-based sausage patties so good they fool even the most discriminating meat connoisseurs. Bottom line: Of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life, vegetarianism doesn’t even make the chart.
Some folks, I realize, have a deep-down, gut-level (so to speak) reaction to vegetarianism as “unnatural.” We humans have canine teeth, after all. We evolved to include meat in our diets. To abandon such food is to break thousands of years of tradition and, in some cases, ritual behavior bordering on the sacred.