December 14, 2010
Holidays seem to be a time of feasting, a season of muchness and more–and that means they're also a perfect moment to think about eating in a different way. Borrowing a provocative adage from modernist architects, let's consider a new approach to meals: Less is more.
Until recently, I was only vaguely aware of an initiative called Meatless Mondays. I thought it was a ploy to lure me into vegetarianism, a dining style I've tried and failed to maintain many times. I simply like eating meat too much to give it up.
I've also grown weary of the smug superiority that characterizes so much food talk: you're a better person if you buy local; a superior person if you pay extra for organic; and a peerless person if you harvest and slaughter your own food. Most of us don't usually have these options–though I hope someday organic becomes the new, affordable norm. "Foodie" conversation exhausted me, and I just started tuning it out.
Then I heard a lecture given by Dr. Robert Lawrence of Johns Hopkins University at an Environmental Defense Fund Science Day in San Francisco. EDF Science Days are private events during which experts discuss emerging environmental issues. Dr. Lawrence, an expert in environmental health sciences, surveyed the costs of America's meat addiction and asked us to consider a simple idea: Meatless Monday. It sounded at first forbiddingly moralistic. But then I learned what a sensible, economical idea it was– good for your health, and good for the planet.
Since the 1980s, Americans have been eating too much–way more than we did fifty years ago. Today, we consume, on average, about 3,200 calories per day, roughly 1,000 calories more than we need to stay healthy – even as we lead more sedentary lives. Food in America is easily available and, because much of it is subsidized, extremely cheap. There are fast food chains on every corner and microwaveable meals at every supermarket. The result? Obesity and an epidemic of preventable heart disease, along with diabetes, strokes, and cancers.
Sixty-five percent of our daily protein comes from animals (compare that to the worldwide figure, around 30%). Americans eat about eight ounces of meat a day. The average annual per capita meat consumption in the 1970s was 168 pounds; by 2005 it was up to 185 pounds. Beef consumption peaked in 1975 then began declining as people became aware of the link between cardiovascular disease and fat-saturated diets. We started eating much more chicken. (Lawrence points out that one million broilers are raised, killed and prepared in this country per hour). This accounts for the continued rise in meat consumption. (Get a shareable list of these meaty stats »)
All meat production has a powerful impact on the planet–cattle more than chickens, of course. Meat production emits more greenhouse gases than growing crops, but agricultural activity also contributes heavily to climate change. To connect the dots between food and climate change, Lawrence underlined the impact of several factors:
- the clearing of forests to create more farmland
- the fossil fuel needed to make fertilizer, run equipment and transport food
- the water needed to irrigate farmland and quench the thirst of the animals. (Up to 80% of the West's water is consumed by agriculture)
- reactive nitrogen from liberally applied fertilizers and pesticides, which then run off into rivers and lakes or seep into our aquifers
- the methane released from beef cattle
Our taste for burgers is destroying the rainforests. Brazilian government figures attribute 38% of deforestation from 1966-1975 to large scale cattle ranching. From 1996 to 2006 an area the size of Portugal has been carved out of Brazilian rainforest and turned into grassland to feed cattle herds.
Modern farming and meat production are heavily reliant on chemicals that work their way not only into the flesh of the beasts we eat, but into our water as well. Dr. Lawrence points out that over 1,600 chemicals used in producing our food have never been tested for safety.
"We are facing unprecedented human health problems," related to food production, says Dr. Lawrence. "Our produce gets contaminated by fecal matter from irrigation waters polluted by industrial food-animal facilities." And because some farms make massive use of prophylactic antibiotics on animals weakened by the unsanitary conditions in which they are raised, some bacteria are growing resistant to treatment. These drugs are entering the human food chain too.
As other countries adopt our diets, 20 years from now when there are 8 billion people in the world, there simply won't be enough room on the planet to produce the food to support the way we eat now.
Several years ago, scientists recommended that Americans cut their saturated fat intake by 15%. Researchers at Johns Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future realized that the easiest way for people to do that would be to avoid meat one day a week, hence Meatless Monday.
It turns out you don't have to make a big change in your kitchen in order to make a big change in the world–and improve your health. According to the Environmental Working Group, if all of us adopted this simple initiative, we would save enough energy annually – from avoided meat production – equivalent to taking eight million cars off the road.
Meatless Monday is doable. In fact, it’s been done. During World War I and World War II, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in order to ensure that our armies had enough food, mounted successful campaigns for Meatless Monday and Wheatless Wednesday. They encouraged Americans to plant Victory gardens, using slogans like "Dig for Victory" and "Use Spades Not Ships." The FDA should mount a similar campaign today, one that emphasizes public and environmental health.
There's no magic to Monday, of course, unless you have an ear for alliteration. Monday seems to be a good day to recover from the weekend (though for me, weekends are an easier time to find the hours to prepare a meal, and Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be Leftover Days.) The main point is to have at least one meatless day a week. And avoid having three meat courses in one day. After what I've learned–vegetarians are the healthiest subgroup in this country–I'm planning on three meatless days a week.
And here's another benefit: conversation at the family table about the connections between our food, our bodies and the whole planet. A meatless dinner can be a wonderful setting in which to model ways to cherish our world. What better lesson is there? Pass on the meat–and please pass the Brussels sprouts.
We want to hear from you. Tell us if you're going meatless on Mondays and then share your favorite meatless recipes in the comments.