We all have to eat, so it's the debate that never ends -- is it more socially responsible to kill and eat animals, or to rely on a vegetarian diet?
You've probably already heard strident opinions from the likes of PETA, which has gone to great lengths (human barbecue, anyone?) to guilt society out of eating animals. And though the pro-meat contingent doesn't have a mouthpiece quite so vocal, we all have a friend or two who wouldn't give up burgers and bacon for the world.
But there are, it turns out, valid and rational arguments from the experts to support each side of the battle. In the first installment of our Change My Mind debate series, we challenge two leading voices in the debate to defend their views on which is more socially responsible: eating meat, or following a vegetarian diet.
Speaking on behalf of vegetarianism is Ellen Kanner, syndicated columnist of The Edgy Veggie and contributor to publications including Culinate, Bon Appetit and Every Day With Rachael Ray as well as her own blog, Edgy Veggie.
Her opponent is Daniel Klein, a chef, activist and filmmaker who supports responsible consumption of meat. He has cooked in the restaurants of Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal and Tom Colicchio, and is currently documenting his culinary, agricultural and hunting explorations on film in a web series called The Perennial Plate.
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Lusty pasta marinara, crunchy, salty kale chips, chili-spiked black bean enchiladas -- eat 'em up. You can create positive change and rack up karmic points with every bite, with every meatless choice you make, and have a good time, too.
How does what you eat affect the world? The short answer, the one I like, is chaos theory. Chaos theory maintains everything is connected, the beat of a butterfly wing in Nepal affects you in New York. Sounds a little like magical thinking, but that kind of magic -- interconnection -- I believe in. Because we are interconnected.
There are seven billion of us at the table now and across the globe, and we're facing a case of too many mouths and not enough food. So how hungry are you, anyway? And what are you hungry for?
Before you fork up a steak, let me feed you some statistics:
According to the United Nations, at minimum, meat production accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
The world grows enough grain so every one of us seven billion can have two pounds of it per day, plus all the produce you can eat (and you should eat more than you do). Alas, a third or more of that grain goes to feeding livestock while one out of every six of us goes hungry. Earth Policy Institute president and fun guy Lester R. Brown credits our insatiable demand for meat as one of the driving forces behind global food scarcity.
I totally love cows. That's why I don't eat them. But I'm not here to go all PETA on you. If we raised -- and ate -- less livestock, we'd have more arable land to devote to growing food for human consumption and be able to start putting the brakes on climate change.
Maybe you don't care about carbon and cows. You're pretty terrific, anyway. I'd be happy if you stuck around. And that may mean changing your dinner plans. According to our friends at the CDC, diabetes, heart disease and cancer are the three biggest killers in the country and they're more prevalent among meat-eaters. These illnesses are linked to diet and lifestyle. This means by making a personal tweak or two, they can be prevented. So tweak, already. The world needs you.
Even if you're glowing with health, you'll still have to pay the price of America's meat obessesion. We all will. And it's a big-ticket item. According to the American Heart Association, the cost of cardiovascular disease may hit $800 billion in a few years. If the whole country made the game-changing choice to step away or step down from eating meat, we'd be a stronger society -- or at least healthier and richer, an excellent start.
The chances of that happening? Not so likely. Ultimately, food choices can't be forced or legislated. Eating is an intimate act. But if you play it right, it's also a pleasurable and a life-sustaining one -- not just your life, but everyone's.
Your health, our economy, our environment -- all compelling reasons for a meatless diet. Here's another -- accountability. Or call it what I do -- conscience. You do have one. Once you know these statistics, you can't unknow them. And then you're going to have to choose.
If statistics move you, terrific. But the real reason to transition to a pro-produce diet isn't what you feel in your wallet but what you feel in your heart. Conscious or compassionate eating needs a catchier name, but the concept's real and doable, the food's fantastic and it doesn't take another minute out of your overcrowded schedule.
Choosing a meatless diet or even one meatless meal each week gives us all a place at the table. A pro-produce diet gives you nourishment galore, great eats, and means you get your daily dose of creating positive change in every bite.
At the outset, I'd like to note that I spent several years following a vegetarian, then vegan, diet. I understand many of the reasons people stop eating animal-based food -- many of them are compelling and valid under the current mainstream meat eating/producing industry. However many of the negatives associated with mass-produced meat can be avoided by carefully choosing the foods we eat. The type of meat eating that I am defending is the occasional consumption of animals that have been raised on pasture in limited numbers and where the practice mimics that of nature and treats the animals (and slaughters them) humanely. In this limited capacity, I think meat eating can be MORE responsible than vegetarianism for reasons that impact the environment, our health, culture, history and morality.
Contrary to what many people believe, if done correctly, grazing is good for the soil. It also increases the presence of native plants, extends the growing season of grass and turns a resource that humans can't eat into a source of food. It is true that cattle do give off their own greenhouse gasses (but so do all animals!), however through proper management of cattle (that absorbs carbon), there can be a net positive in the fight against global warming (see various sources). All farming causes some impact on the environment, but the type of farming I am advocating creates a balance (see Alan Savory, Joel Sallatin, or J Bar L, where I shot this video). Finally, feeding cattle on grass requires zero input (from fertilizers, etc.) and lots of output. Grass-fed animals don't use soy or corn fields and often graze on land that wouldn't be suitable for vegetables.
We also have to consider wild animals. Humans have disturbed the earth in many ways, making it a challenging place for wild animals to thrive. An important part of making sure that the species that exist continue to live is managing numbers of that species as well as any invasive species that may be threatening the survival of other animals or plants. Thus, it is often necessary to kill some animals to ensure the survival of others (vegetarians debate this in regards to deer, but with invasive species there are a lack of other solutions besides hunting). In order not to waste, it makes sense to eat those animals.
Economy and Place
In places like Minnesota where long winters present a limited growing season, meat is often the only food that doesn't have to be transported across the country. The grass-fed model requires more human input and so is good for jobs and also gives farmers an opportunity to sell their product at a price that makes it more sustainable to stay farming. Pasture-raised animals also develop local economies as these farmers tend to sell within their community and support small local slaughterhouses (often a challenge, White Oak Pastures presents a good example).
The health benefits of grass-fed meat are substantial and well documented. The main benefits are high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, beta carotene and Vitamin E while being low in saturated fat. The health risks associated with meat are related to over eating of conventional meat, not responsible consumption of antioxidant rich grass-fed meat. Although eating vegetarian can be healthy, according to a report by the U.N.'s FAO and Standford University: "Animal source foods ... play an important role in ensuring optimal health and function, and their consumption is particularly important for women of reproductive age, fetuses, and young children"
Culture, History and Morality
Humans have always eaten meat. Without it, we would have ceased to exist a long time ago. We have teeth that are clearly designed to chew flesh. I question getting rid of something that humans were very clearly born to do even though it is no longer necessary for our survival. Meat eating also brings a great deal of pleasure. Prosciutto and sausage were created for survival but have became so much more: they have become part of our culture. These artisinal methods add value to our social fabric and should be preserved.
Is it okay to kill an animal for the benefit of humanity? I think that there is a cycle of life and that animals kill other animals and we are part of that relationship. These animals would not exist without farming and they can be provided good lives on farms. I believe that it is morally permissible to kill an animal that has been raised well and killed without suffering and then used (every part) to benefit humanity.
If you are thinking about becoming a vegetarian, don't stop. The world could certainly use less meat consumption. But if you are dedicated to responsible meat eating, then I say go for it -- there is a Portlandia episode made for you and me.
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Ellen KannerDaniel KleinNeither argumenthas changed the most minds