The Weekly Planet – Educated Eating

Henry David Thoreau thought that we should all be vegetarians. So did Albert Einstein. In Walden, Thoreau wrote giving up meat was as surely “a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement,” as savage tribes giving up cannibalism.

Einstein echoed his sentiments: “Besides agreeing with the aims of vegetarianism for aesthetic and moral reasons, it is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”

Those are two pretty smart fellows, I would say. Maybe they’re on to something.

As Einstein and Thoreau argued, our carnivorous ways are morally questionable. And now we know that eating meat (at least the American way of eating meat) is extremely harmful to our environment as well.

For most of us, meat is the centerpiece of every dinner, and lunch is probably a meat sandwich. Breakfast usually comes with a side of sausage.

I thought I loved meat. Until last summer, I thought I couldn’t live without it.

Then I found out where our meat really comes from. I read two books, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen. Those books confirmed some of my worst fears about the food I had been eating unconsciously for twenty-one years.

I read about the “factory farms” where thousands of cows wallow in pools of their own waste, are injected with antibiotics and fed a mostly corn diet that makes them sick but fattens them up for slaughterhouses where they are killed at a rate of 500 an hour (mostly for fast-food joints).

These farms are not uncommon. They are as much a part of America’s food culture as Big Macs and Fourth of July hot dogs.

According to the National Pork Producers Council, 80 million of the 95 million pigs slaughtered each year are reared through industrial agriculture. And most of the chickens that lay our eggs live their lives in cages barely big enough to hold them.

Anyone who’s owned a pet knows that animals may not be as smart as we are, but they’re still living creatures with personalities. They probably don’t deserve to suffer terribly for the gratification of our palettes.

Animal rights aside, eating meat hurts the health of the planet.

Killing, storage and transporting of animals requires a huge amount of fuel. And the waste of so many millions of animals emits heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere (not to mention the stench).

According to Environmental Health Perspectives, “the average U.S. farm uses 3 kcal of fossil energy in producing 1 kcal of food energy. Meat production uses even more energy. In the typical feedlot system…the fossil energy input is about 35 kcal per kcal of beef protein produced.”

As an report put it, “Your personal impact on global warming may be influenced as much by what you eat as by what you drive.” Indeed, a 2006 University of Chicago study wrote that one could do one and a half times as much to take on global warming if he became a vegan than if he started driving a hybrid.

And it’s not just global warming. Remember the E. Coli outbreak in Spinach last year? Eventually, the contaminated spinach was linked to the waste from a California cattle ranch.

Also, providing water and grain for animals uses way more water than a plant-based diet. (Water is becoming an ever scarcer resource). According to Dr. David Molden, the principal scientist with the International Water Management Institute, “Meat eaters consume the equivalent of about 5000 litres of water a day compared to the 1000-2000 litres used by people on vegetarian diets in developing countries.”

Responsible citizens are slowly taking on the issue of where our food comes from. This week, the famed restaurateur Wolfgang Puck announced that he would purchase meat only if the animals are raised according to what The New York Times called “strict humane standards.” We should all follow Puck’s lead and begin to think seriously about this issue.

I realize most people are not eager to become vegetarians. But I’ve always thought it silly to think of vegetarianism as an all-or-nothing proposition. I like meat, but it shouldn’t be served at every meal. Since reading Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve cut my meat intake by at least half, and it hasn’t been an ascetic pursuit by any means. There are plenty of great vegetarian options – even in Frank – for the open-minded.

Am I vegetarian? No. I’m merely an educated eater.

There are responsible ways to eat meat and eggs. My Aunt Karen gets her eggs from a farm where the chickens aren’t cooped up all the time and her meat from a farm where the buffalo roam.

When we do eat animal products, we should try to buy from local farmers who treat their animals with dignity, as living things rather than inconsequential portions of almost-food. Or just hit Hamilton Whole Foods next time you get groceries.

It’s time we take the advice of Thoreau and Einstein and follow the lead of Wolfgang Puck and my aunt Karen. Let’s all become educated eaters.