Last Thursday I had the privilege of listening to a panel of climate change experts at a conference which was moderated by NAF's Climate Policy Director Terry Tamminen. Among the panel was a diverse group including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate R.K. Pachauri. At the conclusion of an incredibly stimulating panel discussion each of the participants was asked what they do in their own life to stop global warming. Dr. Pachauri, without pause, answered "I don't eat meat."
Being a vegetarian I realize food is a sensitive subject. I put it in the category of money, politics and religion. After all it's one thing to tell someone to change out a light bulb, but another to tell someone to give something up, which for some, brings great pleasure. However, when you realize the impact meat consumption has in terms of environmental degradation, public health, animal welfare, the poor and yes, climate change, it suddenly makes this American staple a bit less appetizing.
An article written by the famed cookbook author Mark Bittman for the New York Times, entitled "Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler" - does an outstanding job of summarizing the meat dilemma (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html?_r=2). In the article he notes the results of a calculation made by Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamel A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago. Eshel and Martin calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20% it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan to a Prius. Another study he quotes that was conducted by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days. His article articulates many of the issues related to meat consumption but there was one fact that struck me most profoundly: though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chicken.
I'm not naïve and understand that meat is part of the American identity - a cowboy, a steak (a Marlboro cigarette) and a horse are images that project the essence of America, the West in particular. But instead of eating meat on a daily basis or even a weekly basis we might want to take a cue from the folks who live on the ancient island of Crete. The Cretan population is known to be one of the longest living groups of people on the earth and have a simple diet that is both healthy and easy on the earth. The Cretan diet food pyramid below shows where meat stacks up -- once a month the pyramid suggests.
As Mr. Bittman concludes his article he quotes Mark W. Rosegrant, Director of Environment and Production Technology at the nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute who foresees "a stronger public relations campaign in the reduction of meat consumption - one like that around cigarettes - emphasizing personal health, compassion for animals and doing good for the poor and the planet." Now that sounds like a campaign a Nobel Laureate might get behind.