I’ve been attending services here for about twenty years, and this will be my third testimony. Today, I have a confession to make, and I will be coming out of a closet. No not that closet, another closet, one with a green door.
First the confession: For over 60 years I have been an unrepentant omnivore. When I started calling myself that, it was just a thoughtless joke; I was unconcerned by any criticism of my culinary behavior. But recently I’ve become aware of good reasons for changing that behavior. These days for many of us, not just Unitarian-Universalists, discussion of culinary behavior has become more common.
In none of the related domains of discourse – health, ethics, environment – are the issues regarding dietary choices simple. The discussions are very personal, and with so many of our social connections occurring at meals, conversations can be uncomfortable. I recommend waiting until dessert.
Of the arguments against eating meat, I've found it easiest to reject health-based proscriptions. My pop-science understanding of human biology tells me that our digestive system has barely changed from our savannah ancestors, so surely a diet including meat should still be good for us. (Though I am concerned about the antibiotic content of factory farmed meat).
For me the ethical objections to meat-eating are more relevant. As a student of cognition and philosophy, one ethical question I must consider is which creatures’ lives I have the moral right to terminate.
But today, on Earth Sunday, I want to talk about environmental ethics.
The environmental problem with eating meat is straightforward: There are over 6 billion humans on the planet, and there is a fixed amount of land, a fixed amount of potable water, and limited energy for cultivation, fertilizer, and transportation. There’s just not enough of those things to feed meat to 6 billion human beings. So what right do I have to eat meat? I can put the issue concisely by reworking an old saying:
“One man’s meat is another eight men’s bread.”
That’s because the production of a given amount of meat protein typically requires some animal to consume eight times that amount of plant protein, corn on today’s factory farms. Eight-to-one is the factor on North American industrial beef farms; some sources estimates the factor as low as six, others as high as at ten. It is lower on farms where cattle graze on grasses, but there’s not very much of that going on any more. Our modern industrialized food system, whether producing meat or vegetables, is a product of the so-called “Green Revolution”. That system depends on tremendous amounts of fossil fuel for fertilizers, for pesticides, and for transportation. Cheap fossil fuel is a resource that is unlikely to be available for much longer. And protein production from beef consumes 100 times the water as production from grain!
Of course, a one pound steak and six pounds of bread are not nutritionally identical – they contain different proportions of proteins, carbs, fat, sugar, fiber, … An excellent guide to the health and ethical issues of food is Michael Pollan’s best-selling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. The New Yorker says that Pollan “undertakes a pilgrim’s progress along modern food chains, setting standards for ethical eating”.
But now it’s time for me to open my green closet door, and come out:
I have become a “pescetarian”, a vegetarian who also eats seafood.
Note that I haven’t committed to a anti-meat orthodoxy, religiously avoiding meat to claim my place on a higher moral plane. Throwing out the leftover meat in my freezer didn’t seem to make much environmental sense (The meat’s all gone now.), and at my recent family Passover seder I did eat my mother’s chopped liver.
But for almost three months I haven’t purchased any meat, not in restaurants, not in supermarkets, not on the street: no beef, no pork, no chicken. That means my meat consumption is almost negligible. I decided that like Michael Pollan: “I had to stop eating meat before I could in good conscience decide if I can keep eating meat.” Now nearing the end of my third month, my conscience is still directing me toward a meat-free lifestyle.
In the future I might backslide from pescaterianism, and rationalize myself back into more carnivorous behavior. (After all, studies show that one man’s chicken is only another two men’s wheat, so maybe I’ll become a “pollo-tarian”.) Or I may become more committed to reducing or rejecting consumption of animal products, and swear off fish and seafood.
I’ll keep you posted.