Millions of gallons of oil are spreading across the Gulf of Mexico, killing wildlife and threatening coastal communities. This environmental disaster makes it clear that there are costs associated with our dependency on fossil fuel. These costs are usually hidden well and they often seem out of our hands – challenges for businesses and governments to take on, but too large and unseemly for one person to make a real impact.
I am reminded of a 2008 New York Times article entitled “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler,” in which the author, Mark Bittman, compares oil to meat. He writes, “Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally—like oil—meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.” Bittman’s piece compares the amount of fossil fuels needed to produce a meat meal versus fossil fuels needed for a plant-based meal and illustrates that the meat meal requires 16 times more!
Although the negative consequences of excessive oil and meat consumption are usually hidden, a growing bed of evidence is making these issues harder and harder to ignore. In 2006, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization released a report called “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” The report states that animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and “emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” It didn’t take long for industry to challenge that report in attempts to debunk the conclusion that animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than transportation. In April of this year, James McWilliams wrote a piece for Atlantic Monthly challenging the rash of media articles that jumped on this industry-led PR campaign. McWilliams rightly concluded, “No matter what the exact figure, the environmental case against industrial meat production remains powerfully convincing.”
Now, the United Nations’ Environment Programme has published a new report called “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Production and Consumption: Priority Products and Materials.” It identifies the largest contributors to environmental impacts and pressures, citing “food” and “agricultural materials, especially animal products” as priority areas of concern. Referring to this report, The Guardian newspaper published an article under the heading “UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet,” that states, “A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change.”
There are many things in this world that are out of our control and where we may feel helpless to make a difference. But, that’s not the case with food. We can each exercise a large degree of control over what we eat, and by making food choices that are consistent with our own values and interests, we can make the world a better place. Choosing to eat plants instead of animals lightens our environmental footprint, including our dependency on oil, and it improves and saves lives, both human and non-human. Of that, we can be certain.