Why don’t we eat more vegetables? We know that most vegetables are low in calories but high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. People who eat more vegetables and fruits as part of an overall healthy diet are likely to have a reduced risk of several chronic diseases. The vast majority of people in the US are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, says the CDC, and there’s a cultural element to choosing to eat plants over a bloody steak or a crackling sausage. This CleanTechnica series helps us to figure out why we don’t choose eating vegetables as a significant way to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The first article in this series described plant-based diets in relation to the first of Gandhi’s 7 blunders — Wealth without Work. This second article translates Gandhi’s next 2 blunders — Pleasure without Conscience and Knowledge without Character — into ways to understand the importance of plants in our western diets as another tool to save the planet.
Switching to a plant-based diet not only benefits your health — it can help protect the environment, as well. Let’s just say it: people who follow plant-based diets have smaller environmental footprints. Adopting sustainable eating habits can help reduce GHG emissions, water consumption, and land used for factory farming, which are all factors in global warming and environmental degradation. A 70% reduction in GHG emissions and land use and 50% less water use could be achieved by shifting western diet patterns to more sustainable, plant-based dietary patterns.
Wendell Berry of the Center for Ecoliteracy says people today think of food as an agricultural product, but they do not think of themselves as participants in an agriculture industry. “The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act,” Berry offers, “who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical — in short, a victim.”
Pleasure without Conscience
A food politics, alongside food esthetics and food ethics, frames the western mind to habits of eating. The agriculture industry obscures the connection between food and farming, Berry argues, so that consumers are oblivious to the fact a hamburger came from a steer which spent much of its life standing deep in his own excrement in a feedlot, helping to pollute the local streams, or that the calf that yielded the veal cutlet on a restaurant plate spent its life in a box in which it did not have room to turn around.
History teaches us that, in addition to crop requirements, a web of biophysical and socioeconomic factors drives agriculture industry decisions and outcomes. The silent ingredient in our food system — capitalism — must be reintroduced to food discourse, according to Eric Holt-Giménez in A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. Holt-Giménez contends that, even as local, organic, and gourmet food have spread around the world, billions go hungry in the midst of abundance, obesity is a global epidemic, and crop-related global warming and environmental pollution are increasing. Capitalism and our food system co-evolved, he says, and “our food system is in crisis because capitalism is in crisis and is passing off the worst effects — or ‘externalities’ — of the crisis onto society and the environment.”
If the most harmful 1/2 of meat and dairy production was replaced by plant-based food, this still delivers about 2/3 of the benefits of getting rid of all meat and dairy production. We must become leaders for the agriculture industry, defining a road map to food security while reexamining our personal desires so as to insure food policies of social inclusion invite equity, sustainability, and environmental responsibility. No longer is factory farming and its abuses the domain of an eccentric minority — today’s agriculture industry scrutiny started as a natural expansion of normal human sympathies for our fellow creatures and now has progressed to a keener acceptance that what we eat has direct and profound effects on the planet.
Knowledge without Character
In a research study released in 2017, “the effects of food on people’s health” and “how to prepare food safely” were viewed as the most important knowledge and skills among participants, while food production, food system, and environmental items were the least important. There is no debate: the animal agriculture industry has a devastating contribution to global warming. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock production is responsible for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, while other organizations like the Worldwatch Institute have estimated it could be as much as 51%. When we factor in the transportation and the fuel used to grow feed for livestock, we have a very large carbon footprint to consider.
And then there’s water. According to the Water Footprint Network (and a really cool interactive graphic), it takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce just 1 gallon of milk. Knowledge of that statistic alone should deter environmentally-oriented individuals away from animal products. According to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, 87% of all freshwater usage in the US is used in agriculture.
Around the world, nearly 1/3 of arable land is used for the animal agriculture industry — much of it to just to feed the pigs, cattle, and chicken most westerners regularly consumer. As a result, animal agriculture is a major contributor to deforestation and desertification — the process of destroying native vegetation through animal grazing and speeding up soil erosion.
The 2018 EAT Stockholm Food Forum explored a range of solutions available for achieving healthy and sustainable diets for a growing global population and confronted questions of how to feed the world with zero land expansion and ocean depletion, or the benefits of processed foods and clean meat. “It’s time to turn words into action. If we get it right on food, we can get it right on everything else,” says Dr. Brent Loken, who is currently working as the Science Liaison Officer for EAT, an Oslo based organization working to transform the global food system.
The highly profitable and mostly invisible agriculture industry currently occupies over 1/2 of the world’s arable land resources, uses the majority of our freshwater stores, and drives GHG emissions. Additionally, this system causes rampant air and water pollution, land degradation, and deforestation and is forcing countless species to the brink of extinction. When we consider food pleasure without conscience, we’re not taking into account the direct effects that our food cravings and associations with positive reinforcement have on the planet. When we neglect to focus on the knowledge we have about food production with the character to make sometimes difficult choices (i.e. friends are hesitant to suggest an evening on dining with a vegan), we are also not choosing to eat more plant-based foods that drastically our carbon footprints, save precious water supplies, and help ensure that vital crop resources are fed to people, rather than livestock.
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