by Louise Quigley
What we choose to eat connects climate change, air pollution, water pollution, human health, world hunger, and humane issues regarding both animals and human workers.
Many of these issues involve the problems of animal foods and livestock. The digestive systems of beef and dairy cattle emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Most livestock is now raised in factory farms and feedlots, where the animals are fed corn and soy grown using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that pollute air and water, kill pollinators and other wildlife, and require huge carbon-spewing machinery. More carbon is emitted trucking the feed from fields to factory farms, often thousands of miles. Manure in factory farm “lagoons” stinks unbearably and too often leaks into waterways. Animals convert food to meat and milk extremely inefficiently, so the acreage which produces one pound of animal food could provide many pounds of plant foods for direct human consumption. Conditions for animals in these factory farms are generally horrendously cruel. Conditions for human workers there and in meat-packing plants are nearly as bad.
The other reason that plant-based eating is recommended is that diets heavy in meat, dairy, and processed foods are strongly implicated in heart disease, obesity, type-2 diabetes, and some cancers. So choosing to eat mostly or only plants not only decreases pollution and cruelty and makes it more possible to feed everyone, but is likely to make you healthier as well.
Many people are now aware that plant-based eating is healthy and nutritious, but less savvy about how to do it. In fact, “plant-based” diets can range from vegan (zero animal foods) through vegetarian (no meat) to diets that include a little fish or even small amounts of meat (preferably carefully chosen) among a strong preponderance of plant foods. It should be noted that all healthy diets minimize sugar, refined grains, and highly processed foods and emphasize whole foods. Think potatoes rather than potato chips or French fries, water instead of fruit drink or soda, fruit or dried fruit instead of candy, brown rice and whole wheat bread and pasta rather than refined grains.
In the kitchen, some simple substitutions to traditional cooking methods go a long way. Saute in a little olive oil rather than lots of butter. Flavor soups and stews with vegetable stock rather than meat stock. Explore herbs and spices and ethnic cuisines. For example, Thai, Chinese, Mexican, and Middle Eastern cuisines feature many vegetarian/vegan dishes. Pizzas can be meatless. Chili without carne is still great chili. There are now excellent non-meat burgers, sausages, hot dogs, and even cheese and ice cream substitutes. Good protein sources, besides plant-based meat substitutes, include bean chilis, bean soups, and bean-and-rice or bean-and-corn dishes, as well as nuts and seeds and their butters.
If you do continue to eat animal foods, use them sparingly: a couple of ounces of meat to flavor a soup or stew or stir-fry rather than as their main ingredient, or eat meatlessly most of the time and use meat or fish as a special “feast food” just once or twice a week. Choose wild-caught fish that are not from overfished species, and try to buy meat, eggs, and dairy exclusively from farms that keep animals on pasture (“100% grass fed”). Try to find out if the pastured animals are raised with regenerative rotational grazing techniques.
This is easier to do if you can talk to the farmer, which brings up issues of shopping at farmers’ markets and eating locally. The fewer miles your food travels from field to kitchen, the less greenhouse gasses are emitted in transporting it. Also, produce in farmers’ markets is likelier to be grown on smaller farms, which use smaller machinery over less distance, again emitting less carbon into the atmosphere. And be aware that organic agriculture avoids exposing farmers, wildlife, and consumers to extremely toxic chemicals.
In short, the greater the extent to which you can eat plant foods rather than animal foods, and local and organic and whole foods, the healthier your choices will be for yourself, the farmers, the animals, and the planet. It’s all connected.
Louise Quigley is a climate activist and veteran restorative gardener. She is a member of JCAN-MA and a member of Beantown Jewish Gardens Jewish Volunteers Gardening Brigade, a community group of food growers.