In a recent Washington Post op-ed James E. McWilliam discusses the reaction that he received while giving a talk in Texas on the environmental benefits of eating a vegetarian diet. He writes that “the only applause came during the Q & A period when a member of the audience said that my lecture made him want to go out and eat even more meat.” This same audience member also remarked: “What I eat is my business – it’s personal.”
Now, what you eat is many things. Your diet may very well be influenced by your culture, it may be shaped by your religious beliefs or ethical views, it is likely determined by your financial situation, and your pallet probably plays some role in deciding what you eat. Yes, these are all personal dietary determinants.
But, as more media outlets pick up on the environmental impacts of our diets, and as more climate experts speak out on the resource intensive and ecologically destructive nature of global meat production, we can no longer hide from the fact that what we eat is not just personal. Our diets play a crucial role in shaping our policies and environments; on a local, regional, national and yes, global scale.
The global livestock industry is responsible for 18% of all green house gas emissions – more than all transportation emissions combined – and according to a recent article in World Watch, this figure may actually be as high as 51% of all GHGs. Emissions aside, the industry is extremely polluting in terms of groundwater contamination from manure and agricultural runoff from the feed crops – factors which contribute to dead zones in oceans around the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the South China Sea. And the industry on the whole is extremely resource intensive – from the fossil fuels required to raise, slaughter, process and transport the meat – to all the soy and corn required to feed these animals. As we speak, vast swathes of Amazon and bordering Cerrado grassland are being used to graze cattle and grow soy – the vast majority of which is exported for animal feed.
We simply can no longer hide from the fact that meat production has a role to play in ecological destruction and in the onset of climate change. Now, perhaps the person from Texas at McWilliams’ talk doesn’t care about the disappearance of fish in the Gulf of Mexico, the destruction of the Cerrado, or how what he eats may contribute to say, increasingly severe droughts in East Africa.
But, I have a feeling that he may start to care when the consequences of climate change begin to hit home and are reflected in, among other areas, the price of meat. As glaciers feeding rivers in China and India dry up, farmers in this important grain producing area will no longer be able to irrigate their fields. Global grain prices will skyrocket and so too will the cost of meat (and, possibly dairy products too). As water tables throughout the world drop and fresh water becomes increasingly harder to come by, the price of water-intensive meat production will also have to reflect these scarcities. Perhaps when the illusion of cheap meat is shattered once and for all, this individual’s personal choices will start to change. So will public policies. But how much better to have the change begin now, before the global ecological crisis gets worse. Surely some audiences will applaud that.