I have always thought of myself as pretty aware of the choices I make when it comes to what I eat. I grew up in a household that stressed the importance of supporting local farmers, eating seasonally, living consciously, and acting sustainably; my father shopped at the farmers market more regularly than the grocery store, my mother dragged me to protests at the doorstep of the White House at the ripe age of 12. Within the past year, I have adopted a vegetarian, loosely vegan diet in efforts to diminish my global, ecological footprint. Naturally, people are confused as to why a passionate, born-and-bred foodie like myself (who already ate locally-sourced and grass-fed meats, organic dairy, and eggs from chickens that I practically knew the names of) would suddenly choose to so radically eschew these seemingly harmless and generally respectable practices. Well, here is the short answer:
I want my impact on this earth to be a beneficial one. For me, that warrants the choice not to contribute to practices and industries that, in fact, degrade the continued livelihood of human beings on this planet.
That's right, I don't even do it for the animals.
If that explanation was already more than you cared to read, I appreciate you even clicking on this article. If that answer only leaves you with more questions, allow me to step onto my soapbox:
I am passionate about adhering to an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, and the largest, most inarguable habit one must adopt in order to truly be able to claim she or he is acting sustainably— greater than using reusable grocery bags, taking shorter showers, or driving a zero-emission car— is to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.
For those of you whom I have already lost to the stereotype of a self-righteous green-freak, it is important to recognize that, despite its often misrepresentation, the practice of sustainability is crucial to absolutely everyone's best interest (not just the leftist, Prius-driving tree-huggers, like myself) and further relevant to concepts far outside of environmentalism. By definition, sustainability is simply a concept of preservation—the desire to ensure that things can remain successful and operable for as long as we will still desire them; it is nothing other than sensible, logical, and practical thinking. When applying this mindset to food, it is blaring that the choice to eat meat is incredibly inefficient. According to National Geographic, it takes up to five times more grain to get the equivalent amount of calories from eating pork as from simply eating grain itself—ten times if we're talking about grain-fattened U.S. beef. Thus, as more grain is diverted to feeding livestock and the production of biofuels for cars, among other purposes, we sacrifice a pretty obvious solution to the betterment of our environment and those who go hungry within it.
The United States is simultaneously faced with issues of wealth and poverty, obesity and hunger, excess and scarcity, which seems to exacerbate my inexplicably personal, deep frustration with human injustice. Yet, if the respective complexities that allow these contradictory issues to persist in tandem leave you unmoved by their injustice, our nation's nonsensical methods of dealing with these issues should at least seem as misguided as they are. As mentioned earlier, in the case of world hunger, majority of crop yields in the United States are diverted to industries apart from, or otherwise undetectable within, the food industry; meaning, we actively devote the vital resources that could efficiently and cheaply feed those who go hungry to sustaining products instead of people.
The enduring issue of world hunger seems to succinctly epitomize my frustrations with our relationship with the environment, as generally ungracious inhabitants of it, and our relationship with food, as a generally uninformed one at best. Like a surprising number of lasting global issues, hunger is one that we actually have the means to remediate but, like most every issue whether personal or international, the steps necessary to fix it involve sacrifices we are unwilling to make. Not only does stubbornness limit our potential for crucial, even life-saving progress in a number of arenas, but so does the flagrant and embarrassing inefficiency of the practices we refuse to change. We have enough food to feed the world, yet more than 1 billion people die of hunger every year: a statistic that admittedly encompasses an immense compilation of various other global challenges (both cultivated, like severe poverty, lack of infrastructure, and war, as well as relatively uncontrollable, like natural disaster and disease). Though I do not intend to oversimplify the obvious complexity of these problems, I also refuse to disregard the meaningful impact each one of us can and should make in aiding a global issue, even one as intimidating and multifaceted as world hunger.
If we, as a nation, were to devote the money, land, and resources we use to cultivate corn crops and raise livestock (the massive processes that fuel the meat industry), for example, instead to the effort of organically farming a variety of diverse and nutritious crops, it is hard to fathom all of the global benefits this could yield. For one, a switch from industrial agriculture to organic and agro-ecological farming methods would dramatically decrease our negative contributions to our environment, as industrial animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels and is a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution and biodiversity loss. Industrial agriculture, in general, relies upon environmentally harmful, petroleum-based chemicals for pest control and improved productivity, as well as drains up to 70 percent of the planet's freshwater for farming resources. Contrastingly, organic farmers utilize an understanding of biological systems to build soil fertility and manage pests, through techniques like composting, intercropping, crop sequencing, among others.
My real beef with animal-based diets is our obsession with meat and how illogical that custom truly is. It's just stupid. The food industry we have cultivated is completely unsustainable; it is reliant on short-term practices that were rendered to prioritize a satisfaction of privileged consumer wants rather than true global needs. To progress in a fight for our collective livelihood—a fight against world hunger and in protection of our environment—necessitates an answer to a classic question of long- and short-term benefits: do we remain bound to our inefficient practices at the ultimate cost of personal and environmental well-being, or sacrifice comfortably-disguised privilege in a long-term reconfiguration toward more sustainable, ethical, agro-ecological farming practice? It is a decision our nation quite possibly may never make nor fully act upon, yet one that we, as constituents of the marketplace, hold immense power in asking, answering, and acting upon every single day.
I intend to do my best in making this world even the slightest bit of a better place for all people, and eating thoughtfully is one of the ways I have chosen to do that. I try really hard to eat as consciously as I can, but also understand that life or death is not determined within my lunch of choice. As for you, do whatever will allow you to sleep at night. If you don't bear the weights of global warming and world hunger on either shoulder like I do for some reason, then grill up that steak and dig right in— I know it's delicious. I don't expect everyone to be passionate about what I am passionate about. Yet, I do expect for each and every one of us, in making those small choices of our daily lives, to weigh some sort of greater understanding against our personal desires; that we acknowledge our personal impact and really consider what that means for our collective impact.
Innumerable people have expressed to me their concern that these sacrifices I make are superfluous— that my decision of whether to eat an egg for breakfast or not will not rectify the state of our environment. And, to those people, I say:
Yes. You very well could be right. In fact, you definitely are right—I, individually, do not hold the power to change the world within my dietary choices. But, my choices are indeed powerful, as are yours; I hope to do well by them and, in doing so, encourage you to do the same. I could go my entire life without eating another animal or animal product and see absolutely no change in the condition of those global issues. And yet, I will continue attempting to be a benefactor in those causes that I believe in, because forfeiting a fight for the greater good feels a lot more like a sacrifice than declining a hamburger.
The dream is that these small rebellions against our meat-obsessed, agro-industrialized norms may continue to force the market's focus toward more sustainable and honorable practices. And maybe this isn't even as selfless as it may seem— maybe I'm really just doing it for myself— for, within these careful choices I make lies the surety that my footprint on our earth will be a well-intentioned one. So, if not for some larger inkling toward world peace, my vegetarian-brinking-veganism is truly an action for my own peace of mind: to satisfy that hope that we all carry to do something that matters. I'm certainly not saying that you have to be vegan to leave a beneficial mark on this world— for, let's face it, being vegan only makes you a saint in one sphere; who knows what other global issues that herbivore could be contributing to? But, to do something is always better than to do nothing, and to care is always better than to remain comfortable in ignorance. And, if not for the greater good, to act upon our awareness in any way provides us an invigorating and vital sense of importance: a reminder that we do have purpose, that we do hold power, and that we matter.