So this past week I grabbed and subsequently tore through a copy of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters.
Bittman’s book covers a wide range of topics regarding the American/Western food system, what it is today, and how it got there. He addresses the massive consumption of the typical American diet – specifically meat and animal products – and illustrates points as to why it is problematic for us both as individuals as well as on global terms. There is some discussion of the pros and cons of government interference and policy at the various levels of the food system – from seed to table – and some of the often cited issues with so-called healthy ingredients and tenants of nutrition science.
Admittedly, a lot of this is fairly familiar ground, especially if you have read Pollan’s book In Defense of Food. But the approach is a bit different.
Bittman’s book reads more as dietary advice, whereas Pollan’s approach lends itself a little more toward intellectual meditations on diet. This is certainly a fine line (and perhaps it’s entirely in my mind), but despite the fact that both books include advice on what to eat and how to adapt a healthy diet that’s not only friendly to your wallet and your waist but also to your local and global communities – the subtle tones of their writing are still distinct.
What particularly set Bittman’s book apart for me was the time he spent talking about the environmental impact of food. A lot of this was pretty new to me, and really pretty shocking. Bittman cites a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as being his impetus for writing a book like this – the report stated the statistic that…
…global livestock production is responsible for about one-fifth of all greenhouse gases – more than transportation.
That’s ALL of transportation. Cars, trains, aer-o-planes. Wow.
While explicitly specifying that his intention was not to make vegetarians of us all, Bittman does level some pretty damning charges on meat eating. I think we all know fairly well by this point about all the issues with industrial meat and CAFO livestock (and if you don’t know by now, then you really should look into it) – but seeing some of the statistics in print were truly eye-opening for me.
We live in a world now where global warming is pretty much accepted as fact. It’s happening, like it or not. And if you don’t believe me, I’m sure there is a forum out there somewhere for you to debate it with somebody late into the night, but I’m personally no longer interested in that particular argument.
All food production yields greenhouse gases but raising livestock is exponentially more damaging. I’ll assume here that you’re familiar with the idea of Calorie as a unit of energy . It takes roughly 2.2 calories of energy to create one calorie of corn, whereas it takes 40 calories of energy to create one calorie of (industrial) beef protein. This is for the entire process – from growing feed, to pesticides, to growth hormones and drugs, to transportation, to slaughter, to transportation again, to processing, to packaging, to transportation, and ultimately to your grocery store refrigeration unit. So for every calorie of beef protein you consume you are responsible for 40 calories of energy.
According to one estimate, a typical steer consumes the equivalent of 135 gallons of gasoline in his lifetime…
– try to imagine each cow on the planet consuming almost seven barrels of crude oil.
Another way to put it is that eating a typical family-of-four steak dinner is the rough equivalent, energy-wise, of driving around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home.
If we each ate the equivalent of merely three fewer cheeseburgers a week, we’d cancel out the effects of all the SUVs in the country.
Okay, so I read this page about five times before I was convinced I was actually reading it correctly.
ALL THE SUVS IN THE COUNTRY. ALL OF THEM. THREE CHEESEBURGERS.
To me, that’s just crazy. And what’s even more crazy on top of that, is that nobody knows this. Or if they do, you certainly don’t ever hear about it.
Why is it the government can shout from the roof top about conserving gas, create policy that requires more fuel efficient cars, encourage public transportation, etc., etc. – yet never would you dream of hearing a suggestion that maybe, just maybe, we might benefit from eating less meat. Not that we can’t eat meat ever again, just that maybe it’s not really all that necessary to be consuming it three or more times a day (most people in developed countries eat at least 1/2 pound of meat per day). It just won’t happen. They can tell us to eat more veggies, of course, with perhaps an underlying implication that those veggies maybe should be replacing some of that meat rather than merely supplementing it, but eating less meat is something you are certain to never hear.
The reason is all because of money. We simply don’t have a government that is strong enough, functional enough, or perhaps courageous enough to take on the corporations that represent the meat and animal product industry. Tyson, Cargill, Archer-Daniels Midland… these are the people who own your government-endorsed food pyramid. Pork is the other white meat. The egg is both incredible and edible. Beef – it’s what’s for dinner. Oil, it’s what you swim in at the beach.
I have no intention of giving up the meat in my diet, or any other animal products such as eggs or dairy. But I will say that some of the things I have read in this book easily make the strongest argument for vegetarianism/veganism that I have ever seen or heard. However, as Bittman is certain to point out, not all meats come from the industrial livestock system. Not all animal products are created equal.
It’s been some time now since I stopped buying my meats and produce from the grocery and have now been buying about 98% of them locally. It’s not really as hard as it might seem if you take things in baby steps. Start with beef. Find a way to source all your beef from a provider that you know practices sustainable animal production. Allow yourself the occasional restaurant steak if you really want to, but make it the treat and not the norm. It’s okay. It will pay off in spades. Once you’re comfortable with that, make the same switch for your poultry. And your pork. And your produce. And so on. The changes will start to fall like dominoes as you build momentum. And it will be rewarding in many, many ways – you will not only feel like (and be) a better person morally, but physically as well. I promise you, you will feel the difference.
Bittman goes on to attack the junk food industry, which I will abstain from diving into here. Suffice it to say there are again some alarming statistics, and some very convincing arguments. It’s worth a serious read (or two).
Another aspect that sets his book apart from Pollan, is that he actually does angle it as a real diet book. Whereas Pollan merely provides some guidelines for purchasing your food and supplying your kitchen (very helpful guidelines, by all means) – Bittman actually provides you with a cookbook, and some sample weekly meal schedules to get you started. It’s not only a great book but also a very useful tool to have around.
So this all got me thinking about the world today and the catastrophic oil spill in the gulf. There have been many (nobly intentioned, I’m sure) calls for boycotting BP and driving less frequently and so on. And this is great. But it does take a moment of thought and consideration to boycott BP on one hand without merely benefitting Exxon (or Chevron, or Sunoco, or Amoco – one and the same, really) on the other.
The fact of the matter is, Americans aren’t going to stop driving any time soon. We can maybe stop driving such ridiculous gas guzzlers (gradually), but as a country we have no serious rail infrastructure, and most of our major cities have only mediocre public transit at best. America is sprawling suburbs. It would be fantastic if we could all ride our bikes to work, I mean really great.. hell, riding a bike is just plain fun. But it’s not going to be a reality any time soon.
So maybe, while we’re taking our sweet-ass time working on that whole little car addiction thing we have going on, we should think about some other energy and oil intensive actions we still manage to commit on a regular basis.
Like eating meat. Please don’t misread me here, as I’m no vegetarian saint. And I don’t want to be, and I don’t want you to be one either. But it’s actually kind of fun when my wife and I know that every Monday is Meatless Monday, and we have to give a moment’s thought to putting together vegetarian meals for the day. It’s not a lifestyle shift, but it’s a perspective shift. The Western diet is never going to change on a national level, it must change on an individual level.
There are other ways to boycott BP as well. Like cutting back on your use of plastics and petrochemicals.
Bottled water, for instance, is one of those highly fashionable trends that has that distinct American irony to it. It is estimated that 50 million barrels of oil are used per year on the production of those plastic bottles. Buy yourself a filter, and a good stainless steel bottle, and be done with it. Same goes for plastic bags – I know many of us probably rolled our eyes as those permanent re-usable bags started making their way into our grocery stores, but I can honestly say that I use re-usable bags pretty much all the time now and it’s actually quite handy. You go through a period of adjustment, of course. First you have to decide you want to use them (which is the biggest step), then you have to actually *remember* to bring them to the store, and then you have to actually remember to bring them into the store with you while you shop. I know, I’ve been there. It helped me to start storing a few of them in the trunk of my car so they’d always be there even if I hadn’t initially been planning on going to the store.
Lastly, if BP themselves really grind your gears, consider buying less aluminum cans. BP owns such a large share of the aluminum production in our country that 2 out of every 6 cans in a 6-pack is made by BP. Switching from cans to glass bottles here would have an impact. Of course, aluminum is one of the most recycled materials, so this is a choice that maybe isn’t quite so clear cut. Still it’s worth bearing in mind.
So, I did in fact mention a giveaway at the beginning of this post. Here’s how I want to do it.
Leave a comment on this post and tell me what you pledge to do to cut back on your reliance on big oil. Doesn’t matter how big or how small, and yes, I will be checking up on your pledges in 6 months to make sure that none of you is a liar. Let me know if you’re going to start using re-usable bags, or maybe cut back on your meat consumption – Meatless Mondays is an easy and fun trend, and it even has an alliteration.. and as we all know, alliterations are always awesome all the time.. always. Whatever you’re going to do, let me know. Or let me know what you’re already doing. Or, tell me that you hate the earth and you plan to continue aggressively using as many petro based products as possible to support your belief that the only reason the human race is here on this planet in the first place is to create a massive amount of indestructible plastics for use by a future race of intelligent beings. I mean if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it with conviction.
Cut-off for entry is 6pm, Thursday July 1st.
The winner, chosen at random, will be announced on July 2nd and will receive a brand new copy of Mark Bittman’s book.