11 April 2008

Growing Meat vs. Going Vegetarian

In today's Dot Earth post "Can People Have Meat and a Planet, Too?," Andrew Revkin explores the brave new world of growing meat cultures in vitro as a more humane and possibly more environmentally friendly way of producing meat.

In his post, Revkin cites Jesse Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University. Ausubel expresses pessimism about the ability of humans to change their diets from environmentally destructive meat-based diets to environmentally sustainable plant-based diets on the grounds that the desire for meat is somehow hard-wired into "our little snake brains." While by no means optimistic, I'm certainly less pessimistic than Ausubel. First of all, people can change. Every day, some people switch from meat-based diets to vegetarian diets. Every day, some people make the switch to entirely plant-based vegan diets. Some people make the switch for ethical reasons, others for health reasons, others out of concern for the environment, and some for a combination of all these reasons. (As Keith and I have repeatedly pointed out, the case for plant-based diets is overdetermined.)

Admittedly, one is forced to ask why more people don't make such life- and planet-affirming choices. It could be "our little snake brains," as Ausubel suggests. But then again, it could be due to the fact that we are constantly bombarded with billion-dollar advertising campaigns from the meat industries, the dairy industry, and the egg industry, as well as from myriad restaurant chains that promote and sell these very animal products. These industries and corporations don't spend their huge advertising budgets for no reason. They do so because they know that doing so stimulates and reinforces demand for their health- and planet-destroying products. I suspect that such advertising has far more to do with our dietary choices than a biologically hard-wired craving for meat and diary products, especially since in other parts of the world, consumption of meat is rare to nonexistent. (Consider, e.g., the traditional low animal-protein diets in rural China and the vegetarian diets of 15 million Jains.)

Couple the fact that the average TV viewer is exposed to some sort of pro-animal-product ad every ten minutes or so, with the lack of accurate information about the genuine health and environmental benefits of plant-based diets, and it's no wonder that more people haven't switched to plant-based diets.

Why do so many people lack accurate information about the health and environmantal benefits of plant-based diets? In part, because of media obfuscation. Yes, the media who profit from these animal-industry advertising dollars are complicit in not reporting information that would potentially hurt the sales of their major advertisers. How many people know, e.g., that University of Chicago researchers have reported that by switching to a vegan diet, a person can reduce her/his carbon footprint by 1.5 metric tons per year? That's more than switching from an SUV to a Prius.

Fortunately, a growing number of blogs, like Dot Earth, Animal Ethics, and many of the other blogs linked to in our blog roll, are getting out accurate information to a wide audience, information that can help readers make informed responsible choices regarding both their and the planet's health.

I conclude with a challenge. I challenge you to try the following experiment: Turn off your TV for an entire month. Don't watch it at all. Not once. See whether your desire for meat doesn't wane in the absence of larger-than-life images of animal products flashing across the screen. At the same time, try a vegetarian diet for a month. Get a good vegetarian cookbook—preferably one with full-page enticing photos of succulent vegetarian dishes. Find a few recipes that intrigue you. See whether you enjoy the food that you are consciously choosing to prepare and eat as much as the food you've been manipulated into consuming by industry advertisements. To your health and the health of the planet!

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