Burgers and Climate Change: Why Americans Are Eating Themselves Into Extinction.
The number one thing that the world can do to stop climate change is eating less meat. Meat requires a massive amount of water (1200 gallons per lb), it requires a lot of land, it requires a lot of nutrients and feed which pollutes waterways and destroys forests.
We know that it is not that necessary for survival because some of the most populated countries are the ones that consume the least amount of meat. And yet, the countries that produce the most amount of CO2, NOX and CH4 (methane), are the wealthiest countries that consume the most amount of meat!
I asked myself that this week. Why does America consume so much meat? Sometimes the answer lies not by looking at the country that eats a lot of meat, but ones that don’t.
I grew up in Ukraine. When my wife moved to Israel with me and she had to eat with our Ukrainian food, there were a lot of dishes that had to be modified for her because most of them included meat. However, when I thought about it, none of those dishes contained a lot of meat.
We never had large pieces of chicken unless it was a big holiday. Usually small pieces with potatoes or pasta. Beef would always be very small cutlets or in dumplings and pork was also small portions inside of other food. We never had steaks or large burgers and when we ate bread with food, it wasn’t large buns, but one small piece of bread. It dawned on me that most cultures that eat meat, are similar.
Most Italian dishes that have meat have a little bit of meat inside of pasta or a little bit on pizza. French meat dishes are always small. The same goes for the Middle East and even Mexican dishes: always small.. unless, it is barbeque. When you have a kebab, it is large pieces of meat and that is always a rare occasion.
And that’s when I remembered reading Darwin’s Voyage of The Beagle. In his book Darwin described the diet of the Gaucho (Cowboy). They would be out on the pasture, far from any place where they could have any fresh vegetables or grains. What they would do is kill a cow and eat meat. Just meat.
If you think about America, it is similar, especially out West. America is a rancher mentality and diet, just as it is in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand and Australia, all countries which rely economically on livestock. Countries that don’t rely on livestock usually have far lower meat consumption and rely more and also consume more vegetables and grains.
But America is a special beast. The reliance and creation of foods like hamburgers and hot dogs, meat corn, and potatoes also comes down to the fact that it was a place where poor people went, mostly from Northern Europe who relied mostly on grains and milk products and so as they planted grains, corn and potato mono-cultures for sale, they would combine it with livestock for simple but unhealthy and lacking diversity foods, making most nutrition come from meat products.
But what about the South? The South has a lot of land, a year-round growing season, lack of pastures. The South did have a much better culinary tradition than the north, but it was also steeped in meat and fish. There was a lack of diverse vegetables because the land was dense and hot forests had to be cleared at great expense. The land that was planted was maximized not for food, but for economic production; cotton, tobacco, tea, sugar. Thus much of the food still came from meat came from hunting, chicken, or pigs which are high in density and don’t need a lot of lands.
This is why I think America never developed much of a culinary tradition. The new foods like pasta and pizza were bread and cheese and some tomato which came in 1900’s with Italians. The new resurgence in culinary interest really came around with the Food Network and new immigrants from Asia, bringing Indian, Thai, and Japanese cuisine.
So how do we solve climate change? It doesn’t mean cutting out meat but we have to learn to eat more like others: less steak and burgers and more pasta, more salads with meat, more meat but in smaller portions. This would help the country reduce our impact on the environment and because meat products have such adverse effects on health, it would also make our country healthier and reduce healthcare costs.
To do this would take a large marketing effort as it was required to get people to eat shrimp. Chefs would have to make easier to make recipes. But more than that, it would also require government subsidies.
Presently, the government subsidizes meat and dairy industry with billions of dolars. As a result meat and dairy are cheaper than the vegan alternatives. To save earth and change habbits it would need to redirect subsidies from soy and corn for beef to more diverse types of plants. This would make it cheaper to buy fruits and vegetables and grains and more expensive to buy meat, making small meat portions economically necessary alternative.
Without government and industry collaboration, large-scale changes on this will be impossible. And without large-scale dietary changes, so will be our survival as a species, impossible. Of course this means facing some of the largest corporations and lobby groups on earth who are dependant on current economic models, models that are driving us and the earth into deforestation, global warming and extinction.
Because we can’t cut oil to zero, but we can cut back on meat and load up on everything else that the earth is more than happy to provide. But only if we can overcome the capitalist forces of inertia.