The term “sustainable food” does not come with a clear definition for most of us. I believe that socially it’s still a work in progress. Whereas “organic” can be defined (if poorly) by USDA rules and a certification program and “local” has a working definition as food grown within 100 miles of where it is consumed, “sustainable” is a descriptor at large. I’ve done my best to outline what I mean by it previously on this blog: ”food that can be produced and distributed at minimum cost to the environment for maximum benefit to the consumer.”
But this still doesn’t give any idea of what my personal idea of a sustainable diet is, let alone everyone else’s. One thing I think I can clear up, though, is that sustainable is not a euphemism for vegetarian. Meat can and does have a place in a sustainable food system–just not as much of it as we have in our current food system, where we look to animal products for the vast majority of our protein and fat.
There is certainly a school of thought based around the idea that vegetarianism is better for our planet as well as for our bodies. Meat is energy-intensive to produce: grass-fed beef comes from cows who need a tremendous about of grazing room and years to come to maturity. The commercial system for beef production developed to move cows off grass lots and into feedlots sooner so that they take up less land and make room for the next batch of calves. Once on feedlots, they’re fed a combo of things they were never meant to eat (like corn and hormones) to get them to physical maturity in a fraction of the time. We’ve moved from solar-powered beef to fossil fuel-powered beef, to paraphrase Michael Pollan.
The choice to not eat meat is to step out of the cruel and energy-intensive institution of commercial meat production, and yes, if everyone did it, said production would grind to a halt. But everyone won’t do it, which is why I think this is an ineffective approach to changing the system. Not just because eating meat is ingrained in our food culture, but because we’re omnivores and it’s completely natural for us to pursue animal food sources. Better education about the downsides to over-consumption of meat (and of protein in general) would do much; throwing animal rights at most people doesn’t convince them; ambiguous, fear-mongering health studies don’t do it; and insisting that a vegetarian diet can be just as delicious as one with meat also doesn’t cut it. Let’s face it: I love eating vegetarian food, but when I crave a steak, there is quite literally no substitute. And I’m one of the easy ones.
Education is key to moving people away from a meat-based diet in this country. Not just education surrounding the nutritional and health factors of meat eating but also menu planning. If you’re a meat-and-potatoes kind of family, it’s pretty hard to think of substitutes. The internet and the growth of natural food retailers have done a lot to make food alternatives more mainstream, not to mention highly visible media like Food, Inc. or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but we’re not quite there yet.
Unfortunately, commercial meat is so cheap that most people can’t be bothered to seek for alternatives on the dinner table. It’s easy, it’s fast, it’s inexpensive. Eating a nutrient-rich plant-based diet is generally cheaper, not even counting in the avoided health care costs etc., but it does take more planning. And actually, if you prioritize fresh and especially organic produce, a plant-based diet can be more expensive.
On the cost front, purchasing grass-fed local beef is something I strongly advocate. It’s way more expensive than commercially produced meat, but it should be. In a food system that undervalues good food, meat I think is the most glaring example. There’s no way meat can be produced humanely and sustainably for what we pay for it at the grocery store. Yet when we do pay a fair price to local farmers for grass-fed beef, directly or through a CSA or buyers’ club, we’re encouraging fair practices, humane treatment, and local businesses.
Just replacing your commercial meat with grass-fed meat isn’t the answer, though. The amount of meat we consume in this country is not sustainable–feed cattle require too many resources. Food and health writer John Robbins makes some excellent points on his blog. Many of his criticisms are succinctly expressed here:
But I wouldn’t get too carried away and think that as long as it’s grassfed then it’s fine and dandy. Grassfed products are still high in saturated fat (though not as high), still high in cholesterol, and are still devoid of fiber and many other essential nutrients. They take less toll on the environment, but the land on which the animals graze still must often be irrigated, thus using up dwindling water resources, and it may be fertilized with petroleum-based fertilizers.
He also lists methane, a gas produced from decomposing organic matter (i.e., cow dung), as a danger. This isn’t a very powerful argument for me, as methane gas digesters that turn the waste gas into electricity are remarkably efficient, cost effective, and being implemented on many farms nation-wide with support from the federal government.
What I do suggest is leaving your meat budget the same as it is right now for the purchase of commercial meat and simply buying what you can of sustainable meat with the same amount of money. You’ll eat a hell of a lot less meat–and feel a hell of a lot better about doing so.