So eat your vegetables!
The COVID-19 pandemic with its fast spread through Midwest meatpacking plants earlier this year forced many of us to wonder if we might be better off becoming vegetarian. More than a century earlier, Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel, “The Jungle,” had exposed the cruel and unsanitary working conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants; the coronavirus reminded the country that large-scale meat production is still an unpleasant, dangerous business.
Would vegetarianism be a realistic idea? The practice of abstaining from the consumption of animal meat — vegetarianism — may also include the abstention from the by-products of animal slaughter. Vegans, the most extreme variety of vegetarian, shun all animal products including milk, eggs, cheese, honey, leather, wool and silk. India has the highest percentage of vegetarians of any country, 38%, while fewer than 4% of Americans are vegetarian, and just a small fraction of these are vegans. More than two thirds of American vegetarians are women.
Americans consume more animal meat per person than any people in the world, approximately 244 pounds per year with Australia, Argentina and Brazil not far behind. Half of this is “red” meat, 35% poultry and about 15% seafood. Citizens of the EU and China eat about two thirds as much meat as Americans and those from much poorer countries consume much less.
Vegetarians have long disparaged the eating of meat as unhealthy for human beings. But people have been eating meat for millions of years and are not likely to stop as long as it remains available. Native people in the Arctic Circle exist almost entirely on fish and sea mammals except for a couple of months in the summer when a meager assortment of vegetables is available. These peoples, carnivores by circumstance, seem to be as healthy as those eating a more conventional diet.
Actually, the strongest arguments for vegetarianism are environmental. Although many people think meat eating in the US and Europe has declined, this is not the case; overall it is more popular than ever. Over the past 50 years while world population has doubled, meat production has nearly quintupled. More people can now afford to eat meat and do. The seas are becoming grossly overfished. The vast deforestation of the Amazon and other rain forests is caused mostly by the conversion of the forest to animal farms.
Modern practices of raising animals for food contribute on a massive scale to air and water pollution, land degradation, loss of bio diversity, and climate change. Animal husbandry uses roughly a quarter of the world’s fresh water (it takes about 150 gallons of water to produce a quarter pound of hamburger). Cattle contribute more than a third of the methane and two thirds of the nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, both major pollutants contributing to climate change.
The growing of animals in confinement results in enormous amounts of manure, which typically ends up polluting nearby waterways. Factory-farmed animals are fed unhealthy diets to increase their weight and copious amounts of antibiotics that have other untoward consequences — both for the animals and for people. While a little bit of free-range livestock production is probably good for the environment, factory farming is unsustainable and also involves animal mistreatment bordering on torture.
So should we try to become vegetarians? It might make sense. But Americans, among the most carnivorous people on the earth, may need to try doing so gradually in order to succeed. Forget about veganism for now; it’s too severe a change. Start by just learning to love fruit and vegetables.
The ever-increasing trend to urban living has undercut people’s familiarity with home-grown food. The ascendancy of chain supermarkets has meant the decline of tasty fresh fruit and vegetables. However, because of the coronavirus, over the last few months there has been a surge in home gardening, both to avoid unnecessary food shopping and to obtain better-quality produce.
For those considering vegetarianism, the growing season in the colder states is a good time to try it out. Even if you are unable to have a backyard garden you can usually find delicious fruit and vegetables at small local farm markets. And instead of eschewing all “meat” (and that includes poultry, seafood and dairy products) at once, try instead simply cutting back, say by half, and see if you can get used to it.
Lakeville architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon designed the Hewat Community Garden in Salisbury.