Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is Vegetarianism Bad for the Environment?

I like to eat a "mostly vegan" diet for both health and weight reasons, but I never thought of myself as doing potential harm to the environment for doing so.

According to celebrity chef Dan Barber strict vegetarians have "blood" on their hands. Here's what Dan has to say:

My wife is not a strict vegetarian, but she loves vegetables and would just be happy eating vegetables every meal we eat together, and I’m also fine with that. But why am I not standing up here and saying "eat less meat"? The answer is that I come from the lower Hudson Valley [New England] and my ecological conditions are dictating that we eat a lot of meat, because we’re grassland. What we grow best besides those carrots is an amazing diversity of healthful grass for animals. Now if you are in the game of feeding, say, a lamb, as I mentioned before, instead of on grain from Hoosier ecology but on the great grasslands (a diversity of grasslands from the New England landscape — the grasslands, by the way, that built New England, that built the dairy industry.

It’s no surprise this is the iconic landscape that I referenced with my grandmother — that wasn’t just about building beauty; that was about building what they were taking advantage of, which was cows grazing on great grass to produce great milk. That same ecology holds true today — those iconic open-pasture lands that I talk about produce the best-tasting meat in the world.

And so for me to be a vegetarian, and be a strict advocate of it, wouldn’t be listening to the ecology that the land is telling us it wants to grow. So I think one of the futures (dialing back to the young 11-year-old chef in the making) … one of the requirements of the chef for the future is not to propose a cuisine on the landscape, it’s going to have to be listening to the landscape to determine what kind of chef and what kind of eater we want to be. And if you are in southern Los Angeles and San Diego and you want to be a vegetarian, God bless you. You should be. You should be. But if you want to be in New England and you want to improve the ecological conditions of where you are, you’re eating meat. There’s no question about it. There is no healthy ecological system that I’ve ever seen that doesn’t include animals — there just doesn’t. Because the manure from the animals is a free, free ecological resource that amends the soil that gives you better-tasting and healthful vegetables. That’s been around since the beginning of time. So to say that vegetarians live on this higher plane of ethics (and I’m not here to argue that slaughtering animals doesn’t carry with it some weight), but you have blood on your hands when you eat vegetarian as well, especially if you’re in the northeast. Because your food is coming from somewhere, and your calories are coming from somewhere in the winter, and if they’re traveling hundreds of miles, and in many cases thousands of miles, you are burning fossil fuels to get them there, and generally they’re produced in monocultures, and that has a huge cost on natural living systems. They might not be animals that you and I can identify with, but they’re insects and bugs and whole types of flora and fauna that are dying to produce those vegetables. That’s not an ethical way to eat, I don’t think, in the future.

I kind of understand what he's saying, although I don't know if I would have used the "blood on their hands" bit.

Still, I do somewhat relate to what he is saying. I equate strict vegans and vegetarians with religious fundamentalists. While religious fundamentalists are dogmatic in their religious beliefs, vegans and vegetarians are dogmatic in their eating habits.

If you want to be a localvore--which is probably inherently better for the environment, then if you live in a cold weather climate, you probably can't sustain yourself on just vegetables through the Winter. Meat has to be part of your diet if you live in a cold weather client. In the summer you could probably survive on a plant-based diet alone, but once the weather chills and the supply of vegetables drops, you, by necessity, have to eat some meat.

I always said that vegetarianism and veganism are modern day luxuries. Prior to today's methods of shipping produce over vast miles, it just wasn't available for large parts of the year, and what was available was prohibitively expensive.

Now, being a vegetarian in Vermont in the Winter is not prohibitively expensive, but the potential damage to the environment you are doing by being one can be significant. The grapes, bananas and asparagus you're living on had to be transported hundreds, if not thousands of miles so that you could indulge in your vegetarianism.

Now, I'm not saying be a 100% localvore either. I like my fresh fruit and veggies in Winter as much as anybody else, and I still like to keep to a mostly vegan diet.

The issue is, however, to fully think through the consequences of your diet, on the planet, animals and your health.


  1. This is a really thought provoking post. It could also be a good argument for not being a vegetatian/vegan or pro omnivore that I hadn't thought of before. I am a complete omnivore, I love meat and some fruits but veggies no so much but I am working on it. I am lucky ot live in an area that we can grow something year round. I have been looking into the locavore thinking recently as well.

    Anyway, thanks for the post and the thoughts.

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