The Greenmarket at Union Square in late fall is overwhelming; the perfume of apple and pear ciders mingle in the air turkey samples on the grill at Dipaolo’s. Adjacent produce tents overflow with voluptuous grapes and vibrant pumpkins.
Every Wednesday I make my rounds, collecting staples and enjoying the atmosphere of abundance. I stop at a certain spot to buy eggs from a farmer who also sells broilers, sauces and homemade pasta. “When are you going to buy a chicken?” he teases each time I see him, trying to upsell me on the expensive bird. In a cooler nearby are a row of fresh birds killed that morning, snuggled wing to wing in their clear plastic bags. I’m sure his chickens live a great life and would taste delicious, but I have never explained to him that I won’t buy chicken because I am an environmental vegetarian.
Last year I visited San Francisco for the first time. Aside from visiting restaurants like the iconic Greens and Chez Panisse, I also went to Mexican restaurants with meat-heavy dishes. However, when I visited the farmer’s market near City Hall, I had my first in-person experience in factory farming. Feathers wafted down the lawn from cages so cramped with broiler chickens covered in their own excrement, unable to move. Having never visited a farm, my idea of chickens had a lot more to do with the stories in Whole Foods about free ranges chickens frolicking on free-range farms than being cramped into cages. I decided to learn how other livestock, that would turn
into my meat, was being produced. What I learned about animal welfare was upsetting, but the environmental effects of the systems are much more relevant to human beings.
As popular authors including Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman promote plant-based diets, those who are familiar with the negative effect of animal products on health are now learning of the deleterious effects meat production has
on the environment.
There is a new movement of environmental vegetarians. They are angry with the factory farm system because of
the toll it takes on the environment, and so they opt not to spend money supporting that system. We are vegetarians because we are environmentalists first, although some of us also care about animals welfare and human rights concerns.
Mark Bittman’s book Food Matters, the author advocated eating no animal products for breakfast and lunch. My slim friend Sarah has adopted Bittman’s diet not for weight loss, but as a method for reducing her carbon footprint. “I used to have bacon at breakfast, chicken for lunch and pork or beef for dinner. I thought that was totally normal until I saw a movie on factory farming- the biggest problem is that it’s really hard on the environment, raising all these animals. “
The science backs up Sarah’s assessment. About half of the land in the United States is used in some way to raise livestock. The land is used for growing corn for cattle to eat, for housing the cattle, and some of it is used up by manure lagoons filled with millions of gallons of their waste. These lagoons leach methane, a greenhouse
warming gas, into the atmosphere.
Raising animals for us to eat takes up more than just space. It takes between 3,500 and 5,000 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef. It takes 54 calories of energy to create one calorie of beef protein, while one calorie of soybean only requires two calories of energy. Because corn is subsidized and cattle feed is cheap, beef is cheap. Farmers produce more meat, prices drop and we eat more. Serving sizes have grown. Each year, each person in the USA consumes an average of 98 pounds of beef.
Our ancestors didn’t eat meat often. When they successfully hunted down a prized elk, it served as a valuable source of protein. But today, especially as Americans, we eat more eat than we can even digest, and those animal products are tough on our bodies, and the environment.
When Sarah discussed her vegetarianism, she used to worry about how people would react, especially traditionalist like her father, who loves meat. However, she has found that people appreciate her nuanced explanation. “People seem to have a real bias against animal welfare vegetarians,” said Sarah. “Maybe because of global warming, people are more willing to accept environmental vegetarians.”