Voting with Forks

by Sean Callahan

There are numerous physiological reasons why you should move toward a more plant-based diet. But the most compelling benefits of such a move come when practiced at scale.

I. Americans have a special relationship with beef. Chickens and pigs too, yes, but cow meat in particular is a hallmark of red-blooded Americanism. No country in the world consumes more beef than the U.S. in overall terms, and the U.S. ranks fourth in beef consumed per capita, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Data from 2013 indicated that Australia consumed the most overall meat, with the U.S. a close second.

But even beyond America’s clear statistical preference for burgers, steaks and roasts, there lies the story of beef – the foundation for a cultural bias. You know how it goes: Beef is masculine. Beef is delicious. Beef is full of protein – which you need. Beef is full of iron – which you need. Beef is a hearty meal for the whole family. Beef is a blue-collar meal. Beef is a high-brow meal. Beef is your last meal on death row. Beef is your desert island meal. Beef is good for you. Everyone eats beef all the time. One hundred billion served.

 This bull has beef with America's obsession with meat. Image: Sean Callahan.

This bull has beef with America's obsession with meat. Image: Sean Callahan.

At the heart of much of this marketing ploy is the idea that meat, in general, is a necessary part of our diet – without which we would be frail, anemic and unsatisfied. Not only is that gross exaggeration, it is also often the exact opposite of the truth: a vegan, vegetarian or simply veggie-forward diet can leave us healthier, more energetic, stronger and more vital.

I know this firsthand and so do many others. Lost in the noise of Big Meat’s marketing and lobbying is the fact that all across the U.S. we’re having conversations about meat – where it comes from, how much we need, whether it should be our default main course. As food writer and former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman pointed out during an episode of NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook, cutting out meat is not an effete, elitist, coastal phenomenon. Americans from sea to shining sea are beginning to question our dietary norms.

II. My own transition to a vastly more plant-forward diet happened in stages:

Stage One: Psychology. As a man, choosing a diet that can be described as mostly vegetarian begins with a reckoning with masculinity. I had to gradually dissociate “red meat” with “red-blooded.” What helped, in my case, was to remind myself that falling for that gimmick was to make myself a sucker – to be duped by a marketing ploy and become a puppet consumer for a massive industry.

Stage Two: Dietary Health. Once I separated my identity from my dietary choice, the next step was to understand what I should be eating. This required no small amount of research and experimentation, because frankly, it’s hard to know exactly what to eat. Ultimately, though, all research points to this: a great number of ailments and conditions can be, in some measure, prevented or alleviated through simply sticking to a fully plant-based diet.

Stage Three: Enjoyment. Knowing what to eat, how to prepare it, and how to get a variety of textures, tastes and nutritional content from vegetables is a clear must. But beyond that, I found ways to get satisfaction from fully vegetarian or vegan meals– and I re-conditioned my brain to crave squash instead of steak.

Stage Four: Reaffirmation. What I realized as I moved further and further away from meat was that I didn’t crave it, I didn’t feel weak or malnourished, and I felt no negative consequences whatsoever. And as I solidified my stance– which, I should be clear, is roughly 93% non-animal, 5% dairy, 1.8% fish and 0.2% meat – I began to learn what it means in terms of globalization, sustainability and environmentalism. Framed in those terms, my decision and many others’ begins to play a much broader role.

 You don't need animal products for a satisfying, varied meal! Image: Sean Callahan

You don't need animal products for a satisfying, varied meal! Image: Sean Callahan

III. Here are some facts that are difficult to digest, assembled by One Green Planet:

  • Of all fossil fuels and raw materials consumed in the U.S., over a third are used in animal production.
  • One pound of meat requires 2,400 gallons of water; one pound of grain requires 25 gallons.
  • As of 2006, nearly a third of Earth’s land mass was dedicated to raising animals for food.
  • In the U.S., we use 80 percent of our agricultural land to raise and feed livestock.
  • Similarly, 80 percent of America’s ammonia emissions result from animal waste.

I could go on– but here’s a truly dumbfounding item: It takes 16 pounds of grain to raise 1 pound of meat. It takes 5 pounds of wild-caught fish to raise 1 pound of farmed fish. The calories we provide for cattle could satisfy the needs of 8.7 billion people. Instead of feeding the planet, we’re feeding cows so that a smaller number of people can eat less food.

When we talk about climate change, we spend a good deal of time discussing ways to limit carbon emissions through green energy strategies. Most people equate sustainability with green energy. But here –in the numbers referenced above – is an example of something truly unsustainable, in the verbatim definition of the word: something that cannot continue physically, logistically or mathematically.

I hear pushback against the vegan, vegetarian or veggie-centric diet all the time. I won’t outline the carnivore’s rebuttal here because we’re all familiar with those protests. What I will say instead is this: moving away from meat in your diet is not impossible and it doesn’t need to be a drastic change. You can replace a single meat-based meal per week with something vegan – you’ll be surprised at how little your life changes. Yet, how much could such a basic alteration impact the broader industry? Might that alone be enough to influence policy, to help us take back our farmland and control over what we put on our plates?

Those in charge of industry– legislators, lobbyists, executives, marketers and so on– maintain their drive to put beef on the table because that’s what we keep choosing. Every time you buy a hamburger, you cast a vote for packaged foods that travel hundreds or thousands of miles in diesel-fueled trucks, for inhumane conditions in slaughterhouses, for the abject waste of resources and land– you explicitly empower the meat industry to exercise massive control over our environment, our economy and our personal health.

If we want to reclaim our future, to live sustainably, we need to vote against the aforementioned ballot measures– not in November at the booth, but every day, every week, at the grocery store and in the restaurant. Our planet has a literal bounty of edible things that grow straight out of the ground. Challenge yourself– prepare one fully vegan meal a week in the beginning. Start where you are, use what you have, and walk toward better health and sustainability one step at a time.

A good first step would be to follow Climable.org on social media, listen to their Behind the Switch podcast, keep up with events and make a donation. Sustainability takes many forms, and organizations like Climable.org play an essential role in drawing the lines that connect each approach together.

Sean Callahan is a guest blogger for Climable.org. He can be reached at smc724@gmail.com.