The following is an excerpt from Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System, published by Island Press in June of 2018. Nourished Planet was edited by Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, and produced with support from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.
In 1971, author and food justice advocate Frances Moore Lappé wrote Diet for a Small Planet. The book detailed, with the statistics then available, why a meat-centered diet was bad for people and the planet. For most Americans, this was borderline heresy: At that time, meat was the center of the plate, and calling its role into question was almost un-American. But Frances Moore, as she was then known, made a compelling case for a diet rich in vegetables, grains, beans, and other vegetarian protein. She was also one of the first food advocates to assert that eating and our daily food choices could be political.
In particular, as she described more than 40 years ago, too much of the world’s grain was being fed to animals, not people. The growth of industrial animal operations, or factory farms, across the globe has made this situation even more troubling today.
Lappé commented on the grain problem, saying, “I understand, of course, that grain-fed meat is not the cause of the world hunger problem—and eating some of it doesn’t directly take food out of the mouths of starving people—but it is, to me, a symbol and a symptom of the basic irrationality of a food system that’s divorced from human needs. Therefore, using less meat can be an important way to take responsibility. Making conscious choices about what we eat, based on what the Earth can sustain and what our bodies need, can help remind us that our whole society must begin to balance sustainable production with human need.”
However, meat continues to be a highly desired food. In Western countries, especially those with Anglo-Saxon origins, meat is esteemed from a nutritional standpoint because it is rich in protein and other nutrients that are crucial to a balanced diet. In the Global South, meat is also highly regarded, although in many places that’s largely because it is not eaten regularly. In this part of the world, meat and other animal products are typically eaten by those with higher incomes or during special events, including religious and cultural celebrations.
At the same time, meat can inspire fear and worry. Food scares and scandals have been a part of American history since Upton Sinclair detailed the practices of the livestock and canned meat industries in The Jungle, which was published in 1906. And even today, issues such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, as well as other zoonotic diseases, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome or meat contaminated with E. coli, create distrust. Even the World Health Organization has warned eaters about the dire health effects—including some kinds of cancer—from eating processed meats.
Religious taboos also inspire fear around different kinds of meat. For example, Muslims ban pork, Hindus ban beef, and Jews have special rules about mixing meat and dairy and eschew eating shellfish.
Even in the present day, eating meat continues to play the role of social aggregator. That said, recent food scandals and new medical discoveries regarding excessive meat consumption have led people to change their diets to reduce their meat consumption, as per World Health Organization recommendations.
What’s more, being a vegetarian is no longer seen as something strange or weird. Even in a place like Italy, which has deep culinary traditions around meat, there has been a consistent increase in the consumption of soy-based foods. Soy products are familiar to four out of five Italians and are served in as much as 40 percent of Italian households. According to data from Eurispes, the percentage of Italians who have stopped eating meat went from 4.9 percent in 2013 to 5.7 percent in 2015. A recent study promoted by the dairy cheese cooperative TreValli in collaboration with Eurisko highlights how ethical and health issues have motivated more than 2 million Italians to reduce their meat consumption and another million to give up animal-based products, including honey, entirely. In the United States, some 3.2 percent of adults, or 7.3 million people, call themselves vegetarian.
There is new thinking and advocacy about the role of meat—especially meat from factory farms—in our diets. Campaigns such as Meatless Mondays encourage consumers to forgo meat and other animal products at least 1 day a week, and prominent chefs such as Dan Barber and Jose Andres have put vegetables at the center of many of their dishes, creating cauliflower and carrot “steaks” or enhancing the flavor and texture of vegetables, beans, and grains in such a way that their customers often don’t even notice that meat is not part of the entrée. Producers such as Paul Willis of Niman Ranch are, somewhat counterintuitively, encouraging consumers to eat less meat overall. The company’s customers tend to carefully consider where their meat comes from and how it’s raised, and they’re willing to spend more money on meats that meet their high standards. This attitude is also becoming more mainstream; Niman Ranch now supplies humanely raised pork from pasture-raised pigs to Chipotle, the enormous Mexican food chain. According to “The Power of Meat,” a report written by the Food Marketing Institute and the North American Meat Institute, year-on-year sales of organic meat and poultry grew 32 percent in the United States in 2015, to a 12-month total of $569 million in November. There has also been a 29 percent increase in the volume of organic meat and poultry sold over the same period, to 92 million pounds.
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