When I was a freshman in high school, I read Fast Food Nation in English class and I didn’t eat a hamburger again for years. I went for hotdogs and chicken fingers instead, which aren’t exactly the greatest alternatives, but everything about a burger was wrong to me. I don’t even remember anymore what part of the beef story convinced me to quit burgers cold turkey (hah), but that book certainly did it. I still sort of feel weird when I eat one, even when I make it myself from grassfed beef.
I just finished reading another book that is going to change my diet a lot more than Fast Food Nation ever did, and it’s called Meatonomics. Written by lawyer David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics explores the “rigged economics” of the meat and dairy industries. It hits hard in all the areas that get to me; sustainability, humane treatment of animals, and corporate control of consumption.
I really enjoyed reading Meatonomics because it is well researched and clearly written. Each chapter has a thesis sentence, subtitles on almost every page, and a bulleted summary of important points at the end. Everything is described in economic terms, which usually means unfathomably large sums of money, but the quantification is powerful. Simon also devotes a significant portion of the book to outlining solutions to the problems he describes, and they’re not absurd. And finally, of course, I learned a ton reading this book. I’m going to recommend it to my vegetarian economics-major sister, to my sometimes-vegan other sister, and to my parents: read it, because our family has fallen for a lot of the problems described in Meatonomics.
So a single book convinced us (yep, Taylor is on board without even reading it) to limit our animal product intake possibly to the point of veganism. The reason for this is simple; Simon confirms every negative aspect of meat consumption that has been lurking in my mind over the past year or so. For example, I’ve written a few times about sustainable seafood and I try to buy wild caught salmon and other sustainably harvested species, but I can’t ignore the fact that seafood high up on the food chain often contains mercury and PCBs. Shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico don’t sound very safe to me based on their proximity to oil drilling and spills. Plus, for every one pound of shrimp caught, ten pounds of other ocean species are killed as “bycatch.”
Here are some of main points from Meatonomics that suck with me:
- Sustainability: It is not possible to raise animals sustainably on a large scale. Period. By one estimate, animal agriculture may account for up to half of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Concentrated animal farming facilities, whether on land or in the sea, generate massive amounts of waste that are contaminating our groundwater and oceans.
- Humane treatment of animals: Confined animal agriculture is horrifying. Laying hens are kept in cages smaller than the salad I packed for lunch today and the tips of their beaks are burned off so that they hurt too much to peck each other. The males are “discarded.” As somebody who grew up with backyard chickens with names and personalities, the pathos is strong. Beef cows are often dismembered and butchered while still alive because it’s cheaper than taking the time to stun or humanely kill them first, and regulating agencies don’t have enough man power to enforce what spotty laws exist. Aquaculture keeps fish in cages just as concentrated as the laying hens where they are eaten by parasites and attacked by other suffering fish. Fish have feelings too.
- Corporations (and money) rule: More things I dislike. Basically, the animal agriculture industry controls government and consumers, rather than the expected vise versa. The government gives meat and dairy producers huge subsidies such that the true cost of a fast food hamburger should be well over $10. Did you know that you can be prosecuted as a terrorist for defaming the meat industry or its products? (Should I be worried?) Americans eat more meat and dairy than recommended because the industry tells us to and because the price of meat is artificially low. The USDA is supposed to protect consumers, but even dietary recommendations are inflated by industry influence. Obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease caused by animal products create massive costs for everybody, and you can easily get all the same nutrients from a plant-based diet.
I could keep going, but you should just read the book. Based on what I’ve read, I’ve decided to make serious changes to our diet. My major conclusions are
- No matter how hard we try to justify it, it is not possible to raise animals sustainably, so we should just not eat them.
- It is impossible to know if an animal has been treated truly humanely without doing it ourselves, so we should not encourage their slaughter.
- The best way to avoid the bacteria problems plaguing the chicken industry, PBCs and heavy metals in seafood, and hormones in meat and diary is to not eat them.
- The meat industry is just as unsavory in its economic tactics as the chemical industry. (Check out the film “The Corporation.”) I would prefer to vote with my dollars for vegetables.
So here it is: I want to be a vegetarian/sometimes vegan. I’ve been trying it out for a few days, and I think I can do it. Taylor’s up for eating fewer animal products too but I think grassfed burgers are still in his future. My plan of action is to try to get as close to vegan as possible at home, and stick to vegetarian when I am out. I know this is sort of counterintuitive because I have more control over ingredients when I cook at home, but being a vegan in most restaurants is such a huge pain in the butt. Plus as a grad student I scavenge a lot of free food so one can only be so picky.
We don’t eat much meat anyways at home, but dairy and eggs will be hard to reduce because cheese cheese cheese. I’m also not ready to give up eggs, especially after growing up with chickens, but I will make a greater effort to only buy local organic free range humane eggs from the farmer’s markets or co-op, plus local small farm cheeses. I will give homemade almond milk a shot as a dairy substitute. I’ve already been working in alternative flours and sugars while baking, so changing the dairy might not be too hard. To get more veggies in our diet, we’re going to increase the size of our CSA for the spring and summer and grow more ourselves.
It’s a plan. Time to invest in some more vegetarian/vegan cookbooks. Any suggestions? I’d also love to hear about how sustainability, economics, and/or animal treatment influence your diet.
A list of “cage free” grocery store eggs that are actually cage free
Trailer for Meatonomics
List of scary facts from Meatonomics website
How I first stumbled across the book: Mark Bittman of Vegan Before 6‘s recommendations for healthy eating during the holidays with a link to Meatonomics scary facts