Thursday, February 04, 2010

Changing Tastes

This is a long one so you might want to grab a snack(hopefully vegetarian) and a drink and settle in.

Recently while doing some research I came across the word "flexitarian" which if you take a second to think about it you may be able to figure out what it means because it is very similar to a word we all know.

Got it yet? It means someone who is largely vegetarian but will occasionally eat meat, which is not to be confused with vegetarians, who never eat meat, or omnivores, who eat a regular diet of meat and veggies. Flexitarian falls somewhere in between those two, but more towards the vegetarian side. I have some friends who are flexitarian, as well as some who are vegetarian. For the longest time I could not understand why. Meat is delicious and yes, there are some cruel circumstances in which our meat is typically raised and yes the slaughter process is gory, but overall I never felt compelled to stop eating meat. The killing of animals and our eating them has a very long history, it is part of who we are. However my thoughts on that has recently changed.

Over the past couple of years I have seen a number of movies, read books and articles, listened to lectures, etc. all of which concentrated on the environment and food, or what we are putting into our bodies. Many books have been very interesting such as The World Without Us, Cod, Collapse, and Omnivores Dilemma. I have enjoyed podcasts such as those by this guy( this one too( and most recently this one ( You will probably notice that all these talks are on, if you don't know about that site yet go check it out, it is excellent. There have been many movies that have interested me. Probably most famous of all is An Inconvenient Truth, but also the 11th hour, and Blue Planet which deal with the environment, but that ultimately is connected to food as well. Recently I have seen this movie ( and this one ( and this one too ( all of which deal directly with food. I recommend these movies, they are interesting.

To get to my point, I have come to think that there may be something behind not eating meat, or at least not so much of it, or maybe just not eating meat made from the production methods we largely use now.
For the past 8 weeks or so I have been eating vegetarian, or trying to. Meat is very hard to get away from. It is in everything! I tried cutting out obvious meat, burgers, chicken breasts, sushi, etc. but to my chagrin found out that there is meat in a lot of soup stocks, potato chips, sauces, pudding, and other products that don't strike you as being "meat" like the "tofu" burgers and "veggie" burgers here in Japan. On top of that, choosing something without meat, from the selection at most grocery stores, convenience stores, and restaurants is not easy. At least not in Japan where I can only make a half assed attempt at reading the labels and just make best guesses at restaurant ingredients. All of that is also complicated by the fact that fish and meat are two different words in Japanese and if you ask for no meat you are likely to get something made with fish stock and a side of fish if you are lucky. My school lunch, which is delicious and nutritious, is unfortunately always made with meat in some form. If you are unlucky, which happens a lot, Japanese people don't even know what you are talking about and bring you a salad with ham chunks in it because you asked for no meat and as a friend of mine quoted a waiter telling him, "it doesn't have that much meat in it", but I am getting away from my original point, which is that I am not eating meat anymore, or almost.
You see it was this book ( which was the straw that broke the camels back for me. The author, a vegetarian, does not insist that people stop eating meat, but rather that people consider the origin of the meat they eat and what it means in context to the animals and our world (ourselves and our children) and then with that knowledge to reduce consumption. I happened across this book by accident. The author Jonathan Safran Foer, wrote two other popular books, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the former being made into a motion picture. I enjoyed both books and the film and thought the author was a great story teller, which proved to be true for this latest book too. Despite that upon cracking the book and learning that he was writing it in response to having a son and was interested in what to feed him I persisted in reading what turned out to be one of the best reads I have had in the past year ( I read about 50 books a year). The author talks about the current trend of factory farming in the USA and other countries and exams slaughter house practices and small farm operations. He talks about the change in genetics and feed, the changes in raising animals, and the changes in our health and the health of the animals over the past 50-100 years. At no point, or maybe just once or twice, does he fully advocate being vegetarian. Rather he presents a very convincing argument for more sustainable livestock farming and the better treatment of animals. That's it really and when you say it like that it seems very reasonable. Doesn't everyone want to do something that is sustainable in the long run and is kind to animals to boot?

In the past month or so of slowly revealing to my friends and family my choice to not eat meat I have seen some reactions and met with many questions about why I choose to do this. I will explain that briefly in a bit, but first I want to say this. Most people I encounter are aware that there is something dis-pleasurable in discussing where meat comes from, but would rather not know so that they can continue to eat meat guilt free. I can understand this as at one time I felt that way too, but ignoring the truth doesn't make it go away. I just think the reasons have become overwhelming at this point in time and we(I) can't ignore them much longer, in fact we(I) shouldn't have ignored them for so long. I will now outline the reasons why I have stopped eating meat and assign them a percentage to indicate how strongly I feel about each, but do remember that many and sometimes all of the reasons are interconnected and so overlap. The eating of meat is much more complicated than it may seem.

1. The Environment(55%); This is by far the largest reason for me and without it I might eat meat more regularly. When I say the environment I mean the whole world, not just that around the farms themselves.I am also mainly talking about factory farms, not as much about small family farms. Meat, or the production of it, is responsible for about 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. No, its not just cow farts, although that is part of it. Its mainly produced in the raising and eventual processing and transport of the animals we eat. You may be thinking, 18%, what does that really mean? Well, think about this. Greenhouse gases produced by all transportation put together, trucks, cars, boats, trains, planes, buses, etc., amount to 13.5% of green house gases. Essentially not eating meat is better than using not using a single for of transportation every year in environmental terms. Thinking about buying a hybrid car to save the environment? How about eating half as much meat?
Along with this we know that animals, per pound of protein, consume far more water and grain to produce than, well, grain or vegetables and hence take much more land to produce, something that the world is rapidly running out of. In fact fully 30% of the earth's land surface is devoted to livestock production. In America this is not such a big deal as almost no one is starving to death and there is still plenty of land and water to go around, but given the rapidly developing nations of the world like China and their rapidly growing demand for meat sources more and more water and land are being diverted to meat production which could be better used producing grains and veggies to feed more people for the resources used.
We also know that in the US, in the poultry business, factory farms account for over 90% of poultry production and over 50% of hog production, beef production is thankfully much less, but I will get to that. These huge farms produce massive amounts of waste which is stored in ponds near the facilities until they can be used on fields as fertilizer. Unfortunately things don't always go to plan and ponds leak destroying ground water or contain so much shit that there is not enough land to spread it on, which again results in contamination of air, soil, and water.
When we get to the topic of fish the situation seems even more dire. Japan is one of the leading consumers of fish so this haunts me everyday as I see people gobble up fish. There are lots of details that can be stated here, like to catch 1lb of shrimp most boats will catch about 10-25lbs of by product (other marine life) that will then be dumped back into the ocean dead. By product includes creatures that we like because they are cute like dolphins and turtles along with other edible but not targeted fish. Or you could look at the statistics like that for every 50 individuals of large predatory fish in the ocean like shark, tuna, or marlin, etc. 50 years ago, there is now only 1. Tuna actually is a good place to start researching, if you choose to look at all, since even Americans like tuna, but tuna populations, like many other popular fish, are facing collapse. This is all pertains to fishing for wild fish, but then there are farmed fish too, which carry with them most of the same cons as land farming like small pens, disease, unnatural lives and diets, environmental hazards etc. There is more, but I will stop here.

2. Ethics (30%); Ethics to the animals, to the people involved in raising them, to those who are facing starvation, to our community's sense of what farming is, and to the responsibility we have to feed our children and ourselves good food and keep ourselves healthy.
Animal slaughter, while gruesome, is a fact of life that has been occurring since man has left evidence of his being. While I don't think I can stop slaughter I may be able to help change the method. Methods used in making kosher or halal meat are preferable to me because generally more attention is paid to detail and therefore the animals well being. Slaughterhouses, when forced to run like a factory, get sloppy and end up putting animals through more suffering than needed. Often machinery or people don't do their job well enough and animals end up slowly being bled out or dismembered while still alive, not to mention the workers who have to watch this and those who abuse animals which bring me to my next step, the workers. Workers in the industry, factory farming and slaughterhouses, have an amazingly high turn over rate each year. To me this is no surprise. Who wants to kill things all day everyday? Many times factory farms and large scale slaughterhouses will hire unskilled immigrants because they are less likely to complain about working conditions, factory procedures, and the low low pay. What about the cost of meat? Meat has changed over the past century along with the animals it is produced on. Animals produced for meat have been and will continue to be genetically modified to produce more meat. I want to say here that I am not against modifying things to get better production, even living things. However, these modifications have resulted in larger weaker animals that suffer more broken bones and infections than ever before. The animals start from square one not healthy and have to be feed antibiotics just to make sure they stay alive long enough for slaughter. They are also kept, by the hundreds and sometimes 10s of thousands in confined areas where disease can rapidly spread not to mention the inherent risk of putting any species of any animal in a confined space. Lastly, most importantly, and most obvious to everyone is that meat takes grain to produce, large amounts of grain and water. For instance, what do cows eat? What do chickens eat? Pigs? Do you know? Now ask yourself the next obvious question, is it healthy? The answers are quite easy to find. Anyone can add 2 and 2 in this scenario and imagine the grain production capabilities would be better used going to a starving human rather than a cow or chicken.

3.Health Reasons (10%); Bottom line its healthier to eat less meat. Americans consume way too much meat. I don't even have to bother to list some statistic here to have you believe me, you know its true. However, I can't point my finger at only Americans, basically anyone in a first world nation eats too much meat per capita. For example, Japanese people eat 3 or 4 lbs of fish per week on average. Factor in the other kinds of meat they eat and they aren't so far behind Americans.
What also should be considered is the method in which meat is slaughtered and the raising of the meat itself results in a potentially dangerous meat being consumed, although its hard to go into detail about that.
Most potentially threatening to our collective health is the rise of diseases in animals. H1N1 for example or the "bird flu" H1N5, where did they come from? and if history tells us anything, the 1918 Spanish flu, where did it come from? In the face of examples like this people may say, well, it could originate in smaller breeding stocks such as the 1918 flu, so what does that have to do with consumption of meat? While having smaller farms does not entirely guard against generations of new flu it does reduce the risk. Smaller groups of animals with healthier genetics are less likely to contract or spread disease and healthier animals don't need as many antibiotics (animals consume more antibiotics in the US than people). Influenza is being given a large, unhealthy, antibiotic filled population against which to grow strong, resistant to antibiotics, and to spread. To me, this seems pretty dangerous and foolish when the World Health Organization predicts that its not a matter of if, but when the world will face a massive pandemic.

4. Money (5%); Lastly, money. This should be an easy one. Everyone likes money, so why not keep more or it? At the very least we can exchange the quantity of meat we eat for the quality. You could just eat less factory meat, which will save money because grains and veggies are cheaper or you could use the money you save from not eating factory farmed meats to buy meat from places who raise more natural animals in more natural and humane ways and are close to where you live thereby cutting environmental costs associated with shipping and supporting your area farmers. Not to mention that the meat tastes so much better.
While meat may seem cheap (look up how much the cost of meat has risen in the past 50 years compared to other things) when you consider the ethics, the health reasons, and the environmental impact it becomes more expensive.

I would like to end by first thanking you for reading all of that, I know it was much longer than my typical post. I hope that it has sparked your thinking and will lead to some dietary changes of your own. If you agree with me, or disagree with me, have advice or criticism or maybe even just a good vegetarian recipe to share or a good local farm to endorse, let me know. I would love to address more issues on this topic, I can see there are a lot of things I did not talk about, but this post is getting long.