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Letting the Chicken Cross the Road: Thoughtful Eating, One Meal at a Time

2010/11/13

One of the universal aspects of all cultures is that we celebrate special occasions with feasts.  As Lord Joanthan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, said recently, you can sum up everything you need to know about Jewish holidays in three sentences: They tried to kill us.  We survived. Lets eat.  (See Pursuing Happiness).  Here in the states, one of our best known feast days is Thanksgiving.  This is one day when many more people than usual give some specific attention to what they eat.  Some will also stop to think about the roots of this Thanksgiving holiday and recognize that it is a celebration of survival when one part of the local system (the Native Americans) helped the Pilgrims learn how to provide food for themselves in this new land, even providing additional provisions when times were hard.  In short, this holiday can be a time for thankful, thoughtful eating.

This month’s series of posts on food started with David Morph’s perspective of the systemic, wicked problem our society faces today when it comes to maintaining an equitable, sustainable food system for all.  (See Economic Systems We Can Eat.)  Today there are no Native Americans standing just outside the problem we have created who can save us from our own short-sightedness.  Everyone is in the stew (as it were).  And in spite of David’s long list of the effects of our current inequitable, even destructive food system, he missed another important impact: the food system’s contribution to increasing levels of global carbon, methane and related gasses leading to various climatic changes; changes which in turn will likely affect the food supply.  Overall it almost seems like too big and messy a problem to deal with.

More recently, fellow CAS member Joseph Carrabis took issue with the view that this particular problem is too wicked to solve.  (See A Battle Over Seeds).  He went on to argue that it is in our nature to do what we can to save ourselves, but maybe we can also do this in a way so that we take only what we need and leave something for others – giving everyone a seat at the table.  Perhaps it’s through simple, individual actions that we can find a way to resolve aspects of the wicked problem of our food system. Peter Senge offers a useful analogy to this in The Fifth Discipline when he notes that steering a big ship is made much more possible because of the initial action of the small trim tab on the edge of the big rudder.  Perhaps more thoughtful individual choices about what and how much we eat could be one such trim tab for changing the direction of our food system.

I’d like to turn to an example of just how we could begin with one specific type of individual action: One action that is easy to implement and may save you money while it helps to create a more sustainable food system and environment.  As you might have suspected, this is where the chicken in the title comes into the story[1].

What if we all could make a small change in how we approach just one meal a week, a small change with significant benefits?  What kind of change?  Well, first, some background.  In 2006, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization published research that links eating meat to the degradation of the environment.  Their report argued that animal farming is a major threat to the environment and has such “deep and wide-ranging impacts that it should rank as a leading focus for environmental policy.”  It goes on to describe livestock production as a “major player” in climate change through greenhouse gas production: an estimated 18 percent of the total human-induced greenhouse gas emissions globally.  As nations increase their demand for meat, the demand for pasture and cropland goes up leading to deforestation.  And the livestock sector also adds to the increasing scarcity of water.  Livestock accounts for 8 percent of human water use globally and contaminates water supplies with animal waste, pesticides, antibiotics and various chemicals.   See Meat Contributes to Climate Change for further reporting of this study.

OK, so now you think I am going to ask you to become a vegetarian.  I promised a small change and becoming a vegetarian would be a truly huge individual change – hardly the scale of a trim tab.  No, instead I want to suggest the possibility and the benefits of changing just one meal a week to a meatless meal.  Jennifer Gorton in How to Go Green without Buying a Toyota Prius argued that changing just one meal a week to a meatless one could have a major impact on the environment.  She refers to estimates from the Environmental Defense Fund that if every American skipped one meal of chicken each week, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking over 500,000 cars off the road.

But wait, there’s more! Not only could eating one less meat-based meal a week help the environment, it could also improve our diets as nutritionists regularly argue the health benefits of eating a more plant-based diet.  (For example, see Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Pyramid.) A vegetable meal is also less expensive than a meat-based meal (just check the costs of the meat-less dinners in your favorite restaurant).  So there are many benefits from this one simple change, and you don’t even have to become a vegetarian.

Much of my professional work involves finding ways to support changes in the ways people act.  I always look for simple structural changes that make it easier for people to alter behaviors.  So what structural change would make it easier for more of us to have one meatless meal a week?    What if it was simply choosing to hold “Meatless Mondays?’  Many of us have done something similar before as many of us already follow a tradition of eating fish on Friday, even if we are not Catholic.  To be clear, a meatless Monday would mean not using meat left-overs from the weekend.  Save those for Tuesday. A meatless Monday would even mean no lunch meat on your sandwich or bacon with breakfast.  The good news is that you’d have all weekend to figure out what you will eat on Monday.

As for what to eat this Thanksgiving, well fortunately, I don’t believe anyone (yet) has calculated the benefit of not eating turkey on certain holiday occasions.

Bon appétit!


[1] With thanks to Mike Balin and David Kay for ideas leading to this post.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. David Morf permalink
    2010/11/15 3:50 am

    Rick, I applaud your excellent post on eating smart to protect the planet while eating well for our bodies. You rightly point out that outgassing from livestock herds adds noticeably to the contribution our food production makes to greenhouse gas production, and you note I’d not cited livestock outgassing in the systemic effects of our approach to food production. My notion behind that omission lies in the likelihood that when plant eating mammals covered the plains of the earth, especially including massive herds on the African veldt, Eurasian land mass, and more recently the North American plains, they exceeded in mass the livestock herds currently in production. Therefore I forbore citing livestock outgassing as a net negative systemic contributor relative to a pre-existing sustainable state. You are right on target in that reducing meat demand by one meatless day per week would indeed reduce livestock outgassing relative to current levels. I’m not sure how to connect with the observation that I missed the point that we no longer are like the Pilgrims with helpful people on hand from the local native tribe to feed and train the newcomers. Nor are we now so few in number that the Wampanoag food regime would support our massive urban population. I’m happy to stipulate that the Wampanoag people no longer can help us.

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