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We need a dinner table conversation about changing the menu

A circular marble table with place settings

“You can’t be an environmentalist and consume animal products, period. Kid yourself if you want. If you want to feed your addiction, so be it, but don’t call yourself an environmentalist.”

I was born in 1957, and I grew up on the Standard American Diet (SAD). My diet was characterized by high consumption of animal protein and low intake of complex carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables. As a secular Jewish boy from New York, I typically ate bacon and eggs for breakfast, a roast beef sandwich or burger for lunch, and pizza or a Swanson’s frozen “TV dinner” in the evening.

The fast food regimen

My parents divorced when I was ten. Mother moved away and my dad often traveled for work, so I was on my own. All I could cook were burgers and cheese omelets. Years later, as an adult my mother joked that I grew up on Pop Tarts and frozen pizza.

…our addiction to eating animals may actually be more damaging to the planet than all fossil fuel activity combined

Despite being a hippie, attending The Evergreen State College, and volunteering at the Olympia Food Co-op when it opened in 1977, my diet changed little. That is, until 2005 when a 48-year old friend died from an aggressive cancerous brain tumor. The impact of that shocking event started me on a journey that continues to this day, having radically shifted my consumption to a whole foods plant-based diet. As a result, I lost thirty pounds, stopped having heartburn, stopped suffering from seasonal allergies, and stopped having colds and flu.

Animal, vegetable, minimal

I’m not alone. Each year approximately one million Americans choose to give up their animal-food laden diets and switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet. There are many reasons why; not everyone makes this decision for personal health. Some choose a plant-based diet through awareness of the horrible and deplorable ways factory-farm animals are mistreated and abused — they can no longer support an industry that exploits animals and workers.

For others it’s awareness that about 25,000 people (one-third children) die from starvation every day worldwide, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and eating animals is wasteful. The food these animals consume could be used to feed the starving masses. These are moral reasons for adopting a plant-based diet.

Save yourself—save the planet

Health and morality are valid reasons for breaking our addiction to animal foods. but evidence is mounting that saving the planet may be a more important justification for diet change. The governor of the State of Washington has suggested that climate change is the most important challenge of our time. Nevertheless, Gov. Jay Inslee, environmental organizations and most environmental activists are solely focused on fossil fuels as the enemy of climate change. I am not here to argue that reducing our use and reliance on fossil fuels isn’t needed but it is the exclusion of diet change in the discussion of solutions that I find disturbing and regrettable.

A system hungry for land and water everywhere

The link between animal agriculture and the growing climate crisis is undeniable; the evidence grows stronger with the publication of every new research report. In 2006 an FAO report titled Livestock’s Long Shadow, concluded that livestock farming contributed more greenhouse gas (GNG) to the atmosphere annually than all transportation emissions worldwide. In 1988 the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The “author team,” consisting of 107 experts from 52 countries released a Special Report this August. It stated that our food system as a whole is responsible for up to 37% of total human greenhouse gas emissions.

Some critics argue the number should be much higher because both United Nations studies only considered emissions. For example, we know that 80% of rainforest removal in the Amazon is to clear land for livestock grazing or to grow crops to feed livestock. The FAO estimates that 80,000 acres of rainforest is removed everyday worldwide having nothing to do with fossil fuel production. The Amazon rainforest is one of the greatest carbon sinks on the planet, and cutting it down accelerates global warming.

Some studies have concluded that our addiction to eating animals may actually be more damaging to the planet than all fossil fuel activity combined. It’s not hard to leap to this conclusion when you consider all the factors involved. It’s not just about GHG emissions. We also need to factor in rainforest destruction, the pollution of our land and water, and the waste of limited freshwater used in the growth and slaughter of billions of animals raised for food. It takes 660 gallons of freshwater to create one hamburger. That’s enough water for a full month of showers for most people.

“Climate change” vs Demoburgers

I attended a reception at the governor’s mansion in the winter of 2018 where they were serving smoked salmon and bite size sirloin burgers for guests to nosh. The Thurston County Democrats continue their long-standing tradition of selling burgers to raise money. I’ve attended several Democratic campaign events this summer with burgers on the menu, including Karen Fraser’s 29th annual picnic, featuring burgers, hot dogs, and pulled pork. I don’t mean to pick on Democrats, but many of these Democrats complain that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is not hosting a climate change debate for Presidential candidates.

This seems like an example of willful ignorance and self-delusion that is common in our species. Since we know we will die someday we have to put this thought out of our minds. Constantly thinking about our inevitable demise makes it hard to function and live our lives. Unfortunately, this mechanism that allows us to cope with existence also has the downside of making us blind to important realities staring us in the face.

Other menu options are possible

Goldsmiths University in London just announced they are removing all beef products from their cafeteria menu in response to the climate crisis. Beginning this fall, students and staff will no longer be able to purchase burgers or beef burritos on campus. This seems like a reasonable response to the mounting evidence linking animal foods and the livestock industry to the worsening climate crisis.

Can’t we start the talk about the [steer] in the room?

I don’t expect climate change deniers to stop eating burgers. But when our governor (the self-proclaimed climate change presidential candidate), as well as international environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, avoid discussing diet change to help curb the climate crisis, I think: what chance do we have to avert this catastrophe? If climate change activists are unwilling to discuss diet change in the light of day is there any hope of saving planet Earth?

When are local progressives, Democrats, and environmental activists going to change their eating habits? If activists aren’t willing to change their diets can we at least begin having conversations on this subject?

Originally from New York City, Jon Epstein has lived in the Olympia area since 1975 when he moved here to attend The Evergreen State College. He has been employed by the Legislature, Lacey Chamber of Commerce, Washington Center for the Performing Arts and the State of Washington. His volunteer work includes the Thurston County Fair, Sustaining Fund, and Mount Rainier National Park Ski Patrol.

The opening quote is from Mad Cowboy, by Howard Lyman, a former livestock farmer.

One Comment

  1. Earle McNeil September 9, 2019

    There continues to be an aditional issue even with fruit and vegies. So much of our winter food flys in from far away. Air transport is no small addition to warming. We are canning peaches today. Local ( or at least Washington growen). Aa small step for us but it matters.

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