We visited two farms last week, and while the first farm, “La Maravilla,” managed its cheese operation in a sustainable manner, the second farm treated its livestock like many industrialized animal operations do today—cruelly.
Having never visited a farm before, I admittedly experienced some shock, realizing how far removed I was from reading about animal abuse to actually witnessing it. No one had to tell me upon arrival that the farm housed unhappy pigs, considering how badly I wanted to escape the terrible stench. Not only were the hard, concrete floors filthy and caked with blood, but also overcrowded with pigs stressed to the point where they will begin biting one another’s tails off. I was also skeptical of the farm owner’s justification for using antibiotics and growth hormones on otherwise healthy pigs, especially when I had a point of reference to compare to, namely the first farm that had no need for such practices. The sight of cages and tools used illegally for butchering his pigs didn’t help his cause either and I had to remind myself that it was the industrialized practice of rearing that was to blame and not the man himself who had to feed his family.
So I barely winced when I heard that the farm owner would kill his pigs after only 5 months of growth in order to produce higher quality, less fatty meat (hey, less suffering right?). In other words, I have accepted the fact that livestock will simply have shorter lifespans as greater meat consumption and ever decreasing prices demand quicker meat-to-market deliveries in a technological era that enables it.
It’s just instinctively, I cannot fathom eating an animal living in its own shit.
Animal waste from livestock operations is a leading cause of water contamination worldwide and an important manufacturer of pollutants such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane. However, that’s not to say that non-meat operations are any more sustainable as much of the current rainforest destruction come from soy production (but even that is mainly used as animal feed) and that nitrous oxide, an important greenhouse gas more environmentally detrimental than carbon dioxide, is produced in copious amounts from the production of corn, US’s favourite number one monocrop (with a whooping record of 10+ billion bushels produced annually).
Yet coupled this with the fact that 70% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. each year are given to livestock as feed additives, creating an arms race between the meds and ever increasingly resistant microbes (Fernández 2014). In order words, catching salmonella or the bird flu can be traced back to livestock marinating in a cesspool full of bacteria, viruses and its own fecal matter.
Talk about being in deep shit.
With this viscerally in mind, I decided to become a vegetarian, at least for the four months I am here in Costa Rica. Though witnessing animal abuse firsthand has tipped me over to vegetarianism, I know better than to promise a lifetime as many proclaimed vegetarians do, having already tried vegetarianism during a past summer in New York City and having to resume an omnivore diet during the cold winter months in Philadelphia. The avid traveler in me also gets me eating whatever is offered on the road. So what I eat is mainly for both cultural and health reasons (i.e. I will take freshly roasted quail and boiled eggs than Pizza Hut any day). I guess the difference now is that my food choices depend on taking a more informed stance, which hopefully translates into a more sustainable way of eating. Fortunately, being a vegetarian as a student of a biological station concerned with sustainability and tropical ecology makes it frankly convenient.
Of course, there are many global benefits in becoming vegetarian, namely the non-participation of a food chain craftily created by today’s CAFOs (aka. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), the stellar stars being the four giant meatpacking companies of America—Tyson subsidiary IBP, Cargill subsidiary Excel, Swift & Company, and National—who today are some of the driving forces of deforestation, the rise in greenhouse gas production and the manifestation of our nation’s health problems, including obesity and cancers incurred from the exposure of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
On a personal level, I simply feel healthier adding more vegetables to my diet. Indeed, we only need 30g of protein a day, most of which can be found in plant protein (I say most because there are still benefits from eating meat that plants cannot provide such as efficient intake of vitamin B-12 and iron. Evolution, after all, did favoured us to be omnivores!). In fact, of the 7 billion people on this earth, two-thirds of them are largely vegetarian. This may well point out that affluent countries are able to afford more meat than their poorer counterparts, but it still demonstrates that for those poorer countries, skipping the meat is more economically feasible and possible. It was only with the industrial revolution that meat consumption accelerated, causing developing countries to increase meat consumption twice as fast (and perpetuate social inequities beyond belief). In other words, the rise of urbanization has caused more meat eating, which may be the culprit of the environmental problems we have today.
Yet at the same time, being vegetarian does not automatically entail a smaller ecological footprint than say even that of a meat-lover. For instance, the ecological footprint of a vegan driving a Subaru Outback is equivalent to that of non-vegan using public transportation. And for the animal lovers? Well, the ecological footprint of owning two dogs and three cats is equivalent to that of a non-vegan without pets at all (Pimental, 2003).
Of course, that being said, producing animal protein still takes up more fossil fuel than plant protein does (25 kcal of fossil fuel versus 2.2 kcal for every 1 kcal). Also, it’s still worth something to be environmentally conscious regarding what you eat even if everything else in your lifestyle isn’t. It just sometimes irks me that many vegetarians assume a superiority complex without considering that their lifestyle overall may cause more environmental detriment that say that of the neighbor who loves to have a barbeque every Sunday, but rarely eats out. Furthermore, even if all of America becomes vegetarian, tremendous amounts of land will still have to cultivated and deforested in order to accommodate this diet. Even with vegetarianism, animal cruelty will continue to persist, albeit indirectly and likely unnoticed. Thousands of animals, such as gophers, eagles and fish (note: this has already happened), will become displaced and literally tortured to death from the use of tractors, pesticides and water contamination.
So the next time you look at a nicely ripe banana in the supermarket, don’t think you’re off the hook in terms of environmental or animal friendlessness. Think of all the plastic bags used unnecessarily to make it aesthetically pleasing, yellow and devoid of spots (it’s the harmless flies they are trying to keep out), which in turn choke thousands of sea turtles among other species, whose extinction may have critical effects on the marine ecosystem (and we have yet to comprehend the detrimental effects of changing the ocean’s chemistry).
So does being vegetarian really make a difference?
Maybe, maybe not.
As for myself, vegetarianism cannot environmentally make up for the airplane fuel used for my frequent travels around the world. In fact, transportation costs is another hefty portion of a farm operation’s ecological footprint. So what you eat may not be as environmentally detrimental as the amount of fuel it took to get what you eat to your plate. Thus, it is more sustainable to eat meat raised locally in Colorado than to eat soybean tofu imported from Brazil, or to buy conventional produce than its organic counterpart, which has been the riding the interstate in a truck for days.
As a San Franciscan, it is quite easy being vegetarian and much more sustainable being one. Living in California means I have access to most of the country’s produce without incurring much transportation costs on the part of the farm. I also have access to fresher, better tasting produce to boot, which then encourages me to want greens. Living in Bay Area in particular also means I have access to public transportation and a green culture that affirms this practice.
In conclusion, context is everything. That is, it’s not restricting yourself to a set way of eating that will be better for the environment or animal welfare per se, but rather opening yourself to the possibilities on what’s available and viable that will make a difference.
Then depending on where I am, I may eat a certain way and label it “vegetarianism.” It just so happens that being a vegetarian in Costa Rica is both sustainably viable and cost effective (plus better tasting to be completely frank—I’m not a fan of the way meat is cooked and flavoured here, but I sure do love their fresh fruits and veggies). I will not deny it; I love meat. I love eating dim sum, Vietnamese sandwiches and chicken saag with garlic naan. I remembered eating roast pork hours after the pig was killed and painstakingly prepared in a Cuban village once. And I felt no guilt whatsoever eating it. In fact, I felt only pleasure. There was communal dining, there was laughter and singing, there was ritual and most importantly I felt that the animal was treated with respect and reverence, as if to say that by taking your life, we know it provide ours.
Furthermore, I do believe it is possible to eat meat and still live sustainably. The key here I think is to be informed on where your food comes from and to cook whenever possible. I mention cooking because I believe doing so leads you to be more mindful and hence more aware of what you’re eating and where you’re getting it from. Eating is a way of life and as Pollan puts it, “The way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world (2006).”
So want to make a difference? Start with eating.
Fernández, Gisella. 2014. CIEE Humans in the Tropics Lecture. Sept 2014.
Pimentel, David. Reponse from Pimentel. BioScience, Vol. 53, No. 4 (April 2003), p. 311
Pollan, Michael (2006-04-11). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (p. 10). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.