Last night, I was curled up on the sofa reading an old issue of The New Yorker (January 22, 2007, to be exact). The book review feature ("Vegetable Love: The History of Vegetarianism") was about Tristram Stuart's The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times. And one section, in particular, made me sit up and read a little closer. I quote:
"These days, the environmental argument [for vegetarianism] os not about maximizing the number of people that the environment can sustain but about sustaining the environment. Does producing a pound of lentils involve burning less fossil fuel than producing a pound of hamburger meat, or more? How many square miles of forest are cleared to graze cattle? How much biodiversity is lost both in grazing livestock and in raising the corn and soybeans to fatten them? A recent report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reckons that at least 18% of the global warming effect comes from livestock, more than is cause by all the world's transportation systems. It has been estimated that 40% of global grain output is used to feed animals rather than people, and that half of this grain would be sufficient to eliminate world hunger if--and it's not a small if--the political will could be found to insure equitable distribution.
Yet the energy-cost argument is formidably complicated and cannot by itself support refusing all forms of meat in favor of all forms of plant matter: shooting and eating the deer chewing up the tulips in your garden may turn out to be more environmentally virtuous than dining on tofu manufactured from Chinese soybeans, and walking to the local supermaket for a nice hanger cut steak cut from a grass-fed New Zealand steer may be kinder to the planet than getting into your Toyota Prius to drive five miles for some organic Zambian green beans."
(This issue continues to befuddle me. Is it better to buy all local produce when I can, regardless of organic status (which, I must admit, I don't really care so much about)? Or does the bulk production and transport of the run-of-the-mill produce at the big-box grocery cancel out some harmful environmental effects?)
The article continues:
"The number of vegetarians in developed countries is evidently on the increase, but the world's per capita consumption of meat rises relentlessly: in 1981, it was 62 pounds per year; in 2002, the figure stood at 87.5 pounds. In carnivorous America, in increased from 238.1 pounds to 275.1 pounds, and the practice is spreading in traditionally herbivorous Asia. Indians' meat consumption has rised from 8.4 to 11.5 pounds since 1981; in China, it has increased from 33.1 to an astonishing 115.5 pounds. This result has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with prosperity."
(275.1 pounds! Crazy! My family eats a lot of vegetarian meals, not on principle, but just because we like them. I wonder how we compare?)
The article ends with an awesome quote from Ben Franklin, who flirted with vegetarianism but didn't quite make it stick. He was 16, and on his first sea voyage from Boston, when his ship was becalmed off Block Island in the Narragansett Bay. He wrote:
"Our Peopl set about catching Cod, & haul'd up a great many. Hitherto I had stick to my Resolution of not eating animal Food; and on this Occasion, I consider'd . . . the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok'd Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter. All this seem'd very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smeled admirably well. I balanc'd some time between Principle & Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then though I, if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you. So I din'd upon Cod very heartily and continu'd to eat with other People, returning only now & then occasionally to a vegetable Diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do."