The Environmental Working Group has asked Americans to go meatless once per week and “Take the pledge to eat less and greener meat!” Chef Mario Batali and other celebrities have gone on board to help EWG enlist one hundred thousand people who will sign the pledge, commit to eating a more “veg centric” diet, and “build awareness” of how much our food choices impact the planet.
I personally am not about to take that pledge though EWG’s slogan “Reduce your impact, improve your health” sounds like a “win-win.” EWG tells us, for example, that Americans who skip meat and cheese just one day a week—such as with a “Meatless Monday”—can cut carbon emissions equal to taking over seven million cars off the road. And it promises that reducing meat consumption will lower our risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Sadly, EWG’s proposal will do very little for the environment. Worse, it will encourage people to “feel good” about their growing green consciousness while distracting them from exploring and adopting genuine, sustainable solutions. While it is certainly good that EWG recommends “greener” meat and not just “less meat” or even “no meat,” the catchy “Meatless Monday” slogan perpetuates the myth that meat is evil and that plant-based diets are the key to personal and planetary health. Here’s why I will not take the EWG pledge:
THE TRUE ENVIRONMENTAL THREAT
The true threat to our environment is not animals—which have been covering the earth with manure and emissions for tens of thousands of years—but the globalization and industrialization of agriculture with its unconscionable, factory-farming practices, toxic use of pesticides, herbicides and commercial fertilizers, plundering of natural resources, draining of the water table, and bankrupting of small farmers and cottage industries. EWG’s nod to “greener meat” suggests they actually understand these problems, but the overriding message is to stop eating meat of any type. As for all that climate warming gas, animals emit far less when they eat natural, grass-based diets and not unnatural, hard-todigest feeds manufactured from soybeans, corn and other grains.
Plowing pastures and rangeland to plant crops is not a sustainable way to feed the hungry and save the environment. In fact, only about eleven percent of the land on planet earth can be farmed, a percentage that cannot be increased without deforestation, irrigation, chemical fertilizers, and other destructive ecological practices. Old-fashioned organic mixed-use farms are the answer. And animals are essential, not optional, for healthy farms.
SAVING TOP SOIL
America’s top soil has been devastated by mono cropping, “perfect” green lawns and other unsustainable practices. While the process of mixing, rotating and composting plants is a start, land cannot be restored without the help of animals. They are needed not only for their rich manure but for rotational grazing. Animal waste is truly a horrific problem with factory farming, but is valuable and collectible on small, mixed-use farms. Overgrazing has certainly damaged much of America’s land, but the solution is sustainable grazing practices. And that solution, properly handled, serves the land far better than leaving it alone for “conservation.” As Joel Salatin has described so well in The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal and other books, diversity and interdependence are the keys to honoring and restoring our land. Salatin also argues cogently for putting our trust in local farmers and not in the official certification programs EWG recommends. How many more exposés of pseudo organic does the Cornucopia Institute need to make before EWG comprehends that certification can be—and has been—co-opted and corrupted? As Salatin explains so well, “transparency” between consumers and farmers is the answer. That means thinking globally and acting locally by getting up front and personal with your food and its source.
EWG blames animal foods for the diseases of modern civilization, including cancer and heart disease. But the twentieth century saw a decline in the consumption of meat, dairy and butter consumption, and a sharp increase in the consumption of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, white flour, liquid and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, artificial flavorings, preservatives and other known health hazards of processed, packaged and fast foods. Contrary to popular belief, science does not support the idea that saturated fat and cholesterol found in animal products contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. All health problems associated with animal products lie with factory farming and other commercial and non-sustainable farming and food processing practices.
EWG recommends lowfat dairy because “less fat will mean fewer cancer-causing toxins in the body.” That’s nonsense, of course, when we are talking about the health-giving fat found in the milk of cows, sheep and goats who spend their lives out in the sun on pasture. This recommendation further fails to recognize the fact that not all toxins are fat-soluble, many are water-soluble, and commercially grown fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and seeds are often loaded with toxins, including the dioxins that EWG erroneously states are found “entirely” in animal products.
The idea that eating lowfat could be eco-conscious defies common sense. The lowfat gospel is a key reason why factory farms—including so-called organic factory farms—grow freakish hens with size DD breasts. Big Agra’s goal with such chickens is to minimize the less-profitable dark meat and maximize the white meat preferred by “health conscious” consumers. The lowfat message also pleases Big Pfood, which profits mightily whenever whole foods are divided into several different products, all of which will require manufacturing, packaging and long distance hauling. As for the skim milk recommended by EWG, Mother Nature put fat in milk for a reason, and that reason was not to kill us. When people drink skim milk, their bodies need and crave that missing cream, leading to compensatory bingeing on ice cream and other unhealthy treats high in both fat and sugar. Lowfat thus leads to increased consumption, more packages, more products, higher profits, ill health and environmental destruction.
Yet another problem with EWG’s lowfat recommendation is it encourages people not to cook. How so? Because fat is what gives food flavor. Cooks who choose lean cuts and prepare vegetables without butter or other tasty fats, often think they are lousy cooks. Making lowfat foods tasty, after all, requires complicated spicings and other gourmet tricks. This drives people to eat out often or to dine at home on lowfat packaged foods. Out or in, the manufacturers have ramped up the flavors with MSG and other health-destroying additives.
EWG’s tips for eco-conscious consumers include reducing food waste by buying “right size portions.” What’s wrong with that? It buys into the idea that meat comes in little packages. Boneless, skinless chicken breast, for example, instead of eating every part of the animal—white meat and dark, tough cuts and tender, organ meats like liver, and skins, bones, tendons and cartilage in old-fashioned broth. EWG is right to point out the cost to the environment of food that goes bad and ends up in landfills, but recommends a solution that means more packaging, not less. How about some emphasis on old-fashioned thrift? Consuming leftovers, freezing and, most important of all, valuing and using the entire animal.
EWG reports that buying vegetables locally helps the environment, but buying eggs, milk, fish, poultry and meat locally has a minimal effect. It’s one of the primary reasons EWG recommends we cut back on all meat and adopt a more “veg centric” diet. Such a bizarre finding could only be the case if researchers evaluated the environmental impact of buying animal products from factory farms—including “Big Organic” operations—located close to home. Furthermore, it fails to take into account the role animals play in restoring our soil and growing nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits. Without animals nearby, farmers must use fossil fuel fertilizers and/or compost and manure transported from far away. Not good for the environment!
GRAINS, BEANS AND TOFU
Finally, if people give up or minimize eggs, meat and dairy products, what will they eat instead? EWG suggests grains, beans and tofu. In other words, vegetarian foods that are most likely grown and transported from a distance. And the mistaken goal of eating less meat will drive many consumers to buy processed and packaged vegetarian entrees full of soy protein isolate, corn syrup, MSG and other excitotoxins, “natural” or artificial colorings and flavorings as well as other dubious and non-green ingredients. Clearly not an option for wellness seekers or environmentalists.
AN ALTERNATIVE PROPOSAL
What to do instead? How about committing to one day a week in which the menu includes nothing that comes in a package? How about eating nothing with a label or a barcode? How about one hundred percent local, preferably from farmers who use only locally obtained feeds, fertilizers and workers? In other words, let’s join the ranks of the Non Barcode People.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2011.