How's this for a timely quote: "(It) was the year I decided to find out why people were hungry in the world. The experts were telling us that the population problem was the cause of scarcity. The truth was, we were feeding a third of the world's grain to livestock, and with little return."
That was Frances Moore Lappe, author of "Diet for a Small Planet." The year was 1968.
Since then, meat consumption around the world has risen exponentially. As with our thirst for oil, Americans lead the way when it comes to chomping animal flesh, and by a long shot. As the public dialogue reels over the question of food vs. fuel, it's a good time to look in the mirror, like it or not.
Depending on who's doing the estimating, Americans hammer down something between one-half and three-quarters of a pound of meat per person per day. Some of those big boys eating ribs heaped on their plates at the local buffet probably raise the average for the rest of us.
Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are quick to preach about this. PETA often seems to be a PR train wreck of its own making, but Bruce Friedrich, the group's vice president for campaigns, makes some points that really ought to enter the public discussion if we're going to seriously consider food vs. fuel.
Friedrich notes that the amount of grain being fed to animals worldwide is about eight times the amount going for biofuels. He cites a recent United Nations report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," which concludes that eating meat is "one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."
The report claims that eating meat causes almost 40 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars, trucks, and planes in the world combined. It concludes that the meat industry "should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity."
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In PETA's inimical fashion, Friedrich goes on to list a number of reasons to eliminate meat consumption that won't sell with most people. These are the guilt-laced arguments that draw the usual guffaws from a public wedded to its food-eating habits, which are driven by a complex mix of cultural and social factors, economic status, family traditions and, yes, government policies. But on a personal health level, he argues effectively that heart disease, cancer and obesity are closely linked to our meat-heavy diets.
Groups like PETA seek to make a moral issue out of the act of eating meat. The food vs. fuel debate focuses more on the moral implications of the consequences of our dietary choices. It is not a subtle difference. In a carefully worded sentence, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says, "The types and amounts of food an individual chooses to eat not only affect his or her well-being, but also have implications for society as a whole."
Americans aren't about to stop eating meat, and that's a good thing for the Wisconsin livestock industry, an underpinning of our agriculture. But since 1970, just after Frances Moore Lappe first explored food scarcity, Americans have increased annual meat consumption by about 22 pounds a person, according to the USDA. We've undoubtedly become more sedentary in that same period, and undeniably our waist sizes have bulged.
Just as we are finally beginning to come to terms with the great fossil fuels bender we've been on, we can look for some incremental and easily achieved changes in other behaviors that affect a world well beyond our doorsteps. We can't really separate one from any of the others.
Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center in Denver, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, offer a bit of positive perspective. They say that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent, it would be the equivalent of switching from a standard sedan to a Prius. In both cases, we would also save some jingle in a difficult economy.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.
© 2008 Capital Newspapers