In the summer after my senior year of high school, I stopped eating red meat. I said goodbye to hamburgers, hotdogs, steak—a choice that many of my friends and family found a little confusing. Unlike most vegans or vegetarians, I find no ethical problem in eating animals as food. In fact, to this day, I still eat poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy, so some might label me as a semi-vegetarian, a “pollotarian,” or even a “pesce-pollotarian.” Instead, red meat poses an altogether different ethical problem for me. That problem is of the environment—a scourge of our planet Earth’s most basic, common resources: land, air, and water.
I made the decision knowing that I couldn’t be a low-carbon citizen and eat red meat. I read that red meat requires 28 times more land than pork or chicken, 11 times more water, and a resultant five times more greenhouse gas emissions. Think about it—cattle require immense amounts of grain and water to grow and maintain their size. Additionally, cows also make less efficient use of the food they consume physiologically speaking, especially when compared to other meat products. And, in a world that must raise its overall food production by 60% of recent levels come 2050 to accommodate a growing population, eating red meat quickly started to feel unsustainable—irresponsible, even. How could I enjoy a hamburger if its production—far more than any other food in my diet—was melting the ice caps? While it’s easy to forget that food waste, perhaps a little more under our immediate control, is a problem, there was an entire journey that my food had taken before even arriving at my grocery store. For, in its most basic form, food is a choice, and all choices have consequences.
...eating red meat quickly started to feel unsustainable—irresponsible, even.
And then there was gluten. After I had weaned myself off red meat that summer and began exercising much more, I found myself developing a more utilitarian approach to food. What could food do for me? After all, by the processes of metabolism, I was (and am) literally what I eat. Gluten began to lose a place in my diet as a staple carbohydrate because I found it didn’t really offer me much: baked goods were often sugary, and I didn’t really have much of a tooth for bread or pasta. I replaced gluten not with gluten-free substitutes, but with grains, vegetables, and fruits. I do, however, sometimes indulge in breaded chicken or fish, which can contain gluten. Keep in mind, though, that this logic is different than what has driven the mounting debate on gluten-free diets. Many find gluten-free diets unnecessary for those without gluten intolerance and even unhealthy if the eater replaces her food with gluten-free food substitutes, which are often low on fiber and high on sugar. One writer even refers to it as a fad, owing much more to our “psychology than our physiology.”
Let’s not forget this mental dimension to food. Although I find that a diet without baked goods and bread is a great supplement to an active lifestyle, it’s certainly possible that I find solace in the self-control of saying “no”—in the sheer positive reinforcement after a healthy, rounded meal. It’s certainly possible, then, that I’m not just physically what I eat, but also mentally.
But then come birthday parties, eating out with friends, or even trips abroad. I never break these habits unless in the presence of friends or family—a sort of weird, social sabotage. To avoid the awkward pass on eating birthday cake, or the restriction to the less desirable parts of the menu, I treat myself, but in moderated amounts. Food, as I learned earlier at the launch of the University’s Food Better campaign, is also tied to our social lives. We talk over food, we talk about food, and we celebrate with food. Thus, as connected to our ethics like our water or our energy, our food has endless ties to how we think, feel, and act out our social lives. We only need to look at our plates to see why it has such a marked place in the University’s action on sustainability.
...our food has endless ties to how we think, feel, and act out our social lives. We only need to look at our plates to see why it has such a marked place in the University’s action on sustainability.