Green Smackdown: The Meat of the Argument

God, that hurt a little. Anyone who knows me well knows that there
are few things I love more on this earth than foie gras and
slow-braised pork shoulder. I am a foodie, through and through, who
believes that the world is rightest in front of a plate of lamb sugo or
pan-seared sweetbreads. But I also believe that what we eat, as a
culture, is of global economic and ecological importance. I've known
for a long time that it's best to eat foods grown locally and
sustainably. I've made a point of buying produce from the Greenmarket
here in NYC, and I even subscribed last year to a local farm's
Community Supported Agriculture program to get weekly bags of Long
Island–grown fruits and vegetables. The next step toward eating in a
way that's environmentally healthy is to reduce my personal consumption
of meat products. Delicious as they may be, the chickens, cows and
piggies I'm so fond of cooking are not very efficient sources of
energy. In other words, the input of water, fossil fuels, electricity
and chemicals required to process an animal for the market are many,
many times greater than the input required to produce plant-based foods.

According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,
the production of one calorie of animal protein requires more than 10
times the fossil-fuel input of a calorie of plant protein—so that meat
calorie packs 10 times the carbon emissions as well. And the USDA
reports that almost 50 percent of all water used in the U.S. goes
toward irrigating livestock feed crops. Vegetarians love to quote a
1981 Newsweek story ("The Browning of America") that stated, "The water that goes into a 1,000-pound steer would float a destroyer."

There are plenty of other environmental arguments for eating less
meat: crop monoculture for producing livestock feed causes topsoil
erosion, feed-lot runoff pollutes groundwater with nitrogen, the need
for more land to raise animals necessitates forest clear-cutting, etc.,
etc. Crazy stuff if you get into it, but I'm not going to bang any more
drums here (although if you're interested in learning more, you can
visit goveg.com), because it's time for me to explain that little asterisk up there in paragraph three.

*I do not intend to give up meat entirely, because I derive immense
pleasure from the occasional over-the-top beautiful meal, and I'm not
about to reject the tasting menu at Per Se in favor of roasted veggies.
In ancient times, people ate a primarily plant-based diet with the
occasional supplement of meat during special occasions like feasts,
festivals or when hunters were able to make a big kill. Meat wasn't an
everyday staple; it was a celebration food, and the eating of animal
flesh was done with some reverence. That's the sort of attitude that
I'd like to work toward in my own home. My ground rules are these:

  1. On a day-to-day basis, when I'm cooking for myself or ordering
    a casual meal at a restaurant, I eat vegetarian food—maybe a little
    seafood from time to time, but not much (ocean over-harvesting is a big
    problem too).
  2. If a friend or family member has been kind
    enough to cook for me, or if I'm visiting a country where food is
    scarce, I'm not going to be "that guy" who asks for a special menu. I'm
    going to eat whatever they serve, meat included.
  3. On the rare
    occasions (a few times a year) when I have the opportunity to eat a
    really fine restaurant meal, I will order the best stuff on the
    menu—which will certainly be meat-related—and I will eat it with glee.

As I get older, I realize that the thing about sustainable living is that it does truly need to be sustainable,
as in holding your fastest sustainable pace in an endurance race. It's
not about being hardcore or extreme, it's about maintaining your best
possible performance over the long haul, and that means something
slightly different for each of us. Yes, I just got back from a trip to
touchy-feely Santa Fe, where I evidently drank the water. Come back
next week for your regularly scheduled snarkiness. —Megan Miller