Why Eating Some Meat May Be Better for the Environment Than Going Vegetarian

Eating less meat opens up conversations about food choices with meat-eaters, while vegetarianism often shuts them down.

Andrew Sullivan is known for his articulate, well-thought-out responses to nearly everything. But when a reader wrote in to ask why, despite his advocacy for animals rights, the famed blogger still ate meat, Sullivan didn’t have much to say for himself.

“I don’t really have a defense...I eat meat because I really like it,” he offered. “I’m a sort of protein kind of guy… I’m not a big carb kind of guy… Without meat I don’t know what I’d do.”

Sullivan's response touches on a major reason why more people don't eat vegetarian: Most people like meat too much to give it up. I was a vegetarian for five years before pastrami lured me back to the ranks of meat-eaters. My younger sister crossed over for bacon. When I was a vegetarian, people would always ask me why. No one questions the power of pastrami.

Now I make a concerted effort to eat less meat, a dietary strategy that disarms even dedicated carnivores. Americans are coming around to this way of eating: As food writer Mark Bittman pointed out earlier this week, Americans’ meat consumption has been declining for years, and the Department of Agriculture is projecting that the country will eat even less beef and chicken in 2012. Beef industry watchers blame rising costs forced by drought, ethanol production, and increased demand from countries like China, where incomes are rising. Bittman suggests that some consumers simply have chosen to eat vegetarian occasionally.

In fact, eating vegetarian occasionally could be a smarter environmental choice than eating no meat at all. The diet of those who eschew only red meat could have a smaller carbon footprint than that of dairy-loving vegetarians: A serving of chicken has a lower carbon impact than a serving of hard cheese. The real advantage, though, is that eating less meat opens up conversations about food choices with meat-eaters, while vegetarianism often shuts them down.

Environmental-minded lifestyle choices don’t mean much unless a large percentage of people commit to them. These movements need a virality to them in order to succeed in diminishing greenhouse gas emissions, and potential recruits to the less-meat diet vastly outnumber those interested in going vegetarian altogether. When Vegetarian Times went looking for vegetarians in 2008, it found three times as many people who followed a “vegetarian-inclined” diet than strict vegetarians. As awareness about the health and environmental impacts of a meat-heavy diet have grown, the ways to eat ethically have multiplied beyond the diets espoused by the trinity of meat-lovers, vegetarians, and vegans. A friend who lives in Missoula, Montana, told me recently about “Montana vegetarians,” who eat only meat raised by themselves or close friends. Bittman suggests “semi-veganism,” a diet in which meal or so a week contains no meat or dairy.

When I was a vegetarian, my answer to the eternal “why” was that I just didn’t like meat, a relatively common justification. Also available is the Jonathan Safran Foer answer: It's morally problematic to eat animals. Both these responses tend to meet with blank stares. Like Sullivan, most people know that meat isn’t the healthiest option, and many agree that what goes on in commercial feeding operations is horrifying. Yet they really like meat.

By eating less meat, I bypass these stalled conversations and get to jump into longer, more pleasant discussions about the glories of a quinoa patties or the surprising satisfactions of eggless egg salad. (It’s really good.) I can be as fanatical about kale salad as Sullivan is about steak-and-kidney pie. And instead of trying to argue the merits of a good steak, now the meat-lovers in my life just ask for recipes.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user SweetOnVeg

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