The Low-Carbon Diet
I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the mid-1980s, living in a tiny rural village where the staple crop was hand-tilled corn. It was harvested twice a year, in May and December. This meant the two annual “rainy seasons” had to begin right on time, in January and September, and continue for several months afterward. Any deviation from this rainfall pattern virtually guaranteed a lower corn harvest. And given the total absence of grocery stores, community granaries, or the money to buy extra food even if it existed, this meant hunger.
A signature impact of global warming, of course, is a dramatic shift in precipitation patterns worldwide, including longer and more severe droughts as well as extreme rainstorms and flooding in non-drought areas. Many scientists believe these impacts are already being felt by farmers worldwide and could spell future disaster, especially for subsistence farmers like those I lived with in Africa. Global wheat prices have jumped about 100 percent in the past year in part because a record drought in Australia—made worse by global warming—has devastated farmers across the continent. Food production in China alone could drop 10 percent as early as 2030, United Nations scientists warn.
The people I lived with in Africa contribute almost nothing to the problem of global warming, through their diet or otherwise. Coal-fired electricity versus wind power? They don’thave electricity. SUVs versus hybrid cars? They don’t have cars—none at all, or roads for that matter. And meat consumption? Tiny, tiny portions maybe twice a week.
If we in the West don’t alter course in the coming years, if we allow extreme global warming to become reality, an impact on the U.S. diet could very well be a great reduction in the amount of meat on our tables—a reduction imposed on us by nature instead of achieved by us through enlightened lifestyle changes. The wide and guaranteed availability of agriculturally productive land may simply cease. The crop yields we see now could shrink significantly, thanks to everything from weird weather to pest invasions. But it’s a safe guess to say we’ll have space for a national diet of plant-based foods (some crops are expected to benefit from global warming), just not the option of consuming all those animals.
But in the Congo and other poor countries, in places like Bangladesh and Peru and Vietnam, where meat consumption is already low, severe climate change means food off the table. It means hungry children. It means the rains don’t come on time or at all in tiny villages like the one I lived in. It means, in the end, cruelty to people.
Are we clear now on the raw facts and urgent morality of our present meat consumption in America?
We need much more than just a few magazine readers to voluntarily stop eating meat, of course. It’s a good start, but what we really need are national policies that encourage lower meat consumption by everyone. This could be achieved using fees or other market mechanisms that properly price greenhouse-gas emissions according to the harm they cause. The bad news, I suppose, is that the cost of meat could rise. The good news is we would finally have a fair and honest way to judge its danger, and thus more incentives to do the right thing, more incentives to switch to a healthy and convenient vegetarian diet of the sort I’ve joyfully embraced for years, despite my great appreciation for the taste of meat.
We could also, as a nation, just eat a lot less meat as an alternative to full vegetarianism. Anthony McMichael, a leading Australia-based expert on climate change and health issues, has crunched the numbers. He estimates that per capita daily meat consumption would need to drop from about 12 ounces per day in America to 3.1 ounces (with less than half of it red meat) in order to protect the climate.
I suppose I could measure out 3.1 ounces of meat per day, cook it, eat it, and still feel morally okay. But frankly I’d rather just go without. I’d rather be a vegetarian. It’s easier to explain. It’s easier to defend. And I just plain like it.