Taking the pledge – Meat as the new Mephistopheles?

Post-prohibition, is meat the new devil?

My Grandpa, a strict Methodist, took the pledge to abstain from alcohol back in the 1940’s when the church was endorsing Prohibition via the Temperance movement in the UK. It was an entirely personal choice for him, one that he felt was right for his lifestyle and a cause that he didn’t try to recruit other people to join. Admittedly it filtered down to his children and even had some influence on his grandchildren, although for my brothers, cousins and me the effect is now somewhat akin to adding a single ice-cube to a tumbler of whiskey.

In 1889, George Sim described slum areas where drinking was commonplace thus:

The gin-palace is heaven to them compared to the hell of their pestilent homes… The drink dulls every sense of shame, takes the sharp edge from sorrow, and leaves the drinker for awhile in a fools’ paradise… It is not only crime and vice and disorder flourish luxuriantly in these colonies, through the dirt and discomfort bred of intemperance of the inhabitants, but the effect upon the children is terrible. The offspring of drunken fathers and mothers inherit not only a tendency to vice, but they come into the world physically and mentally unfit to conquer in life’s battle. The wretched, stunted, misshapen child-object one comes upon in these localities is the most painful part of our explorers’ experience. The country asylums are crowded with pauper idiots and lunatics, who owe their wretched condition of the sin of the parents, and the rates are heavily burdened with the maintenance of the idiot offspring of drunkenness.

Given such strong words, it’s not surprising that alcohol was considered by many to be the root of all evil. In this modern world, where a myriad of organizations exist to help us with our addictions to the more insidiously hedonistic pleasures in life*, surely we are beyond taking the pledge?

Alas no, the Environmental Working Group is at it again, this time with a pledge that they aim to get 100,000 supporters to sign. That’s right, you can save the planet by simply clicking a button on the internet stating that:

I pledge to skip meat one day a week and to include more healthy fruits and vegetables in my diet. Not only will I be doing something good for my body, I’ll also be doing something good for the environment.

So, let’s assume 100,000 people sign up for this. That will cut the USA’s carbon footprint by 0.00014% (it would only be 0.44% if the entire population took the pledge *and* actually stuck to it). Hardly a significant environmental effect.

What would you replace meat with? Jack-in-a-Box Jalapeno poppers? A couple of Twinkies? A 1/2 lb soy burger? It’s rational to assume that giving up meat for one day a week will not suddenly cause everybody to have more time to cook, or to prepare fresh exotic salads from scratch – the basic food preferences will stay the same, simply without meat.

So the chicken breast, hamburger or pork chop is replaced by a vegetarian burrito – one from Chipotle no less, which has made a big play of not using rbST and other hormones. According to USDA’s nutrient database, the calorie content of an 8 oz steak is 581 calories with 35 grams of fat.  An 8 oz pork chop has 524 calories with 38 grams of fat. The vegetarian burrito? Chipotle lists nutritional information by ingredient, luckily the handy dandy My Fitness Pal website has put together all those ingredients –  750 calories with 27 grams of fat. Hardly a short-cut to becoming a lean, mean fitness machine.

Life is all about choices, and all dietary choices have environmental and health consequences. The Temperance movement believed abstaining from alcohol made for a better life and (via Methodism) a promise of a better afterlife. Can the same really said of abstaining from meat for one day per week? Should meat be renamed Mephistopheles – or is abstention simply another short-term panacea by which we can feel better about our health, environment and karma via bad science and vegetarian spin?

*Personally, I need a “Cinnabon Lovers Anonymous” help-group

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8 thoughts on “Taking the pledge – Meat as the new Mephistopheles?

  1. Where in the report does it say to replace meat with a vegetarian burrito from Chipotle? How did you manage to flip from an environmental argument to a health argument mid-sentence (ps your cherry-picked ingredients for a “typical” veg meal include cheese and sour cream, which Americans should also be eating less of)? Are you really suggesting that unless everyone, everywhere makes a commitment to a lower carbon-footprint, healthier, more humane diet then no one should?

    Straw man arguing at its finest.

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  2. The report suggests that everybody replace meat with other protein sources – my point is that the average consumer is unlikely to change their lifestyle and behavior (including culinary ability) or simply grill a piece of tofu, therefore is likely to replace a piece of meat with a prepared vegetarian option. It was indeed cherry-picked to include Chipotle as they make claims for hormone-free, organic and natural production as recommended by the report, but the actual burrito was simply the first Chipotle vegetarian product that I found via Google.

    I’m arguing that we need to put the consequences of all of our lifestyle choices into context and stop demonizing individual foods in the belief that if we only give up “X” we’ll save the planet. The short-sighted thinking encouraged by the EWG’s report doesn’t help anyone.

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  3. Nowhere in the EWG report does it say giving up meat one day a week will do anything to “save the planet.” However, devoting one day a week to thinking consciously about what we eat, the nature of our diet and its affect on animals and on the planet cannot possibly be argued to be a bad thing.

    The entire idea of Meatless Mondays is decidedly NOT “you must give up ‘x.'” It’s not a campaign aimed at people like you who are fully aware of what happens to animals from farm to fork, and are fully aware of the impact that agriculture (yes, both livestock and crops) has on the environment.

    It’s a strategy for those who are ready to make conscious decisions about what they eat. The campaign wants to change the views of those who without a second thought go into KFC and order a 10-piece bucket with mashed potatoes, extra gravy. It’s an attempt to educate people that there might be better options which better for their bodies, better for the environment, and better for the animals. Are there crops that have a negative impact on the environment? Absolutely, palm oil, for example is incredibly destructive, and environmental groups, responsible ag groups, and animal rights groups should do a better job to heighten awareness of these issues. You will readily admit that the arguments are incomplete on both sides so it doesn’t make sense to repeatedly target ONLY the veg advocates. Unless of course you’re a lobbyist for the meat industry.

    And tofu ain’t so bad. I had curried tofu, green beans, and lentils for lunch. It was delicious. Try it next Monday.

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  4. I too am confused as to why you switched from an environmental argument to a health argument. Putting that aside, the food comparison seems odd: You’re comparing a vegetarian *meal* from Chipotle to a meal *ingredient* (a steak or a pork chop). Granted, I haven’t eaten meat in a few years, but I seem to recall eating more than just a hunk of flesh for a meal. If you include the other ingredients, your comparison would be more useful.

    Further, there are healthier options at Chipotle (skip the guac and chips). For example, here’s the vegan burrito that I commonly get at Chipotle: https://spreadsheets.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AiX97cBhDLxNdGo5b3FUeVdZdDkzbzUzcHE2aGhLMEE&hl=en_US

    605 calories, 15g fat. Admittedly, it’s high in sodium, but it’s very hard to avoid excess sodium in prepared foods.

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  5. I fully agree that making more conscious decisions is a great thing – I wonder why it has to by “giving up” foods though? Why not simply give the consumer a menu that has all the information – not just on carbon footprint but land use, water use, nutrition, biodiversity, health impacts etc and allow them to make a choice? Almost every restaurant will have a vegetarian option – why should a meat option be denied to consumers (including school children) on Mondays?

    The EWG pledge verbiage states that “skipping” meat one day per week, will have positive health and environmental consequences – my point is simply that is entirely dependent on the food used to replace the meat. As to being a meat industry lobbyist – I purposely used an 8 oz steak or pork chop rather than the often-advertised “3 oz serving”. 8 oz is a fairly hefty chunk, if I looked at an entire meal that serving size would be reduced – the problem is finding a representative meal that somebody doesn’t take exception to. I could certainly make meat look good (if I wanted to) by simply serving it with a salad, minus dressing.

    Ironically, as I write this I’m eating my (late) entirely vegetarian lunch.

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  6. When you say the environmental impact of meat-eating should be measured against what you replaced meat-eating with, you are absolutely right, but isn’t why that there’s the graph on Page 6 of the report?

    If you want to find a representative meal, you should compare apples to apples. Compare eating a Chipotle burrito with steak, pork, or chicken and a Chipotle burrito with only beans and vegetables.

    All Meatless Monday advocates are asking is that consumers occasionally (if Mondays are too taxing for you, make it Tuesday) make the conscious decision to choose the vegetarian option over the meat option for the sake of the environment and for the sake of the animals. Is it going to change the world? No. But the symbolism isn’t inconsequential either.

    When you say you wonder why it has to be “giving up” foods, you are again intentionally misrepresenting the EWG report. Nowhere in the EWG report does it recommend anyone “give up” anything. In fact, it explicitly says the EWG fully expect people will not give up meat, but “it is not difficult to cut down a bit” (p. 13). Most Americans (yes, even school children) eat more than enough meat. Sometimes an institutional push, whether it be from a school, employer, retirement home etc., to eat a more balanced diet, the occasional vegan meal, could be a good thing. It’s not unhealthy for schoolchildren to be served hummus wraps instead instead of bologna sandwiches one day a week.

    Providing consumers more information about environmental impact sounds like a great idea. You should write your next blog post about that. The impact of wine grapes on watersheds is a serious concern throughout the west. Folks in Washington state should find that interesting, eh? But that’s not what you’re paid to do.

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  7. Three final points on your commentary:

    1) Giving up meat one day per week is exactly that, regardless of whether you use the words “skipping”, “meatless” or any other term. I’m not arguing that anybody is meat-deprived, my point is that this type of restrictive vision does not address the bigger picture.

    2) I appreciate that you have particular interests in veganism (from your Twitter page). I used to be vegetarian, then I was vegan and now I’m omnivorous. I full support consumer choice (whatever that choice might be) and good science – I do not support science based on incorrect and poorly researched assumptions masquerading as consumer advice. My blog is my own, not funded by any industry or organization and is not part of my job. Frankly the continued insinuations as to being “paid” are tiresome, without merit and do not promote productive discussion.

    3) If my area of expertise related to viniculture then I’d be happy to blog about it. It is not, and therefore I leave those issues to people who are better placed to write about it than I. Just because we eat food (or drink wine) does not make us experts, no matter how much wikipedia we all read.

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  8. That’s all fine. But I don’t see how the anti-vegetarian snark on from your end on this blog is productive either. I don’t see how deriding tofu addresses the big picture either. You’ve spent three straight posts tearing down the idea of Meatless Mondays. From my perspective THAT’S tiresome, without merit, and doesn’t promote discussion.

    Your blog may well be your own, but like any public blog it’s part of cultivating your persona. Your posts are certainly the darling of the meat industry. It’s like you’re Rick Berman reborn with a PhD!

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