Closer to Sustainable: Considering our relationship with meat and where we go from here

By Victoria Wallace

On Survivor, the long-running reality TV show that sends Americans to remote beaches to compete for $1 million, contestants are periodically divided over the fate of a chicken. While the gritty realities of survival are featured less on the show than social and physical competition, enough poultry-based drama makes it onto the screen for trends to emerge.

Subsisting mostly on a meager diet of white rice, winning teams on the show are often rewarded with live chickens—and the subsequent dilemma of what to do with them. Typically, utilitarian teammates assign themselves the role of butcher, while their squeamish counterparts look away. In season 2, experienced hunter Michael Skupin leads the debate over the chickens’ fate. The sole dissenter, Kimmi Kappenburg, leaves camp, while Skupin and fellow contestant Rodger Bingham team up to do the deed with “just a hatchet and a block of wood.”

Kappenburg isn’t alone in her discomfort about killing birds on reality television. The intimacy and violence of killing chickens on Survivor has continued to ruffle feathers, on-screen and at home. Perhaps most notably, season 12’s gentle-spirited Tai Trang successfully advocated for a rooster named Mark, intermittently charming and annoying teammates with his do-no-harm philosophy. On season 38, California resident Wendy Diaz infamously hatched a plot to free her team’s birds, while controversially admitting she has no qualms about eating factory farmed chickens at home.

Survivor contestant Tai Trang and his pet chicken, Mark. Credit: CBS

Chicken-related squabbles on Survivor illustrate a widely observed feature ofindustrialized society: a profound separation between meat-eaters and the animals sustaining them. Cows, as a concept, do not often appear in the imagination of someone eating a Totino’s pepperoni pizza roll.

The consequence of our estrangement from farm animals is that people in rich countries are eating more meat than ever before. But this level of meat consumption is untenable. If every human being ate the same amount of meat as the average Briton, 95% of habitable land on Earth would be needed for agriculture. If everyone ate as much as an American (over 200 pounds of meat per year on average), agriculture would occupy 178% of global land—literally, more land than exists on this planet.

Advocates of climate justice know that radical change is needed, that modern lifestyles are impractical and unsustainable. Unfortunately, this earthshattering realization is rarely accompanied by a clear path forward. What does sustainable meat consumption look like?


Ancient humans were hunter-gatherers, careful observers and managers of local ecosystems. Around 9,000 – 10,500 years ago, people started to keep herds of livestock for consumption—beginning with sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. For the first time, humans owned animals. Hunting strategies were replaced by concerns over the wellbeing of the herd. “Domestication,” anthropologist Brian Fagan writes, “means a shift in focus from the dead animal to the living one.”

Flocks and herds were small and closely managed. Sustainability was central to subsistence herding; an oversized herd would quickly overgraze and destroy good pastureland. During the day, animals would be driven to pasture and vigilantly guarded from predators. In the evening, they would be kept near or even inside human settlements. Herders would have recognized each animal individually, carefully selecting breeding pairs.

The investment in breeding, rearing, and managing livestock put a high value on meat consumption. The slaughter of animals was often ritualized, imbued with spiritual and social significance. Large, communal feasts were common in a world without modern refrigeration and preservation technology.

As cities grew and technology evolved, livestock became a commodity. Individual animals were valued at a price per unit, rather than their significance to the health of the herd. Agricultural intensification and mass production further reduced the cost of meat. Now, you can pay less for a Quarter Pounder than certain brands of bottled water. As our lives become further removed from the lives of the animals we eat, we seem to value them less.

The devaluation of animals and their meat is accompanied by the rise in factory farming, which obscures the realities of meat production. From birth until death, we almost never lay eyes on the creatures we eat. The diversity of animal life on Earth is somewhat misrepresented by depictions of polar bears in the Arctic, giraffes on the scrubby savannah, and toucans gracing the branches of tropical rainforests. It is estimated that 96% of mammals on Earth are humans and livestock, and 70% of birds are poultry. We live on a meat planet.


It’s clear that we meat-eaters must eat less meat if humans are to survive and thrive on this planet. But, instead of eating less meat out of disgust or despair — what if it came from a place of reverence? Our predecessors, who lived alongside the animals they ate, held them in high esteem. Livestock were killed for cyclical feasts and gatherings. Meat was celebrated, never taken for granted.

Of course, there are practical reasons why we might not all immediately adopt the meat-eating habits of a subsistence herder. Wherever you are, you might consider these ways to move toward a (more) plant-based diet:

  • Start small. If you eat meat every day, try Meatless Mondays. If you eat meat three times a week, you might aim for twice a week.
  • Think about enjoying meat at celebrations, and sticking to a mostly-plant diet on normal days.
  • A rule of thumb is that four-legged animals (pigs, beef, and sheep) are worse for the planet than two-legged animals (turkey and chicken) or no-legged animals (fish and shellfish). If you can’t skip meat, opt for two legs or no legs.
  • Most of us were raised on meat-based meals. Get comfortable making a few meat-free recipes you love, so cooking meat-free is just as easy as an old family recipe.
  • Keep an eye out for plant-based substitutes for eggs and dairy.
  • It’s harder to change your habits alone. Make plans with likeminded friends to share recipes, eat at a vegetarian restaurant, or cook together.

The Advantages of Local Foods

By Harrison Sweet, Food and Soil Committee

Over the past year, the pandemic has exposed the limitations and problems with our globalized and hyper-connected world. We have seen toilet paper shortages, hospital and healthcare services overrun, and a worldwide shipping delay costing billions of dollars from a ship stuck in the Suez Canal. We’ve seen the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic as well as the radicalization of many Americans by the global social media apps like Twitter and Facebook. We have seen transnational corporations force people back to work without proper safety protection and governments open up way too early. We have seen the ugly side of globalization.

In a recent book by Helena Norberg-Hodges, she lays out a scathing critique of globalization and proposes a new way of living that’s more sustainable, healthier and gives people more meaning: localization. Norberg-Hodges defines localization as “a process of economic decentralization that enables communities, regions, and nations to take more control of their own affairs…shortening the distance between producers and consumers wherever possible, and striking a healthier balance between local and global markets” (Norberg-Hodge 2019). Now, this can often be confused with isolationism, or protectionism but more specifically localization is a process of counter-development through a “recognition of what older cultures often did well: they relied on local resources and local knowledge to meet people’s material needs…[and] they put a high value on community ties, which enabled them to meet people’s psychological need for connection and security” (Norberg-Hodge 2019). Localization is about trying to find a better balance between the energy we spend on our own towns and cities and the energy we spend on big, transnational companies.

A key part in this definition of localization is local foods, which are foods that are “grown and harvested within 100 miles of your home or the restaurant where it’s served. It doesn’t come from large commercial farms, and it isn’t transported over long distances…Locally grown foods are found at farmer’s markets, roadside farm stands, pick-your-own food farms and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs” (Amisson 2020). Local foods have many benefits on top of the decreased distance that food travels which include improving community health, increasing environmental education and enriching food security. Having the source of the food nearby helps community members see the process their food goes through as it travels from the farm to their house, deepening the connection between them and the environment.

This connection also strengthens community bonds and helps both farmers decrease their economic uncertainty every year and educators teaching children about where their food comes from and how to eat well (Dixon 2009). It also gives climate activists a way to educate the public about climate change in a way that directly pertains to their and the community’s well-being. Although eating a better diet consisting mainly of plant-based products can have a bigger greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction than local foods, certain products bought locally can help reduce GHG emissions especially if the products require emissions heavy transportation (Weber 2008). Finally, local food helps to increase the food resiliency of the community by encouraging diversity and carbon farming techniques that help to create better soil, more nutritious plants and a healthier atmosphere (Horst 2017). It also helps wildlife reclaim some of their ecological niches and restores the natural balance within those communities. 

Localization is a process of pulling back and realizing what’s important in our communities. It’s about re-establishing bonds and connections with both the people around you as well as the land we all live on. It’s about slowing down, appreciating everything that we have and moving forward in a deliberate and mindful way.

Local Food References

Amisson, L. (2020, September 14). Is Eating Locally Grown Food Healthier for You? . Retrieved March 6, 2021, from https://www.virtua.org/articles/is-eating-locally-grown-food-healthier-for-you

Dixon, J. M., Donati, K. J., Pike, L. L., & Hattersley, L. (2009). Functional foods and urban agriculture: two responses to climate change-related food insecurity. New South Wales Public Health Bulletin, 20(2), 14. https://doi.org/10.1071/NB08044

Horst, M., Mcclintock, N., & Hoey, L. (2017). The Intersection of Planning, Urban Agriculture, and Food Justice: A Review of the Literature. Journal of the American Planning Association, 83(3), 277–295. https://doi.org/10.1080/01944363.2017.1322914

Norberg-Hodge, H. (2019). Local Is Our Future: Steps to an Economics of Happiness . Local Futures. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43274905-local-is-our-future

Weber, C. L., & Matthews, H. S. (2008). Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. _Environmental Science and Technology_, _42_(10), 3508–3513. https://doi.org/10.1021/es702969f

Get involved with our Food and Soil Team

Check out the team page or email us. at PublicPolicy@SanDiego350.org.

Lonely? Try Talking about Cow Flatulence

By Bellamy Dryden

This past Saturday, April 29, I celebrated an important milestone with 5,000 strangers at the Peoples Climate March in downtown San Diego. After that same march in 2014 I adopted a vegan diet, cold turkey, so to speak. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Three years later, I’m healthier and happier.

2017 People's Climate March

2017 People’s Climate March. Photo courtesy of SanDiego350.

What better way to celebrate than with a perfect stranger holding a sign that says “Cow Farts are Destroying the Planet”?

I changed my diet for two reasons. One: it’s an easy and useful way for me to help combat climate change. Two:  it meant that I would never, ever, EVER have to eat a cricket burger with a side of mealworm “fries.”

Why not celebrate such an important day with friends and family? Well, I’m the only environmental vegan in my circle. Besides, my family and friends are far flung, so we use Facebook to keep in touch. The friends and neighbors I see in real life like me just fine, but online, it’s really lonely being the dietary outlier, the green sheep, the tree-hugging vegan. [Read more…]

Plant-based Diet for a Healthy Planet

Garden of Eating

Hungry? Step Inside Earth Fair’s Garden of Eating!

Many of us take pains to do the right thing for the environment. We may recycle, take shorter showers, and turn the lights off when leaving a room. But did you know that you can eat your way into making an even bigger difference?

It’s true: food choices matter in so many ways. The great news is this is an area where personal health and happiness come together with conserving resources, building community, and addressing climate change – not to mention more compassion for the animals we share this planet with.

SD350 Planet-Based Diet Team

A recent SanDiego350 Planet-Based Diet Team book discussion of Comfortably Unaware. Click photo for the event presentation Powerpoint!

At this year’s Earth Fair on Sunday, April 19 from 10am – 5pm in Balboa Park, SanDiego350’s “Planet-Based Diet” team invites you into the Garden of Eating, where you can experience the pleasures of good food, good life, and good earth – and we promise, it’s anything but rabbit food!

Why Check It Out?

An overwhelming body of research shows that plant-based is planet-based. The UN says, “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

How can this be? In a nutshell, we are now rearing 70 billion livestock animals for slaughter annually on a planet of 7 billion people, with both numbers growing each year. Yet our resources are finite, and it takes quite a bit of them – and causes shocking amounts of environmental damage – to accommodate these animals before they end up on our plates.

Got Drought?

PBD quote 3Take, for example, freshwater depletion. Per Pacific Institute, the crop receiving most of drought-stricken California’s water is alfalfa hay (livestock feed) and a whopping 47% of California’s total water footprint is associated with meat and dairy. Yet: “Eating lower on the food chain could allow the same volume of water to feed two Americans instead of one, with no loss in overall nutrition” (Scientific American, “Growing More Food With Less Water”). While Shorter showers save about 2.5 gallons, National Geographic says the average vegan diet saves 600 gallons of water per day! With California’s water supply running out, there’s no single more effective way to help save it.

Other areas of resource depletion in which animal agriculture is being called a leading cause are deforestation, water pollution, rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, and ocean dead zones. The documentary “Cowspiracy” explains this in further detail (check out their extensive fact sheet).

The Climate is Changing

And then there’s the creation of greenhouse gases and climate change, which is the focus of SanDiego350. Although energy and transportation are major contributors, animal agriculture is responsible for 35% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions, which trap much more heat than carbon dioxide (UN FAO). In PBD quote 2fact, animal agriculture is reportedly responsible for more emissions than all forms of transportation combined (UN FAO), with one more recent study finding it is responsible for 51% of total emissions (Worldwatch Institute)!

Deutsche Bank Research says, “Greenhouse gas emissions from meat-eating warrant the same scrutiny as do those from driving and flying.” And Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the UN IPCC, begs us, “Please eat less meat—meat is a very carbon-intensive commodity.” He adds that doing so is the most immediate and feasible way to reduce emissions in a short period of time.

Do Fish Count?

Although fish are often considered a more environmentally friendly option, our population’s demand for seafood is simply greater than the oceans are capable of producing. Outrageously, one third of all fish removed from the ocean, with most discarded as “bycatch,” are fed to livestock. Scientists say the oceans will be completely depleted at this rate by 2048. Additionally, removing too many fish from the ocean sets off a chain of events that further warms the atmosphere. Due to this rapid depletion of wild sea life, about half of the world’s fish currently come from fish farms, which are incredibly environmentally destructive and often poorly regulated.

But Grass-Fed Beef and Cage-Free Eggs Are Fine, Right?

Those opposed to factory farming may be reassured by meat labeled grass-fed, cage-free, local, organic, or sustainable. But what do these words really mean in this sense? Although impacts may be less in some areas, producing animal versus plant foods still uses far more resources and creates more greenhouses gases under any circumstances. Far more plants can be produced on a given acre of land, and using fewer resources, than animal foods. And ultimately, creating demand for meat products is what necessitates factory farming in the first place due to scarcity of land.

Need, Not Greed

Finally, consider the fact that one-third of all arable land on earth is used to grow livestock feed while millions of human beings starve to death each year – yet the World Hunger Program at Brown University found that a plant-based diet can feed billions more people. This seems like reason enough to give veg eating a try, no?

Death and Taxes… and Meat?PBD quote 1

With all this destruction being caused by animal agriculture and fishing, why are meat and animal products still so prevalent? Apart from current preferences and habits, it’s a clear case of profit over planet. Gigantic tax subsidies ($38 billion for meat and dairy vs. only $17 million for fruits and veggies, per Meatonomics) keep the price of meat products artificially cheap compared to the amount of irreplaceable natural resources used to produce them, and the true environmental cost is deferred to future generations ­– and possibly ourselves.

But Where Do You Get Your Protein?

Is a plant-based diet healthy? Most definitely! It is the American Dietetic Association’s position that vegetarian and vegan diets are “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases” and “are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle.” If our closest relative, the gorilla, can thrive as an herbivore, so can we!

Luckily, plant-based eating is a trend that’s here to stay. Vegan alternatives are getting better and better, and are now available in most grocery stores.

At the Garden of Eating, plenty of samples, demos, speakers, performers, factoids, and other features await you once you step inside, including nationally recognized environmental activist Rob Greenfield’s “Food Waste Fiasco.” Jimbo’s, San Diego Soy Dairy, and Be Wise Ranch have generously donated food and supplies for our food demonstration stage. Vegetarians and omnivores alike are welcome! No “vegan police” will be present. The hope is simply for you to come away inspired and excited about plant-based eating.

Garden of eating logoThe Garden of Eating will be located adjacent to the Timken Museum. Get more event info and RSVP here!

Bring your appetite, and we’ll see you there!

Graphics by Amy Duncan/Wonder Creative.

 

 

Rob Greenfield Donates to SD350’s Planet-Based Diet Team

Local powerhouse environmental activist and SanDiego350 member Rob Greenfield has kindly donated a $3,000 advance he received to a cause he passionately believes in: using our forks to change the world.

He has designated $1,500 to SanDiego350’s Planet-Based Diet team (which he is also now a member of), which advocates the environmental benefits of shifting to plant-based diets and reducing food waste, and the other $1,500 to FoodShift, a group that works to reduce food waste. Rumor has it that the advance is for a Discovery TV show Rob will be featured in!

Rob-Greenfield-in-Field1

Rob in a green field. (Photo: robgreenfield.tv)

This self-described “adventurer, activist, and dude making a difference” employs attention-getting tactics such as cycling across the US and living in a 50-square-foot San Diego home to promote living simply for the environment’s sake. Greenfield has been featured on BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, the Discovery Channel, USA Today, the LA Times, and more. He has vowed to live without bills or debt and to donate all of the money he makes to non-profits. [Read more…]