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Compromising to Eat What's Good for Our Planet

February 2017: Balancing environmental/animal concerns and diet

Even when food is abundant, diet remains of great interest to people—especially for reasons of health and fitness. Recently, environmental concerns and animal-welfare concerns have emerged as new reasons to watch what we eat.

As widely practiced, agriculture is hard on our planet’s natural systems. Increasing land in agriculture causes deforestation and diverts or pollutes earth’s scarce fresh water supplies. Livestock production, especially, emits massive amounts of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Agriculture, when livestock production is included, produces about 30 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, according to a Scientific American article (Feb. 2009, p. 75.)

Livestock production also raises troubling ethical concerns about the treatment of animals. With some exceptions, livestock are subjected to severe overcrowding and unnatural diets at feedlots, which leads to related ailments, behaviors and possible mental anguish. Philosophers now debate what kinds of rights to better treatment animals might have. And there are good biblical grounds to believe that animals have rights to decent treatment. (For example, see Deuteronomy 25:4, and New Testament references to that text.) In short, what we eat may encourage agricultural practices that should give us indigestion.

There may be a low-tech solution. If many people took up vegetarianism, then environmental and animal-rights issues would be alleviated. Crowded feed lots for cattle, and crowded poultry operations, would be reduced. A direct consequence of less livestock production would be reduced emissions of climate-changing gases and reduced use of valuable land to produce prodigious amounts of food for animals.

At this point, the discussion gets personal. Though the case for vegetarianism looks compelling, I suspect that a lot of people may be like me: long-ingrained carnivorous habits are difficult to drop. And meats add something tasty to a meal that vegetables (even vegetables that as a gardener I’ve grown myself) can’t completely compensate for. And there are other rationalizations—such as the extra bother needed to balance an all-plant diet so as to get enough protein.

So, where does that leave people like me? Surely some responsibility falls upon us to address the environmental and ethical problems created by what we eat. We need to do our share to improve this. But it doesn’t seem likely that many of us will become vegetarians in the near future. Is the only option to continue eating meat as we always have, but with a bad conscience?

The answer may be in incremental change—halfway measures, if you will. Halfway measures have a bad reputation. But consider the other side. Incremental changes made by lots of people can make a substantial difference. Presumably, two people dropping half their meat consumption would do roughly as much good as one person eating no meat at all. Further, two people may be more likely to take a half-step than one person would be likely to go whole-hog (so to speak) and convert to complete vegetarianism.

Halfway measures like this may even have good surprises hidden in the numbers. Because some meats produce far more greenhouse emissions than do others, it is possible to cut greenhouse emissions by half, or more, while still eating as much meat by weight. For example, a given weight of pork produces only about one-fourth the greenhouse emissions as the same weight of beef. Poultry and fish produce even more dramatic reductions. If one’s diet cuts back on the amounts of meat eaten, as well as the types of meats, the reduction of greenhouse emissions would be magnified further.

Is this perfect? Hardly. Vegetarians still are more environmentally friendly. And while cutting down on meats, and substituting meats, helps with greenhouse emissions and other kinds of pollution, some ethical problems are qualitative. Remaining feedlots would persist in crowding of animals in conditions that are difficult to justify morally.

While there may be some fixes for this, such as purchasing only pasture-raised meats, it is clear that half-measures are not perfect. However, they are a starting point from which better may emerge. The apostle Paul pointed out how starting with one virtue could lead to another and then to another.

—Donald Frey for HMC Earth Stewards

Nathan Fiala, “The Greenhouse Hamburger,” Scientific American, Feb. 2009.
Michal Webber, “More Food, Less Energy,” Scientific American, January 2012.