Omnivore, Vegetarian or Vegan?

By Shawn Dell Joyce
Picture in your mind the food ladder. Starting at the bottom rung, we have the most abundant and free source of energy on the planet; solar, which is consumed by plants (next rung) to make food energy, which is consumed by animals (next rung) to make protein, which is consumed by man. Except in a few rare cases involving bears, sharks, wild dingoes or cannibals, the food ladder ends with us humans.

Each rung on the ladder represents about a 10 percent loss of resources. The plants waste 10 percent of the sun, growing things the animals won’t eat. The animals waste 10 percent of the plant by growing things like feathers, fur and bones that we won’t eat. You get the picture. What does that innocuous 10 percent really look like?

To produce a pound of wheat takes about 25 gallons of water, a lot of sun, and less than an acre of land. Yet it takes 16 pounds of that wheat (plus soy), and 2,500 gallons of water fed to a cow to make one pound of beef. More than half our farm land and half our water consumption is currently devoted to the meat industry. A 10-acre farm could feed 60 people growing soybeans, 24 people growing wheat, 10 people growing corn but only two producing cattle, according to the British group Vegfam. We eat most of our grain in the form of meat, 90 percent actually, which translates into 2,000 pounds of grain a year. In poorer countries, grain is consumed directly, skipping a rung on the ladder.

“Imagine sitting down to an eight-ounce steak dinner,” writes author Frances Moore Lappé in Diet for a Small Planet. “Then imagine the room filled with 45 to 50 people with empty bowls in front of them. For the ‘feed cost’ of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full cup of cooked cereal grains.” We Americans don’t often see the unappetizing effects of eating 260 pounds of meat per person, per year. We waste 90 percent of the carbs, fiber, and plant protein by cycling grain through animals for meat.

Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimates that reducing meat consumption by just 10 percent in the U.S. would free enough grain to feed 60 million people. This year, about 20 million people, mostly children, will starve to death.

We don’t often see the hungry and malnourished in our culture, so it’s difficult to make that connection when standing by the grill waiting for your hamburger. Consider ways to replace meat for two or three main meals a week. Marge Corriere, a Blooming Hill Farm customer, said recently: “Treat meat like a condiment. Use just a small amount for a meal, much like they do in other countries.” By eating lower on the food chain, even just a few meals a week, we reduce our risks for heart disease, obesity, hypertension, colon (and other) cancers, and save valuable resources that could be put to better uses elsewhere.

“It boils down to a simple equation,” says Alan Durning, head of the Northwest Environment Watch. “We currently consume close to our own body weight in natural resources every day. These resources are extracted from farms, forests, fisheries, mines and grasslands, all of which are essential to the health of the planet — and to the health of human beings.”

Adding more vegan meals to your diet, and treating animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) as condiments and using very little, improves your health and the health of the planet.

Shawn Dell Joyce is the director of the Wallkill River School in Montgomery.


One Response to “Omnivore, Vegetarian or Vegan?”

  1. Mary Makofske Says:

    Years ago, I remember thinking, “I could never give up meat.” After I gave up meat (almost completely–I still eat it a few times a year), I thought, “I could never give up chicken.” After gvinig it up (almost completely), I realized I truly enjoy vegetarian meals. I’ve discovered many foods I didn’t know before, such as red lentils, black beans, bulgar. I eat many more vegetables–bok choi, escarole, collards, mizuna, chard. We think it’s impossible or difficult to change our habits, but it’s not. Dairy’s harder for me to reduce, but I can try. Thanks for the reminder, Shawn.

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