Diets and the Environment: Part One

Growing up, I had a childhood friend who, through her own volition and love for animals of all kinds, adopted a vegan diet from a very early age. My young mind couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of not eating pizza and cupcakes at a birthday party, or chicken nuggets when a parent would relent and pick up McDonald’s for an after-school snack. I understood not wanting to hurt innocent animals. I had sympathized with Lisa Simpson after the family went to a petting zoo and later had lamb chops for dinner, a demonstration of hypocrisy that motivated Lisa to become a vegetarian. However, I didn’t draw the connection between the animals we ate as food and the animals we were supposed to think of as cute and friendly. Later on, in high school – with fad diets coming and going – friends of mine briefly embraced ranges of diets from vegetarian, to gluten-free, to no carbs, or whatever seemed most likely to allow them to lose weight the quickest. Even then, the thought of choosing my food for any reason other than taste or appetite seemed to be withholding my body of some pleasure that I felt I duly deserved every time I sat down for a meal.

Eventually, I tried a few diets here and there, with my main source of motivation being altering my physical appearance and receiving social validation from friends experimenting with the same thing. Yet, they never stuck. I would always be tempted and defeated by the smell of pizza or an after-school bake sale – probably because there was no real reason in my mind or tangible difference for why I was choosing to restrict my food intake. When you’re a little kid and not in control of your own diet, your parents try and indoctrinate you with the idea that fruits and vegetables are good for you; however, as we get older we lose sight of that idea as we look for more complex ways to keep our bodies healthy. Now, whenever I tell someone that I’m vegan they always show a perplexed expression and ask “what do you eat?” Or even more often, if I’m eating enough protein, which has always struck me as odd, considering no one ever thought to ask me about my health or nutrient levels when I was eating meat.

I had never seriously considered before how the food people bought was produced and transported to the grocery store and then to our plates. The whole process in the United States happens behind the scenes; factory farms are located in sparsely populated areas and the actual animals are often only transported to the slaughterhouse in the middle of the night, ensuring that people who aren’t looking won’t see what is happening. Once when I was 16, I was in Thailand, in a village called Mae Sariang, walking around with a group of people, being shown in the area. A chicken trailed behind as we walked through the damp and green environment, never falling far from the group. In the late morning, we went on a short hike and returned to the village eager to eat. We all sat and had fried rice for lunch. It wasn’t until later when we wandered down to play volleyball when I noticed the chicken no longer followed our footsteps, and I thought back to the lunch we had just had. The rice was chicken fried rice, which at the moment seemed secondary to the fact that hot fresh food was in front of us. However, once I realized that the friendly chicken was, in fact, our lunch chicken and that a member of our group was the one to prepare our food and therefore kill the chicken, my perspective on our simple lunch became more complex.

This wasn’t the watershed moment in my life that made me sympathize with the animals so much so as to abstain from eating meat. Actually, you might even argue that knowing the animal was raised in a friendly and loving environment would somehow make it more comforting to eat. But, it was the first time in my life I was directly confronted with the reality of how my food comes to be something I would actually eat, and as I started to investigate further the reality of food production in the United States I kept thinking back to that chicken and how wildly different its experience was from the chickens we raise for food in the US.

After 18 years of eating meat and animal products at whim, I was sitting alone in Amsterdam one night, while my friends slept, wondering how to pass the time, when I decided to watch a documentary on Netflix with a provocative title: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. The documentary connected all the dots, plain and simple, of how animal agriculture plays a driving factor in exacerbating climate change and how inextricably linked our dietary choices are toward triggering some of the worst injustices towards our environment and collective well-being. Most people shy away from vegan documentaries or exposés claiming that they are sensationalist and play on people’s emotions. Even I don’t truly advocate watching traumatizing videos of the inside of a slaughterhouse. It is always graphic and explicitly compelling, but there are other valuable ways to internalize the injustices inflicted by the industrial animal agriculture system. I stayed up until the morning doing more research about what I had just been told in the film. To be quite honest with you, I was looking for every reason to contradict what the movie was trying to say because its core message was so unsettling. And because I really wanted to continue eating pizza and sushi, and most of the products my normal diet consisted of.

I had always perceived myself as someone who treated the environment well and did my best to reduce my ecological impact. I remember listening intently at an assembly in elementary school teaching us about taking short showers, turning the faucet off when we brush our teeth or nagging our parents to transition to energy efficient appliances. I happily participated in all of these activities and encouraged others to do the same. Yet, upon learning that (by conservative estimates) it takes 660 gallons of water on average to produce a single burger, I felt frustrated that the scale of the problem had been so obfuscated. Animal agriculture is the largest consumer of water resources in the United States. I could shower continuously for approximately two months and use 660 gallons of water, or I could eat a hamburger for dinner.