When did vegetarianism become passé?…


It used to be that when I told a fellow progressive I’m a vegetarian, I would get one of three reactions: (1) an enthusiastic “me too!,” (2) a slightly guilty admission of falling off the veg wagon, or (3) a voracious defense of the glories of steak.

These days, there’s another increasingly common reaction: People look at me with a mix of pity and confusion, like I’m some holdover from the ’90s wearing a baby-doll dress with chunky shoes and babbling on about No Doubt. I can see what they’re thinking: “You’re still a vegetarian?”

At some point over the past few years, vegetarianism went wholly out of style.

Now sustainable meat is all the rage. “Rock star” butchers proffer grass-fed beef, artisanal sausage, and heritage-breed chickens whose provenance can be traced back to conception on an idyllic rolling hillside. “Meat hipsters” eat it all up. The hard-core meaties flock to trendy butchery classes. Bacon has become a fetish even for eco-foodies, applied liberally to everything from salad to dessert, including “green” chocolate bars and “sustainable” ice cream.

All of which has led some vegetarians to give up their plant-based ways. But food fads aside, vegetarianism still has its place and deserves its due respect.

Let me state, for the record, that I wholeheartedly support the shift from factory farming to more sustainable meat production. Treating animals humanely, letting them eat what they’re naturally inclined to eat, raising them without antibiotics and hormones, incorporating them into holistic farmsJoel Salatin-style, and, once they’re slaughtered, eating every last bit of them, nose to tail — that’s all good stuff.

But let’s get real. Only a teeny-tiny fraction of meat in the U.S. is actually produced in any way that could conceivably be described as “sustainable” — less than 1 percent, according to the group Farm Forward — and only a teeny-tiny fraction of that is raised in the super-duper-über-conscientious Salatin style. Most of the meat raised even by those trying to do it right comes with serious environmental impacts, from high water consumption to large land footprints to excessive methane emissions.

So it really gets my goat (ahem) when people claim it’s more responsible to eat supposedly sustainable meat than to abstain from it — like the author of this facile article from Food & Wine, who pats herself on the back for convincing her husband to give up his vegetarianism:

For Andrew and about a dozen people in our circle who have recently converted from vegetarianism, eating sustainable meat purchased from small farmers is a new form of activism — a way of striking a blow against the factory farming of livestock that books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma describe so damningly.

Oh come on. You’re not striking any more of a blow against Big Meat by buying your sustainable sausage at the farmers market than I am by buying my dried beans at the farmers market.

To nudge our horrific food system toward sustainability, we don’t need vegetarians to shift to occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. We need the American masses who eat an average of half a pound of factory-farmed meat a day to shift to the occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. (Americans are actually eating a little less meat overall these days, no thanks to the meat hipsters.)

Eating truly sustainable meat, in modest quantities, is a fine thing. But it’s not better than eating no meat — certainly not when we’ve got more than 7 billion people on a fast-heating planet competing to feed themselves via shrinking, oversubscribed cropland and increasingly limited, degraded freshwater supplies.

Yes, vegetarians can do better too. Just as most meat-eaters, even green-leaning ones, consume at least some less-than-exemplary meat, most vegetarians eat some highly processed, GMO-tainted, decidedly non-local soy products that wouldn’t win any sustainability awards. And just as omnivores can focus on eating better meat, vegetarians can focus on eating better sources of protein. When vegetarians do aim higher, it’s hard to beat them on the sustainability front — a non-soy-based, non-heavily-processed, local-focused veg diet is the definition of low impact.

In the end, vegetarianism — eating lower on the food chain, gobbling up fewer resources and less water — is still an ethical, environmentally friendly choice, just like it was in the ’90s. Maybe even more so now, if you consider how our environmental, energy, and food challenges have compounded in the last two decades.

So, meat hipsters, drop that smug sanctimony. Sometime soon, bacon-spiked dessert will look just as outmoded as lentil loaf and baby-doll dresses — and vegetarianism will still be a good choice for my health, society at large, and our global environment.
See also Coal Lobby Warns Wind Farms May Blow Earth Off Orbit


Yeah, pretty much. We just made a great lentil hummus and bread with the lentils and wheat from the Mendo Grain Project that we got from the Westside Renaissance Market. Local, easy, delicious, and plenty of protein. Eating bread from local wheat I ground in my kitchen just before I baked it is spectacular, and gives a strange feeling of empowerment. If you’re compelled to eat meat, the WRM has locally raised meat as well, so it’s all very accessible and convenient.

I practiced vegetarianism for forty years. We raise chickens now and are adding rabbits this year. We can get sustainably raised organic lamb and beef here in Round Valley. I went back to eating meat after hearing it explained by a former vegetarian/veterinarian that “on this earth something is eating something else everywhere all the time even in you own stomach and intestines”. If you do not believe that; go lie down naked in your garden for a day. Now I go out of the way to eat healthy and sustainable foods and applaud all vegetarians too. Just pay attention to where the food comes from, and how it was grown.

As a gardener, I’ve had to face the fact that cutting into our mother earth causes more problems and dislocations than we want to admit, from erosion to the breakup of critical mycelial networks, even when done on a small scale. There really is a good case to be made for the idea that farming is intrinsically unsustainable, especially in low-water areas like this. I don’t want to think this, it is not comfortable, but unless you are eating acorns, pinole, and gophers, I’m not sure about sustainable. Certainly there is nothing natural about irrigation; it changes everything from the water table to the bacterial, fungal, and invertebrate life of the soil.

Philosophically, there is likewise a case to be made that the true shift that led to our modern disaster was much further back than the industrial revolution. It was the advent of agriculture that made dense populations, social stratification, armies, religion-as-tool-of-control, and a state of mind that has separate categories called “Man” and “Nature.”

Having lived a life with a larger hunter/gatherer component than is now usual, and having known men and women who grew up in the old subsistence-based, mythologically-patterned world, I see that our losses are huge and that the “security” agriculture offers does not make up for the feeling of being cast out of paradise, which has haunted us as a species since we left the forest and seashore for the farm.

I still love to garden, and I believe strongly that growing your own is better than letting big ag do it. (I even work for a seed company). But, as our own collective heritage remembers, we now live “by the sweat of one’s brow”, with the psychology of scarcity that it has engendered. We carry in our bones a longing to once again eat direct from the hand of God (or Nature, or whatever you choose to call it). We have lost a belief–common among hunter/gatherers–in unearned, freely-shared abundance.

There are many things I just think, but that we are exiles from the garden of the wild I know in my deepest being. However, I don’t expect that to be convincing to anyone else, and would recommend the works of Hugh Brody, Stanley Diamond, and Gary Snyder to anyone wanting to explore the idea. Meanwhile, sure, eat lentils, eat grass fed cows, it’s wonderful to grind your own wheat. It’s all Better. But Best? Best might involve learning to use more drought-adapted native species than we do, both animal and vegetable.

If you want to make one small delicious start, I notice that miner’s lettuce is perfect for harvest right now under the oaks.

Jamie, you matched my thoughts quite well. Farming is closely akin to mining. The soil’s plant nutrients are captured and shipped off in the harvest, never to be returned. This needn’t be so. As American agronomist F.H. King discovered while touring Asia in 1909 and reported in his “Farmers of Forty Centuries, Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan”, if the feces and urine of those eating these foods were recycled to the fields, production could continue for long periods. We, at least most of us, couldn’t now get away with this because our leavings are polluted with god-knows-what pharmaceuticals, cleansers, and assortment of other stuff that would poison the land. And we’re so touchy touchy. So, we mine plant nutrients elsewhere and fertilized our farms and gardens to make up for our foolishness. But, sources for these minerals are becoming stripped. Even organic gardeners must seek fertilizers in some other place. Maybe someday we’ll wake up, but it is surely not promising to be any time soon. Hence, the foolishness of so-called sustainable agriculture.