The one word that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck when used to talk about our food is “sustainable.” It’s proudly rolled out by our local purveyors and producers of delicious meats and cheeses and by their numerous supporting agricultural organizations. Every advertisement, letter to the editor and feature story about our local abundance extols the sustainability of our local meat and dairy industries.
Grass grows, animals are raised, and food is delivered to stores and restaurants for our purchase and consumption — but this does not mean these activities are sustainable. As Dr. Richard Oppenlander asks in his incredible book “Comfortably Unaware: What We Choose to Eat Is Killing Us and Our Planet,” what exactly is sustainability, and who is it that determines what practices are sustainable?
“Along my many journeys, I have found that most often, those who use the term ‘sustainable’ are those who truly do not know what is sustainable and, more important, what is not,” he writes. “They simply are not aware of all the variables that need to be factored in when determining true sustainability. It’s extremely unfortunate that these same individuals or institutions are placed in a position where public opinion is influenced; even policy-making is based on their opinions.”
This statement may be especially relevant for consumers in Marin and Sonoma counties, where we comfortably sit back at our favorite restaurant, looking at our beautiful scenery while sipping our favorite wine and munching on our organic charcuterie plate before our main course of sustainable, organic and grass-fed short ribs is served. All is good and right in the world because we are eating sustainable food — at least, we have been told that it is.
But consider these facts. It takes an average of 25 calories to produce one calorie of energy for a meat-based diet, according to a 2003 article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition titled “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets.” It takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce a gallon of milk. The greenhouse-gas emissions from the animal agriculture industry are equal to or greater than the emissions from all of the cars, buses, trains, trucks and airplanes worldwide. And it takes anywhere from 2 to 25 acres of pasture to raise one grass-fed cow, which supplies 2.5 people with the average amount of meat eaten per person per year in the United States.
In our area, beef and dairy ranchers have to ship in outside feed at least once every six months. Larger producers require tractor-trailer loads of hay from other areas even more frequently. See the Marin Resource Conservation District’s “Grazing Handbook: A Guide for Resource Managers in Coastal California.” Thousands of gallons of animal waste are produced, most of which flows into the ocean off our coast during storms, per the California Ocean Protection Council website.
Maybe we need to talk about the difference between the degradation of our environment and depletion of resources on the one hand, and the regeneration of our environment and resources on the other. There are intensive methods of regenerating our soil using animals, but it is not possible to sustain our current level of animal product consumption. Would our ranchers be economically viable if their production was reduced to a fraction of what it is now?
As a species, we have precious little time to be arguing about whether grass-fed or grain-fed beef is better for us, and whether our practices are sustainable. Study after study is showing that without reducing meat and dairy consumption worldwide, stemming the effects of global climate change will not be possible. Not eating one hamburger saves 600 gallons of water, not to mention the steer that gave its life for your lunch.
Reducing our environmental footprint is extremely important. The evidence is overwhelming that if we do not change our habits and practices dramatically and quickly, the world as we know it will be changed irrevocably. Cutting our consumption of animal products is the most impactful step toward saving our environment that we can take, more so than driving an electric or hybrid car, taking short showers, turning off lights and turning down thermostats and installing drip systems in our gardens.
The time to stop pointing our finger at governments for not doing enough fast enough is over. You can begin the shift to a planet-friendly food system the next time you order at a restaurant or shop at the grocery store. You must be the change.
David Osborn serves on the board of directors for Rancho Compasión, a nonprofit farm animal sanctuary located in Nicasio.