You are what you eat - but do you change when your diet changes?

by Kim   |   December 29, 2008

celery smile

Ben Adler's in-depth article: Are Cows Worse Than Cars? also tries to answer another question: Why are many environmentalists reluctant to take on meat-eating as a key climate-changing behavior? "Environmentalists, who know they must change the stereotype that they are all either tree-hugging radicals or self-righteous scolds, may be reluctant to embrace vegetarianism because of those easily caricatured cultural connotations," he writes. Beyond their distaste for vegetarians, he quotes Danielle Nierenberg a researcher specializing in the intersection of animal agriculture and climate change, as saying, "People get very upset when they feel they are being told what to eat." And I think there are some very good reasons why.

Adler proposes to attack the problem by hitting people where it hurts: in the wallet. His economic argument for changing meat-eating behavior makes sense. By removing corn subsidies and other structures that make the meat industry profitable on the macro level, hamburgers with a higher price tag will be less affordable for the individual consumer.

Cater to the Earth

Should environmentalists take on the mighty burger as the primary environmental culprit, or should we start somewhere else? As the PB&J blog pointed out, a recent New York Times graph depicts beef as generating by far the most carbon of any food on the chart. Yet does that tell the whole story?  Grist quoted Ezra Klein's perspective on the beef vs. chicken debate.

The carbon implication is that vegetarianism is best, but if people insist on eating meat, chicken is far better than beef. This puts the carbon argument at odd with the animal rights movement. For them, chicken is far worse than beef. It takes a human being years to eat a cow but only a single dinner to consume a chicken. The death toll of a poultry diet is far higher than a beef diet. And chicken are treated far worse than cows.

Does the death count trump the carbon count? The more complicated the food question becomes, the more understandable is Adler's depiction of food as a hot potato that not every environmentalist has wanted to handle. Besides removing institutional structures that keep animal products artificially inexpensive, it will also be necessary, he says, to appeal to the imagination. "It is obvious that a car spews pollution, but to see your beef burrito first as a burping cow, and before that as oil being burned to grow corn to feed that cow, requires education."

The images with which we understand food production lead straight to our self-image and its involvement with food. We identify with what we eat…not just because the advertising industry makes sure that we associate a brand of soda pop with smiling, attractive people. The Mayans called themselves the Children of the Corn, an identification that may persist in Mexico to this day. While foods may attain a sacred status within a culture, from outside that culture they are the fodder for some of the most common and hurtful stereotypes based on what certain ethnic groups are perceived to eat. Some of these might have to do with learned differences in taste – I can't imagine finding durian fruit appealing, for instance - and with the human tendency to look for easy ways to delineate between groups.

My question is, how can people be enticed to reduce the amount of meat in their diet in a way that takes account of the deep identifications we have with food?  How can we add to the pleasures of the table, discovering new healthy options, rather than reducing them to a virtuous yet tasteless ration? And what role does physiology play in taste? I've already heard about the so-called "bitter taste gene" that may explain why some people don't like broccoli. My point is not only that changing any behavior is easier when people aren't totally resistant to it. It's that we don't want to throw out the powerful memories that certain tastes evoke. I remember how absurdly happy I was to find a place that made stuffed cabbage with TVP, restoring a taste I thought lost to me forever when I gave up meat. Everyone probably has a story of a taste lost (perhaps prohibited for dietary reasons) a taste regained, new tastes adopted into the taste memory that so efficiently transports the rest of the brain to another time.

Look for more discussion on taste coming up.