Ethical food consumption on our plundered planet

    By Charles Henry | 12 November 2017
    Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ligonier Valley

    “Isn’t man an amazing animal? He kills wildlife – birds, kangaroos, deer, all kinds of cats, coyotes, beavers, groundhogs, foxes and dingos – by the millions in order to protect his domestic animals and their feed. Then he kills domestic animals by the billions and eats them.

    This in turn kills man by the millions because eating all these animals leads to degenerative – and fatal conditions – like heart disease, kidney disease and cancer. So then man tortures and kills millions more animals to look for cures for these diseases. Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are dying of hunger and malnutrition because the food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals.

    Meanwhile, some people are dying of sad laughter at the absurdity of man, who kills so easily and violently, and once a year, sends out cards praying for ‘Peace on Earth.’

    —C. David Coats, author of Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm


    Most people in the United States and in Europe enjoy an abundance of foods and a wide variety of food choices. We don’t usually think much about where our food comes from and what impact our food choices have on the environment.

    We may know a little about organic food, but don’t understand whether we should care about it, or pay more for it. What we should learn is that a healthy diet can have a lower environmental impact.

    Peter Singer of Princeton University argues that since one can survive and be healthy without eating meat, fish, dairy or eggs one should choose that option rather than harming animals.

    Ethical vegetarians believe that the reasons for not hurting or killing animals are the same as the reasons for not hurting or killing humans. Killing an animal, and consuming it just for its taste, for convenience or out of habit isn’t justifiable. Humans, unlike other animals, are morally conscious of their behavior and have a choice in their actions.

    The widespread view that the world was made for humans has encouraged people to despoil our Earth. It is ironic that ecological devastation now is the greatest longterm threat to humankind.

    Eighty percent of the world’s agricultural lands are now allocated to animals, either for pasture or to produce food for them. More than 20 percent of all water consumed is used to grow grain to feed livestock. A 2013 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization study estimated that livestock accounted for 15 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, about the same as the entire global transport sector.

    Other analyses, which argue that the UN estimate doesn’t adequately account for things like the CO2 produced by the respiration of tens of billions of farm animals, estimate that livestock might be responsible for up to 51 percent of global emissions. “Meat is heat,” environmentalists like to say. 31 calories of fossil fuel are needed to produce 1 calorie of meat as opposed to only 1.5 calorie of fuel to produce 1 calorie of plant food. A plant based diet not only mitigates the progression of climate change: it also can feed more of the world’s population. Growing vegetables takes up less land than livestock, and the land used for livestock grazing could be diverted towards other vegetable crops.

    Still, a few simple adjustments help a lot. Stop worrying so much about not getting enough protein, and remember that plant-based protein is a lot easier on the planet than animal protein. Buy organic food whenever you can. Eat less and waste less. Be open-minded and creative about new cuisines. Relax. Have fun. Sustainable eating isn’t synonymous with masochism.

    Protein…How much do we need?

    When someone learns that you are a vegetarian one of the first questions often posed is “How do you get enough protein?”

    According to Harvard Medical School’s Daniel Pendick, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36 to determine the minimum grams of protein you need each day. Is more better?

    While the jury is out, most nutrition scientists agree that the typical American diet includes too much protein. A 150 pound person needs about 54 grams of protein daily according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 10% of one’s daily calorie intake in protein is the recommended daily amount (RDA) minimum, but most Americans eat much more. Nutritionists agree that up to twice the RDA may be OK and the debate of how much is enough is ongoing.

    But here is what one should consider. Don’t read “Get more protein” as “Eat more meat”. Meats, and dairy products provide protein, but then so do whole grains, beans and all legumes, vegetables and nuts.

    The “package” protein comes in is important. It includes the fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that come along with the protein. The package one should look for should be low in saturated fat, processed carbs and be rich in other nutrients. If one eats more protein one should reduce intake of other foods. Eating more protein instead of low quality carbs like white bread and sweet desserts would be a good trade off.

    There do not appear to be any health advantages to consuming a high protein diet. Diets that are high in protein may even increase the risk of osteoporosis and kidney disease.

    Slave or Forced Labor

    According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), almost 21 million people worldwide are currently being held against their will and coerced to work under threats of intimidation, violence, economic or immigration status reprisal. The ILO’s latest estimate is that more than 3.5 million people worldwide now work under forced labor conditions in agriculture (including fishing and forestry). This means that forced labor has played a role in the supply chains of many of the most popular food and drinks.

    Know The Chain (KTC), a nonprofit focused on corporate transparency, investigated how the 20 largest food and beverage companies are addressing this issue. Its new report found that most need to do far more to keep forced labor out of their supply chains.

    In fact, scoring the 20 companies on various criteria for a possible high score of 100, KTC reports that, “Companies tend to score low across all themes assessed, with an average overall score of 30/100.” In other words, most of the food and beverage giants failed to get a passing grade.

    Scoring highest—but with grades that would not rise above a D—were Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Nestlé. Companies in the bottom third included ConAgra, Tyson Foods, and Kraft Heinz. Three of the four companies that scored less than 15/100 are headquartered in the U.S.: Tyson Foods, Kraft Heinz, and Monster Beverage, which scored a rock bottom 0/100.

    Farmers and agricultural workers

    Animal agriculture employs 700,000 people in the United States. Almost all of them are employed in the factory farm model in which billions of animals are raised and slaughtered. They are exposed daily to harmful gasses and particulate matter. Well documented health effects include respiratory disorders, cardiovascular complications and premature death. The owners of these factory farms are driven by the rigid terms of contracts imposed by their corporate partners under which they knowingly jeopardize workers’ health in order to maximize profits.

    A large percentage of these workers are people of color, including many migrant workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries. An unknown, but undoubtedly large number of them are undocumented.

    Employers find the undocumented to be ideal employees to exploit because they are afraid to complain about low wages and hazardous working conditions. The work done differs depending on the kind of animal being raised, but it is always difficult, dirty, dangerous work and is done at a rate that compromises the workers’ health and causes great suffering by the animals.

    Farm workers try to avoid workplace hazards and earn a living wage. Their work is plagued by a variety of chronic health conditions and physicians often urge them to leave their jobs, but most feel that they are not qualified for other work. So they continue. To quote union activist Greg Denier, “Rather than raise the standards of the industry, many employers have sought to recruit workers who will simply accept less … most of the time we’re bargaining just for basic human decency.”

    Most consumers don’t understand that approximately 99% of all animal products consumed in the U.S. come from factory farms. It is an industry that exploits both the animals and its workers. It is founded on the belief that higher production and greater efficiency are always optimal, no matter how they may affect working condition and animal suffering.

    The ineffectiveness and outright complicity of state and federal regulatory agencies have allowed this industry to exploit workers with little or no threat of punishment. There is no sign of any significant change on the horizon.

    It is very difficult to follow a diet that is completely free of exploitation, but we can minimize the suffering by shunning the consumption of animal foods.

    Factory Farming: a large industrialized farm; especially: a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost. —Merriam Webster

    Over time more and more people have become vegetarian or vegan when they learn how factory farming affects our fellow creatures, the “food” animals. In 2009 only one percent of the US population was vegetarian or vegan. Today more than 5% of us are. That amounts to 16 million people. While it is true that some animals are not raised under cruel conditions, the vast majority of meat and dairy products comes from factory farms. Almost all chickens for meat, 97% of laying hens, 95% of pigs and 78% of cattle are factory farmed.

    Factory farms are responsible for the mistreatment, suffering and death of billions of animals every year. They also cause soil contamination, loss of biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, land, energy and water waste. At the same time millions of humans around the world suffer malnourishment and lack safe drinking water. At present it is difficult to find meat and dairy products that are not contaminated by hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and dioxins. These are not safe food additives. They increase the risk of cancer, heart problems and degenerative diseases. In addition food borne diseases that cause public issues and ecosystem challenges can often be traced to industrial animal agriculture. (Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Norovirus, Toxoplasma gondii – are the common ones.)

    Not farmer Brown’s little hen house

    Food miles and the greenhouse-gas emissions they cause aren’t easy to understand. So much depends on the efficiency of the transport network.

    Anything flown in—say, fresh salmon from Alaska or cheese from Europe—arrives with a sizable climate footprint. But bananas or oranges packed tightly onto a container ship or a large truck do not. How do you compare a fully loaded semi driven cross-country from California with a local grower’s pickup truck that may have rolled only 100 miles to a farmers’ market with a few boxes in the bed?

    Still, according to one analysis I found, buying local can reduce the impact of vegetable production by 10 to 30 percent. Other researchers have calculated that produce moving through the national transportation network that supplies large grocery stores travels an average of about 1,518 miles and emits five to seventeen times the greenhouse gases of regional and local food distribution. In contrast, locally sourced foods travel an average of just 45 miles.

    So it makes sense to buy local whenever possible, another reason to spend time at the nearest farmers’ market.

    You’re Throwing Away Too Much Food

    No matter where you come down on meat, organic, and shopping locally, there are two powerful sustainability strategies you can put to work right now. The first is to eat less. If the average omnivore, who eats around 3,500 calories a day, instead ate a diet closer to the basic nutritional requirement of 2,500 calories, it would likely reduce his environmental footprint by about 30 percent.

    An active person who works out daily needs closer to 2,800 calories, yielding a roughly 20 percent cut.

    The second strategy: waste less. In the U.S., 40 percent of food—worth an estimated $165 billion—is thrown out every year. It’s an environmental and social-policy tragedy. According to the USDA, which in September announced an initiative to try and cut American food waste in half, the average family of four trashes two million calories a year, worth nearly $1,500. As a result, 25 percent of America’s water is used to produce food that is never eaten, and an estimated 28 percent of the planet’s agricultural land is used to grow food that ends up in the garbage. Food is the single largest solid-waste component of America’s landfills—an estimated 80 billion pounds—and emissions from it are equivalent to the greenhouse-gas output of 33 million cars.

    Wasting resource-intensive meat and seafood is particularly hard on the planet, yet consumers throw away an estimated 40 percent of the fresh and frozen fish they buy, 31 percent of the turkey, 25 percent of the pork, 16 percent of the beef, and 12 percent of the chicken.

    Peter Tyedmers says that consumer demand for fresh seafood leads to a lot of waste at the fish counter. There, if it isn’t sold by a certain date, it gets tossed.

    “I have thrown out halibut steaks. They get lost in the fridge,” he says ruefully “If you buy that halibut steak frozen, it just stays in the freezer.” Restaurants and grocery stores are doing more to donate excess stock to food banks, and national food-service operators such as Aramark are discovering that innovations—like removing trays from cafeterias, which make it too easy to load up—can lead to dramatic reductions in waste. But how we personally shop and handle food at home is by far the biggest source of food waste, accounting for an estimated 47 percent. Restaurants are the next biggest, at 37 percent.

    To combat this, shop more often, buying for a day or two at a time instead of a week, so that less food gets lost in a packed refrigerator. Using commonsense one can often ignore some expiration dates, and one can derive distinct pleasure from creating hashes, soups, and curries using all the leftovers found on the edge of going bad. You can become the food-waste equivalent of the person who goes around turning everyone’s lights off. It may be annoying, but it works.

    Abundance – too much and too little

    About three-fourths of our population has an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils. On the other hand, most Americans exceed the recommendations for added
    sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. Result – more than two-thirds of all adults and nearly one-third of all children and youth in the United States are either overweight or obese.

    Yet, in the midst of seeming abundance far too many people suffer from hunger (Government speak – “Food insecurity”). As Unitarian Universalists we have an opportunity to lead the way toward a rational approach to abundance: an approach that aligns with our second principle “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” I would personally prefer to amend that principle to read, “Justice, equity and compassion in our relations with all living creatures.”

    Charles Henry is an octogenarian, an ethical humanist and a committed member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, a religious body that emphasizes deeds rather than creeds. Unitarians and Universalists have been in the forefront of liberal religious social action in the United States since the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Mr. Henry is a consultant in the graphic arts industry. He is a graduate of The Lawrenceville School, Franklin & Marshall College and Carnegie Mellon University.

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