Omnivore’s Solution

Vegetarianism seems oppositional to American life; as a culture, we stand fiercely loyal to fast food, barbecues, and steak knives. It is such a part of our national gastronomic tradition that even its proven harm to health cannot deter our meat-eating ways. We have long ignored that saturated fat from animal-protein is connected with cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
But in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations produced a document that would change the world’s understanding of how our food affects our environment. Livestock’s Long Shadow announced “livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport”, creating emissions from feed production, cultivation of feed crops, organic matter losses, feed transport, animal production, and product transportation”.

Even still, most Americans continue their meat-based diet because, simply put, they like meat. Regardless of objective arguments for removing meat, or just beef, from the diet, only 3.2 percent of the American population adheres to a vegetarian diet, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive Service Bureau for Vegetarian Times in 2008.

But in addition to this small population of strict vegetarians, the Harris study found another 10 percent of American adults follow a “vegetarian-inclined” diet, and another 5.2% are “definitely interested” in adopting a vegetarian-based diet.
For many, meat is becoming a lesser, rather than absent, part of the diet. Al Gore, arguably the nation’s most vocal and visible environmental advocate has said, when asked why he doesn’t adopt a vegetarian diet for the environment, “I’m not a vegetarian, but I have cut back sharply on the meat that I eat”. Even an environmentalist can find it hard to give up meat, but more eaters are seeing that just taking steps in the right direction is an important part of addressing the environmental harm of beef.

As Barnard biology professor and food specialist Hilary Callahan states, “A key and incontrovertible ecological principle is that eating lower on the food chain saves energy and makes more food available for more people. This applies for terrestrial systems (avoid beef, pork, chicken, others) and for marine systems (avoid eating predatory fish)”.

Considering that transporting, processing, producing, retailing, storing, and preparing 1 kilogram of beef, cheese, and pork creates as much as 30 kilograms of CO2 while fruits and vegetables are associated with 2.5 kilograms of emissions per kg of edible end-product, even moderate dietary reassessments could dramatically change the food system’s impact on global warming. Regardless of “vegetarian” or “meat eater” labels, a part-way shift from carnivorous to herbaceous meals could have appreciable impacts.

A variety of organizations, from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the Humane society to Stanford University are advocating a new, but practical diet. They invite a wider range of eaters by reporting the environmental and health advantages of reducing meat consumption, while understanding that quitting cold “turkey” can be too much to ask.

This trend, dubbed “flexitarianism” has produced a bevy of cookbooks, including The Flexitarian Diet, The Healthy Hedonist, and Everyday Flexitarian, as well as recognition on The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post.

As Vegetarian Resource Group Consumer Research Manager John Cunningham observes, “There have always been “meat reducers”, people who try to limit meat in their diets even if they are not strict vegetarians, but the emergence of the word “flexitarian” in the last 5 years has created a demographic for vegetarian restaurants and products that marketers are excited about, and has made it socially more convenient to be a vegetarian”

Mainstream eaters are being challenged to eat more vegetables, try cooking just one vegetarian meal a week, or buy sustainably-raised, grass-fed beef. The focus of flexitarianism is to introduce a form of vegetarianism that is easy and approachable.