Green food fight


A firestorm erupted on Grist recently over the perennially fraught topic of diet and the environment. In response biodiversivist asks a question I’ve long wondered over as well: what’s so bad about “partial vegetarianism”?

I recognize that people have diverse reasons for making their dietary choices, and many view vegetarianism or veganism as first and foremost an animal welfare issue. For these people, I grant, partial vegetarianism might not be a coherent ethical choice. (Indeed, the original food fight on Grist was provoked by PETA, an organization not known for seeing shades of gray on this issue.)

But for others, the primary virtues of a no-meat diet are environmental or health-related. And in this case, it seems to me that a low- or lower-meat diet is a perfectly reasonable position to stake out.

Oddly, biodiversivist and I seem to have come to a similar conclusion from opposite starting points. Biodiversivist is primarily interested in defending omnivores against the contention that meat-eating is necessarily in contradiction with environmentalism. In other words, he is denying that meat-eating environmentalists are necessarily hypocrites, and he even has some nice spreadsheets to back up his point.

When I first started thinking about this topic — in college, I think — it was the other way around. Self-described “carnivores” routinely enjoyed running down vegetarians for their supposed hypocrisy. This was an easy game to play. The meat-eaters didn’t see any ethical principle at stake when they shopped for food, so there were never any contradictions to consider. The vegetarians, on the other hand, had to live with whatever compromises they deemed either necessary or acceptable: leather shoes, pet food, a secret bacon habit. Hypocrites!

I should probably mention that I wasn’t then and am not now a vegetarian. But the accusation of hypocrisy never made much sense to me. A mostly meat-free diet seems a perfectly sensible compromise to arrive at, and for many will be more easily achievable than strict vegetarianism or veganism.

And for those who, like me, are devoted omnivores but still worry about their environmental footprint, I can say that reducing meat consumption is way easier than you might think — many of our food choices are depressingly mindless. As an experiment, try abiding by simple rules to get started: no meat at lunch, or no meat on certain days of the week, etc. You might be surprised.

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  1. Aaron A. - September 21, 2007

    I’ve never liked the argument of “you’re not a real environmentalist/patriot/motorcyclist/whatever unless you…” That’s their arbitrary opinion.
    Why should I have to live by a definition that exists solely in somebody else’s head?

  2. Xta - September 26, 2007

    “Partial Vegarian”. Heh. Yup, that’s me. I grew up with a mom who is TOTALLY vegetarian and I resented having that imposed on me so when I got to college I rebelled and ate a LOT of meat. Then at some point I kinda came to my senses and said “Ya know, actually I like a lot of that vegetarian food stuff.” So now I eat meat about once a week.

    Oh, and just to tie this back into another footprint-reducing topic… for whatever reason I have found that (organic and humanely raised) beef jerkey is the BEST emergency “I’m hungry and I need extra energy now” food to carry with me on my bike commute! I’ve never found a protein bar that didn’t taste awful and/or feel like lead in my stomach after eating it, but the jerkey works perfectly to give me the energy to zoom home and get dinner. Of course most of the time I try not to GET that hungry by the time I’m biking home!

  3. Erica - September 26, 2007

    One of the best accounts of this is in the Omnivore’s Dillema. I really appreciated Pollan’s thoughtful account of his own struggles with the idea of eating animals and what that means. In the end he decides to be a fully conscious omnivore…which he never preaches everyone should do, but encourages everyone to think through on their own. He has some interesting points about how strict vegetarianism/veganism might not help the earth as much as one might think too, which was provocative. A much recommended read!

  4. Ryan - September 26, 2007

    Hi Adam,
    I know this isn’t relevant to your posting, but could you address the arguments brought up by They have ads on Gmail that pop up everytime I get your blog! I’m afraid that this group and similar groups will slow our progress toward a sustainable future.



  5. Adam Stein - September 26, 2007

    Hi Ryan,
    I’m not sure what specific arguments they’re making, but for debunking of bogus claims, you can generally do no better than RealClimate or the Grist “How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic” site:
    More generally, though, battling these groups probably isn’t as important as letting your representatives know that this is an issue you care about.

  6. Joe - September 26, 2007

    As a mostly-vegan (primarily on environmental principles), I see a lot of mindless food choices…for example, my family, despite its background (Dad as a lifelong environmental activist, Mom and sister animal lovers, both sides of the family with a history of heart disease) seems to arbitrarily eat meat even after conceding that they couldn’t tell the difference between, say, Kielbasa and Tofurky-brand “Kielbasa.”

    There’s another humanitarian/environmental impact to be had by going veg. or mostly veg.: think about how much grain is being used to feed cows, poultry etc., the stress on the aquifers and soil that could be avoided, the extra (human) mouths it could feed, the tax subsidies that could be used for other things, etc.

  7. Kristen - September 26, 2007

    I made the choice to be vegetarian about 10 years ago and never looked back- I admit it was originally because I watched too many PETA videos and got grossed out…but as I got older and realized that vegetarianism also has a positive effect on the environment, I felt even more confidant in my eating choices.
    However, I recently decided to become vegan, and I’m finding it harder to stick with because it got me thinking…how much of an impact am I really making by not eating whey or lecithin?! I don’t totally understand where these by-products come from and why you shouldn’t eat them as a vegan.
    It also seems like since so many new veggie foods are coming into the market, energy is being used to package, develop, etc….so where can I find some good information to explain how my choices are actually making a difference??

  8. Anonymous - October 2, 2007

    For me, the best option has been to be a conscious omnivore. I have also read Pollan’s books and agree that it makes more sense to be aware. Much has been made that vegetarians are “gentler” on the earth than meat-eaters, but that doesn’t have to be true. An egg-eating, milk-drinking vegetarian could have a higher grain consumption than someone who strictly eats grass-finished beef or deer.
    I try to avoid animal products that are not up to high ethical and environmental standards, but it’s sometimes tough and often expensive. When eating out, I’m vegetarian (unless it’s a truly fancy restaurant where they detail the origin of all meat products), but I’m still eating a lot of factory-produced animal products that way (notably cheese and other dairy products). When I buy groceries, I try to buy animal-derived products that are organic label, or local or some combination I can live with. It’s hard – you need to be aware of what “organic” means and also to be aware of some corporations’ “Aurora Farms” attempts to bend the definition of organic to suit their needs.

  9. Vegnik - November 29, 2007

    What’s best for your personal health is what’s best for public health, animal health, worker health, and environmental health—and vice versa.
    Vegetarianism satisfies all these criteria and that’s why I engage in Eco-Eating (
    Also visit another inconvenient truth:
    Meat Eating and Global Warming