When I was a teenager, I was inspired by Frances Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet. I read it as part of my research for the high school debate team; that year the nation-wide topic was how to globally manage scarce world resources. My debate partner and I chose food as the scarce resource on which we wanted to focus. During my research, I learned that people were dying of famine in other parts of the world not because there was insufficient food to feed everybody, but because it was not distributed equitably. I learned that some people consume vastly more of the world’s resources than others do. Lappe showed that eating certain foods high on the food chain–including beef–uses many times more resources than eating foods lower on the food chain, such as poultry, fish, grains, vegetables, seeds, or fruits. Her book argued that a vegetarian can get all the protein they need. She advocated a meat-free diet in order to make more food available to hungry people around the world. It would also be better for our health, she maintained. When I became aware of how our food choices are also moral and spiritual issues, I decided to become a vegetarian as soon as I left home for college. As a student, I often had to defend my choice in the Swarthmore College dining hall; not eating meat was considered strange and extreme behavior by most of my fellow students.
Many decades later, my diet is still mostly vegetarian—in fact, mostly vegan–but not entirely., and I continue to be concerned about the inequitable use of resources around the planet. Today, like most of us who take science seriously, I am also deeply concerned that our unwise use of the world’s resources has led our small planet into an extreme climate crisis. Unless we change our ways, climate change will continue to accelerate catastrophically. For decades I’ve been hearing how the burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to climate change. I’ve thought of this mostly in terms of fuel for cars, homes, and businesses. Only recently, however, have a number of books and films clarified for me that the ways we eat and do agriculture are also significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
I’d like to tell you about a charming and informative book by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins, 2007). In her novels, Kingsolver integrates strong characters and good storytelling with a lot of scientific knowledge. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, subtitled A Year of Food Life, is not a novel, however, but a true account of her family’s efforts to live off only locally-grown food for a full calendar year. This didn’t seem possible in Tucson, Arizona, where they were living, so she, her husband, and two daughters moved to a family farm in Virginia. There they grew a huge garden and raised chickens and turkeys. To supplement their home-grown food sources, they bought locally-grown meats, flour, produce, and more.
For years before making the decision, Kingsolver was increasingly aware of how unsustainable the American way of eating has become. In the first chapter, in a section labeled “Oily Food,” she writes that 17% of our nation’s energy is used for agriculture, including the fuel needed to operate farm machinery plus the petroleum products used to make the fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Once the food is grown and processed, enormous amounts of fuel are then used to transport it long distances. She explains: “Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. The amount of energy used to grow and then transport the food we eat is significantly greater than the energy we get from eating the food.” The book advocates strongly for small farmers and shows how they are disadvantaged by global industrial agriculture systems, which undercut prices, use insane amounts of fuel, and provide inferior and unsustainable food products.
Hard facts and ideas such as these are sprinkled throughout the book. These facts would make for difficult reading, except that the larger part of the book is full of family stories and rapturous descriptions of the food they prepared and the meals they created and ate together, as well as recipes for every month of the year, based on what foods are in season each month. I kept turning the pages because of the often-humorous accounts of the challenges, failures, and successes of growing and eating locally-grown food and raising poultry. Her third grade daughter, Lily, starts her own (eventually successful) business raising chickens for eggs and meat. Kingsolver takes on the more difficult task of raising turkeys. In our industrial food system, domestic turkeys don’t breed or brood–these tasks are done for them, mechanically–so their natural instincts have been diminished, and they imprint on humans rather than on a mother turkey. Accounts of Kingsolver trying to help her turkeys breed with each other are laugh-out-loud funny (especially when the first hen tries to seduce her husband). Once she gets the male and female turkeys to mate with each other, then she has to get the hens to brood on their fertilized eggs.
Kingsolver doesn’t insist that every family try the same experiment her family chooses; instead, she proposes that if “every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That’s not gallons, but barrels.”
Perhaps the most sobering lines in the book, for me, are these, about the true cost of our current food system, including perishable food delicacies shipped from around the globe: [W]e get it at a price. Most of that is not measured in money, but in untallied debts that will be paid by our children in the currency of extinctions, economic unraveling, and global climate change. … Human manners are wildly inconsistent…but this one takes the cake: the manner in which we’re allowed to steal from future generations, while commanding them not to do that to us…. The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners.” (66-67)
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle made me think harder about my own food consumption and purchasing practices. For years my husband and I have been doing a little gardening in our backyard and next to our driveway, slowly becoming better acquainted with the earth and its bountiful gifts. (See my blog post about the summer we let the butternut squash take over the yard.) But we only grow a few vegetables, and I depend upon store-bought purchases, including weekly containers of organic greens. Feeling uneasy about the plastic boxes they come in and wanting to move toward a more sustainable lifestyle, this summer we’ve been growing more greens in our yard.
We also joined a local CSA (community-supported agriculture). Each week we’ve been picking up our designated selection of locally-grown organic fruits and vegetables, then eating what’s in season. Usually the cost is a bit higher than buying the same items at the grocery store, and sometimes we get items we wouldn’t choose, such as fennel and nectarines. (Both turned out to be tasty.) But we know that most of our money goes to the farmers, whereas when we buy the same items at the store, most of the money goes to the middlemen and to transportation costs, and only a small percent to the people who actually grow the food. Buying at a weekly farmer’s market is an alternative way to get locally grown produce and support farmers directly.
Like most people, I find it hard to face the facts of climate change and to take in the magnitude of the problem. Part of this paralysis is due to a feeling of overwhelm. The problems seem so large and systematic; how can we possibly learn–collectively–how to live in a very different way? We are like the turkeys bred in such a way that they barely remember essential survival skills. But our bodies evolved to live in harmony with nature. Kingsolver’s book helps me see that returning to older, healthier, and more equitable ways of living can be joyful and connect us with gifts we had forgotten are available in life. Although individual action is not enough to change the ways of the world, nothing will change if individuals and families don’t find the courage to begin doing things differently.
Eating for the Planet: has concern about the health of your body or the planet caused you to change your diet or habits to a way of eating that’s better for the planet?
© 2021 Marcelle Martin
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It’s interesting to read your positive reflections on Barbara Kingsolver’s book. She’s one of my favourite authors, so when I picked up Animal, Vegetable, Miracle several years ago I did so with positive expectations – only to put it down in annoyance. My memory is that I thought (from an over-quick judgement of the beginning of the book) that she was rather smug and self-satisfied about her experiment, which only very privileged people would be able to emulate (being able to move home to a better place to do it, for starters – and didn’t that mean she ended up with two homes?). But no doubt my reaction was influenced by struggles in my own life and the fact that attractive examples of rural community-based and/or sustainable living in the USA are inaccessible to non-wealthy people in Britain – land being so very very much more expensive here. We have other possibilities, such as urban ‘allotments’ (council owned land divided into small plots that one can rent to grow veg), and a wonderful growth in ‘zero-waste’ shops which at their best are cooperatives.
Similarly with recipes – tomatoes are still in season when one is digging up root veg in Iowa (I know from experience), so my tasty recipe for root vegetable crumble which requires fresh tomatoes makes sense there – but not in Scotland! When it comes to food, it really is necessary to look local, for recipes and ways of doing things, not just produce.
I became vegetarian (for much the same reasons as you) at the point I transitioned from being cooked for to cooking for myself, which is a great time to do it. I don’t find vegetarian cooking at all difficult because that’s all I’ve ever done. But since I learned of the climate impacts of dariy products a few years ago I’ve been trying to reduce dairy consumption and eat more vegan meals and that I find much harder (I have a strange block about plant milk, despite really enjoying vegan meals out that use it – I just need to buy some oat milk and try it!). Whereas many of my students are vegan and they don’t have difficulty with that – again because for many of them that’s what they’ve been used to since they started cooking. Mind you, there are more and less sustainable ways to eat a vegan diet; one which involves a lot of processed fake meat, avocados, and coconut milk is not the way to go.
I used to teach on a course which included an assignment for which students had to design a ‘sustainable’ meal and explain why they made the choices they did (no guidelines were given). Some just went for vegetarian meals, some tried only seasonal produce (a bit of a challenge – though do-able – in Scotland in February), and some were very inventive. I will always remember the essay that proposed squirrel and pigeon pie, the ingredients to be shot by the cook, on the grounds that squirrels and pigeons are plentiful pests. I gave it good marks for originality, but queried the sustainability of having to shoot one’s dinner on time grounds, and suggested the student might be interested in the roadkill cookbook written by retired civil servant Arthur Boyt (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/jan/31/foodanddrink.britishidentity).
Love, Rachel in Scotland
I became vegetarian and vegan for reasons other than physical or environmental health.
I was led to become vegetarian after reading “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”. That book helped me to see how my eating was perpetuating social injustice.
Later, I became vegan. Reading “The World Peace Diet” helped me to see how the egg and dairy industries cause animals to suffer. Spirit helped me to see that my participating in the suffering of animals would limit my spiritual freedom and ability to live into my calling, so I became vegan.
Because the reasons for my changing my diet were so central for me, I was able to make these transitions with little difficulty.
Thank you, Rhonda for sharing your experience and the books that were important to you!
Not only are our eating practices unsustainable for the planet, but also for our health. We are literally killing ourselves by the way we eat and also impoverishing ourselves by having to pour so much of our financial resources into the pharmaceutical, biomed and healthcare fields.
Thank you, Friend, for reminding me that the personal is political. Every bite and every swallow is an important political act.
Thank you, Katherine, for expressing this truth so clearly!
Kingsolver is an incredible write, and the book you mentioned is most engaging.
Lappe is one of my heros. And now I will add Kingsolvger to the list.
One of the most important issues of the hour. And I’m optimistic about a rapid change coming soon, at least with the local food part of the equation.
I have been working with clients in a six-week program I’ve desinged to support them in consistently eat two vegetarian meals a week (or three if that’s an appropriate stretch). So many people try to become veggie overnight and stuggle and give up. My gradual approach is what many peoplel need. After the six weeks, they can up it a notch for the next 2 months on their own if they wish.
How wonderful, Elliott, that you are supporting people in transitioning to a vegetarian diet, without over whelming them!