Mark Bittman's "Less-meat-atarianism" 101

January 16, 2009

Editor’s note: At CUESA we believe that local meat from humanely raised, pasture-based animals is a sustainable choice. By expanding our awareness of just how many resources go into a single piece of meat, we are more likely to make conscious choices and to appreciate more fully the meat we do eat.

bittmanMark Bittman wants you to eat less meat. In his typically disarming way, The Minimalist — as he’s referred to in his New York Times column, as well as online, where he writes a blog and appears in short cooking videos — will dish it to you straight.

At a recent appearance at the Ferry Building’s Book Passage, while promoting his new book Food Matters, Bittman told a room full of fans: “You can’t be an environmentalist unless you care about how much meat you eat.”

Bittman is well known for his books How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Food Matters expands on his idea that “if you buy your own food and cook your own food, you tend to put much better things in your mouth than if you don’t.” Thanks in part to a realization he had after reading the UN report called Livestock’s Long Shadow, and to his decision to tackle some of his own health issues head on, The Minimalist is now advocating an even larger shift. In the vein of Michael Pollan’s now well-known creed, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” Bittman has the potential to reach a broad audience of home cooks who may have not read Pollan’s books or seriously consider their food choices from a sustainability perspective.

cow_spotlightHere’s how Bittman breaks it down: industrial livestock production accounts for 18% (⅕) of the greenhouses gases currently being emitted and ranks above transportation as a contributing factor to climate change.

The average American eats a half pound of meat a day, which accounts for ⅙ of the world’s livestock consumption. As the developing world begins to eat more meat and countries such as China take on behavior similar to ours, the projected global demand for meat will be 120 billion animals a year (or twice what we currently consume) by 2050.

“I know statistics are numbing,” says Bittman, “and these numbers may seem like no big deal, until you consider that it takes 70% of all the available farmland in the world to produce the meat we’re eating now – whether it’s land the actual livestock take up, or it’s being used to grow the corn and soy that feed livestock.” And, he points out, if demand does go up to 120 billion animals, you’d need an impossible 140% of the world’s arable land.

“The land just isn’t there,” says the chef-turned-environmental-advocate, adding that meat production can’t get any more efficient (“and the efficiency we’re experiencing now comes at the expense of animals’ well-being”). Bittman also makes a comparison to Americans’ dependence on fossil fuels. “The resources aren’t there in order to grow unless people change their behavior. So we have to — for lack of a better word — conserve.”

Bittman himself now eats a vegan, whole grain-based diet for the first two meals of the day and allows himself to eat “whatever he wants” for the third. In other words, the recipes in Food Matters are the direct product of his own at-home experiments. The book is also full of concrete suggestions as to how to accommodate a more plant-based diet. He recommends making a frittata, for instance with a much a higher ratio of vegetables to eggs than average. Or a spaghetti sauce “spiked” with a little meat for flavor, but loaded with vegetables. He also encourages his readers to get to know a few delicious ways to prepare beans and other legumes, so as to incorporate them into weekly meal planning in place of some meat-based dishes. See Bittman’s whole grain granola recipe here>

Most importantly, Bittman is asking his audience to think incrementally, and to start where they’re comfortable. “If we ate nine billion animals in the US next year instead of 10 billion, that’s still a significant change,” he says. As for his own love of meat, Bittman says: “I’ll never stop eating animals, but it is time we stopped raising them industrially and stopped eating them thoughtlessly.”

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