One Big Oy Vey: Meatless Monday and the USDA

Confession time: I’m not normally the most up-to-date person. Though I strive to generally stay in the loop as far as more pressing matters are concerned (the US presidential election and severe weather, for example), I just don’t have the patience and stamina to stay on top of every single breaking story out there. This often leads to FH and I having conversations like this:

FH: “Golly gee whiz! Did you see that Zooey Deschanel and Brad Pitt had a baby lizard and moved to Saturn?! And that the government says they’re giving Texas back to Mexico?”

Me: “Um, no…when did all this happen?”

FH: “This morning! It’s been all over the web, and Facebook, and the President issued like five statements. How can you have missed it?”

Me: “I blame the excel file I was face-first in for most of the day. I mean, I took a break, but that was so I could stare at the ceiling and try to erase the grid lines permanently etched into my retinas. And I think I ate at some point.”

The second most common conversation between FH and I involves me finding something out and excitedly telling him what it is, only to discover that he’s been well aware of it…for quite awhile:

Me: “Holy cow! The IRS issued a statement that they made a huge mistake on everyone’s taxes, and to make up for it they’re giving each citizen a check for $1000!”

FH: “Yeah, that was the big news last Thursday. I already got my check, and bought a new TV and this flying squirrel.”

Me: “Ohhh…yeah, I wondered where he came from. That also explains why I can now drool over Jon Stewart in high-definition.”

I’ve quite gotten used to being woefully behind when it comes to breaking news. Because of this, I’m always surprised when I am not only with the rest of the world when it comes to just-breaking stories, but I can comment on them because I watched the events unfold, and have a personal stake in what’s going on. Not that I don’t have a personal stake in a Deschanel-Pitt lizard baby.

The big news that broke in the food world last week was the USDA’s unintentionally public endorsement of Meatless Monday – an initiative that asks people to go one day a week without eating meat. In sum, a USDA internal newsletter was made public, in which some statements within suggested employees go a day without eating meat in an effort to be gentler on the environment. This was, unsurprisingly, followed by a few large meat conglomerates such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and their supporters, crying foul. This quickly lead to the USDA issuing an official, fervent denial of any such behavior. Ecocentric has a great overview of the whole deal, which you can check out here.

I wonder what the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s reaction would be if they found out that observant Jews were in the middle of abstaining NINE days from meat in preparation for Tisha B’av. Would they send out an angry letter? Would there be, as there was above, and angry Twitter war?

I tend to back away from a lot of heated discussions. I have my personal beliefs, and they are dearly important to me, but I don’t generally seek to engage and debate others when it comes to a lot of said positions – 8 times out of 10, it’s all just semantics, anyway. But this is something I cannot ignore. It’s not so much that the USDA would or wouldn’t support Meatless Monday in the first place, but the fact that a few angry voices from the people they’re supposed to be governing was enough to have them bending over backwards in order to make the proverbial baby stop crying.

Personally, I am a vegetarian by choice. I have been abstaining from the consumption of meat, poultry, and fish for the last seven and a half years. I don’t have a problem with those who choose to eat meat; I respect their decisions, as I would hope they would respect mine. Regardless of whether you choose to eat meat or not, there are some facts about the industry and its impact on the environment and our health that I think everyone should know:

  • The livestock industry generates more greenhouse gasses (as measured in CO2 equivalents) than the transport sector, accorning to the UN FAO (source)
  • Roughly 70% of forests in the Amazon have been converted to pasture for livestock (source), and it is estimated that about 30% of the non-ice land on Earth’s surface is solely dedicated to the production of livestock (source)
  • “The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution, euthropication and the degeneration of coral reefs. The major polluting agents are animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops.” (source)
  • “Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens. This despite the inherent inefficiencies: about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption…” (source)
  • There are many, many, many studies out there seeking to understand the impacts of low-meat and no-meat lifestyles. Though there is no unanimous conclusion (and really, when do we ever get a unanimous conclusion from thousands of research articles?), a significant amount do suggest that decreasing the amount of meat in your diet can have a variety of positive effects. You can look through some of those here, here, and here.

I have listed this information not in an effort to shame anyone into a vegetarian diet – I truly believe that diet is a personal choice, and as Jews are commanded during our observance of Pesach, all who are hungry are welcome to eat at my table. Rather, I wanted to illustrate that there is a large body of research around meat and the meat industry, and that it, at times, can have a detrimental effect on our environment and our bodies when we mismanage and overindulge. That being said, if we assume the facts above are correct, and such organizations as the United Nations are to be believed, I’d ask: why wouldn’t the USDA support a program that calls for activities that aim to aid our environment and our nutritional well-being? How is it a bad idea to be up-front in taking an active role in the responsible management of food and nutrition?

What really concerns me, though, is how the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s reaction seems to have triggered the USDA’s extreme backpedaling. I can understand how the program could miff some ranchers, sure, but I have yet to find a convincing argument as to why their opinions should override scientific evidence and the common good. I can’t go to President Obama and say “Yeah, I know George Washington was cool and all, but Batman is my favorite person ever, and all Americans aged 18 – 45 agree with me, so let’s just make him the first President of the United States.”

The USDA’s mission statement is simple: “We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.” Somewhere in there, I hope they consider the best management practice for my health, for your health, and four our country’s health – not just the health or ego of a particular industry. I also hope this incident allows them to see that they should return to being influenced by the best available science…not angry tweets.

3 thoughts on “One Big Oy Vey: Meatless Monday and the USDA

  1. Pingback: Love, Love, Love « The Joy Vey

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