Authors: Joe Plata, Samantha Pérez, Graysonclaire Palmer, Brianna Hillman, Anna Buss
“What would you like on your sandwich, Miss?” I could see the roast beef winking at me through the transparent glass at the California Deli located in our college cafeteria. It was where I went every day during my lunch break to custom make my favorite sandwich: roast beef with provolone and lettuce, panini pressed. However, today I was having trouble telling the guy the order which had automatically fallen so easily from my lips nearly every day for the past five weeks. “Miss?” He inquired again. “Um, no meat please, thank you,” I answered him. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard correctly. I, Samantha Pérez, was passing up a chance to eat meat. I wanted to ignore my conscience and order my beloved, daily sandwich, but all I could think about when I looked at the tempting slices of meat stacked one on top of another was the number of gallons it took to produce each slice in the midst of one of the worst droughts in the history of California. I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat that sandwich without recalling the amount of forests that have been destroyed to satisfy all of our cravings for meat, or the vast dead zones existing within our oceans thanks to animal agriculture. I wanted to eat it, but I just could not stomach it after all the dismaying information I had been accosted by in our Critical Thinking and Writing class that day.
In our Critical Thinking and Writing class, we had watched three videos. One was a cute, animated short entitled “Scarecrow,” that showed the sadness lying behind the animal industry. Another was named “Fed Up,” a documentary about the food we eat today and its effect on our health, and the last was a video known as “Meet your Meat.” Our teacher, esteemed blogger and long-time vegetarian, Professor Nicholas Leither, asked the class which of the three videos we believed to be the most effective in convincing people to go vegetarian. When Professor Leither revealed the answer, I couldn’t help but feel surprised; it was “Meet your Meat.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the world’s leading organization when it comes to animal cruelty reform, strongly advocates for veganism and vegetarianism. To further their agenda, PETA produced the video called “Meet your Meat,” depicting the cruelty animals face in factory farms in all its disturbing, explicit glory. This video was originally made in the hope of disgusting and scaring viewers into banishing, or at least reducing, meat from their diets, and it worked. Out of 24 reviews on Amazon, eighty-four percent of viewers gave it a five star rating (Amazon). Many of the comments that viewers wrote after viewing the film included high praise, such as the one written under the name of Mark E. Wiesenfeld: “It’s graphic images are testimony to the Linda McCartney quote: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians,” and invite each of us to reexamine how we view the other living, feeling beings with whom we share this planet. Don’t miss it” (Amazon). Clearly, “Meet your Meat” has an effect on its viewers, but, interestingly enough, after watching the video for my class, I still continued to eat meat.
Both of my parents are doctors, so I have grown up surrounded by medical terms and health concepts. Therefore, I have always known, to some degree, that red and processed meats posed some sort of threat to my health, but my thoughts were truly authenticated when the World Health Organization recently reported processed meats were definitely carcinogenic and red meat was most likely carcinogenic (CBS News). However, once again, even this stark report did not sway my steadfast, carnivorous diet. I began to wonder if maybe I was just an outlier, or maybe I had a real problem: an addiction to red meat. To find out, I conducted a survey regarding the impact that the health issues from consuming red meat impact had on people’s future dietary choices. The first question I posed asked, “Did you know red meat has been linked to cancer and/or any other health problems?” Out of the thirty people who took the survey, fourteen people answered no, and sixteen answered yes. The following question stated, “Do you continue to eat meat anyway/will you continue to eat meat now that you know this?” Eighty percent of respondents, twenty-four people, answered yes. After seeing these results, I realized that I am no outlier. Clearly, when it comes to eating red meat, people care more about their taste buds than they do their health. However, this is not a statement of condemnation, because, as you know, I — myself– am most certainly one of those people. I had to learn that animal agriculture, specifically the red meat industry, is literally killing our planet before I made even the slightest change.
After watching Cowspiracy and reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, the environmental issues caused by the production of red meat were ones I could not just cast aside and disregard as I had in the past with the PETA video and health warnings. To me, the idea of our entire planet collapsing due to our inability to cut back on red meat held much more weight and relevance than the other issues. After we created and held an educational event showing our peers the horrifying effects red meat has on our environment, I realized I was not alone in my thinking, that others changed too, for the environment rather than for their own health. In this, one can see that although arguments such as animal cruelty and health concerns are often used to convince people to eat less meat, the devastating impact animal agriculture, specifically the production of beef, has on the environment has a more profound influence on the diets of the masses. The problem lies in the fact that the environmental message is often ignored and cast aside.
Our current system of mass meat production in the U.S. is extremely cost-effective, so even though it has devastating effects on the environment, big corporations would and will not want to change the system, nor will they permit individuals to speak out against it. Big corporations view animals as mere commodities and have absolutely no regard for the environment; they will do anything in order to make a larger profit. Therefore, these corporations have gone to great lengths to ensure this information remains a secret from the general public, which is one reason why the message isn’t getting out to the public enough to make a large difference. Since the government is heavily influenced by these big corporations’ vast checking accounts, animal agriculture protestors and activists have become targets closely monitored by the FBI. This lack of communication between the activists and the public can clearly be seen in 1996, when Howard Lyman, a fourth generation rancher, was invited onto the Oprah Show to discuss the harmful effects animal agriculture has on the environment, amongst the other major problems associated with the industry. After hearing the reality of what animal agriculture is doing to our planet, Oprah said it had “stopped her cold from eating another hamburger” (madcowboy.com). In response, the cattle industry was outraged, and both Lyman and Oprah were heavily sued for “knowingly making false statements about the agriculture industry” (madcowboy.com).
Despite the fear and influence that the cattle industry inflicts upon the public, a few determined individuals try and have tried to change this lack of public knowledge on the matter. One such individual is Kip Andersen, a co-director of the successful documentary Cowspiracy. Through extensive research, the directors of Cowspiracy uncovered that animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change, species extinction, deforestation, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction. Throughout the documentary, in order to prove this point, Andersen visits various environmental organizations inquiring about the lack of information being promoted to the public about the harmful effects of animal agriculture. When asked, experts mostly danced around the question, sometimes seeming as if they had no knowledge about the subject whatsoever, and instead gave their typical spiel about saving water, turning off appliances, and reducing waste. However, after persistent questioning on the topic, one expert finally decided to offer some insight. Leila Salazar Lopez, the program director for Amazon Watch, opened up about the truth, saying that the meat industry is the leading cause of mass deforestation in the Amazon, among the other ways it destroys our planet. When asked why more people didn’t speak up about this new information regarding the animal agriculture industry, she said that “1,100 land activists have been killed in Brazil in the past 20 years” (Cowspiracy). People don’t want to speak up due to the fear of severe consequences and the strong likelihood of being targeted by the industry. Will Anderson, former board of directors at Greenpeace USA, also spoke to this, stating that “environmental organizations are not telling the truth about what the world needs from us as a species. The information is right before their eyes — it’s documented in peer reviews, papers, and journals. Its there for everyone to see, but they are refusing to act. The environmental community is failing us and our ecosystems.” (Cowspiracy) The meat industry and the government have so much power and have, time and time again, proved to come after those who reveal the secrets of animal agriculture, that those who wish to change the environment live in fear of legal actions and assassinations, effectively quieting them.
The good news is that these two activists are not the only ones speaking out, and there is another more effective way of educating the public on the matter in play today. As stated before, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn created the documentary Cowspiracy, a piece that looks at animal agriculture from a different lens by asking experts familiar with animal agriculture their opinions on the matter. Inspired by the animal agriculture movement and the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Anderson and Kuhn interviewed many experts and major animal organizations like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, National Resources Defense Council, and others for comments and opinions in order to give the necessary information to the public. Because of these uncovered, fresh, and new opinions on animal agriculture, the documentary Cowspiracy has completely and still shocks the public.
Originally, Andersen and Kuhn didn’t have the necessary funds to produce Cowspiracy, so they posted the idea on IndieGoGo in hopes of obtaining enough to see their project into fruition. Clearly, many were interested in either seeing the facts or raising awareness because 1,449 people donated a record breaking amount of money, a total of $117,092 , 217% of the producer’s original goal (Support COWSPIRACY). Since its release, the documentary has garnered critical acclaim along with 176,145 likes on Facebook and counting. Due to Cowspiracy’s increased popularity, viewers petitioned Netflix to release the documentary on instant streaming online, a petition which has led to, currently, over a million people watching this groundbreaking documentary (Cowspiracy Wins Audience Choice Award).
The film has spread like wildfire, it’s message gaining more spotlight due to the public’s willingness to pursue the truth. In the United States alone, the documentary has made such an impact that almost every major city has held some sort of screening of the movie for it’s residents. Also, thanks to the many generous contributions, the producers were able to bring this film to the world market by translating the film into fifteen other languages, including Spanish, German, and French. This furthered the film’s success on an international level and resulted in the continual spread of Cowspiracy’s critical message. In fact, in 2015, Cowspiracy won the silver tree Audience choice award for the South African Eco Film Festival (Cowspiracy Wins Audience Choice Award).
In hopes of keeping the film’s momentum going, the producers of the documentary have also created an interactive blog where people can post about their experiences and show how they are making a difference after watching demonstrations, rallies, and different types of discussions. Anderson and Kuhn’s goal was to change the animal agriculture business forever, and, for example, the big demonstration in Canada and Washington where the protesters wore animal costumes and protested big factory meat industries (Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.) shows that they have.
The thing you as the reader are now probably thinking to yourself is, how is this all working? I mean, you thought there were movies on the health impacts of eating red meat, you thought there was evidence everywhere, it’s not as though it is not out there in terms of health! Why don’t we show you evidence that there is actually someone who has changed, beside those guys in Canada and Washington, someone close to home, that has changed due to this increased knowledge?
I am the youngest of eighteen cousins on my mom’s side alone, so for the first few years of my life, I wasn’t known as “Joe,” I was often referred to as “the baby.” Despite the nickname I was given by my extended family, I was treated like anything but a baby at family reunions. Instead of playing games normal young kids play, I listened to my older cousins discuss serious topics. I usually dismissed the political conversations they had because I had very little knowledge about, or interest in, the government or politics in general, but I was always intrigued whenever the environment would come up. How our behavior affects the environment has always interested me, and the discussions, often spearheaded by one of my favorite cousins, Erica, were some of the only things at these family functions preventing me from having an emotional breakdown out of boredom. As a young child, I didn’t understand much, but as my body has grown throughout the years, so has my mind.
Erica, my cousin who normally brought up environmental issues, is by far the closest to a true “environmentalist” as there is in my family. Erica attended New York University as an undergraduate and later earned her Master’s in Environmental Science from the University of Michigan. I have gained a lot of knowledge from my cousin over the years, and therefore, when I learned about the environmental impact meat, especially beef, has on the environment, she was the first person I turned to. I’ve had enough meals with her in my lifetime to know she has always eaten meat, so I decided to ask her how she felt about the quote by Howard Lyman, “You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period.” (Leenaert). Erica acknowledged the fact that the consumption of animal products harms the environment, but she also told me that it isn’t that black and white. “Saying you can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products is like saying you can’t be Catholic and support gay marriage.” Coming from a progressive, Roman Catholic family, this comparison hit me pretty hard. She continued, “Just because you don’t follow one aspect by the book, doesn’t mean that you are nothing. Nobody’s perfect.” But despite her apparent acceptance of a red meat-heavy diet, Erica also told me that she cut her red meat consumption significantly since she learned about the environmental impact it carried, and not when she learned about the cruelty or health concerns associated with animal agriculture. Although Erica hasn’t quit animal products entirely– she still admits to eating chicken, fish, and the occasional burger– overall, the knowledge she acquired has had a positive effect on the environment.
The goal of this essay isn’t to convince everyone to spontaneously alter their diets to become vegan; it is to inform them and give them the tools to evaluate their choices and decide what they think the right decision is and hopefully inspire change, or at least make them think more deeply about the consequences of their actions. This is what happened with Erica. She was given information and, out of her own free will, decided that it was more important to cut back on red meat and help the environment than it was to consume a better-tasting diet.
The tools and decisions my cousin received haven’t just affected her and her decisions; they have had a domino effect on her immediate and extended families. Now at our family reunions, the very same place where my interest in environmentalism was molded by Erica, things have changed. Instead of Erica’s dad slicing up prime rib for us, we now enjoy chicken breasts or pasta. By one person being provided with information, an entire family was taught and able to change for the better. We aren’t trying to change the minds of everyone directly with our essay; we are just trying to change the minds of a few students, who will change the minds of their families, then their friends, and eventually, with our collective power and influence, change the world.
Erica’s impact on my family is exactly what we think will work to change the world, but the most important thing to do to set that into motion is to start spreading the word. However, this is unfortunate as the facts surrounding the environmental impact of beef aren’t widely known outside, or even inside, the environmentally-conscious community. This is a shame because this knowledge would likely push many environmentalists to a less meat-heavy diet, or even encourage some to convert to a meatless diet altogether. More than one-third of Americans self-identify as environmentalists and 59% sympathize with, or are active participants in, the environmentalist movement, versus the 3.2% of Americans who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, and the less than ten percent who follow a vegetarian-inclined diet (Rayapura, Tobin, Vegetarianism). This shows the magnitude of change that is possible with a few small pieces of information.
After seeing how my cousin’s diet changed after being exposed to information about the environmental implications of red meat, along with the potential for change from the non-vegetarian, environmentalist community, I, along with the other writers of this paper, Gray, Sam, Anna, and Brianna, decided something needed to be done in order to raise awareness and inspire change in our own community. To do this, we gathered some statistics and organized a presentation to educate the people closest to us; our fellow residents of Dunne Hall, on the Santa Clara University campus. We designed fliers to promote our event and placed them throughout the building, and added the incentive of a free vegan cupcake for coming and listening to us. We created a relatively good amount of interest in our presentation and drew in a crowd of twenty people, which is slightly above the average amount of attendees for organized events in our dorm. Twenty people may not seem like a lot, but what we may have lacked in quantity of people, we more than made up for in quality of results.
At our event, to see what type of people we had attracted and to determine if those people had changed after viewing our information, we created an entry and exit poll for attendees to answer. The responses were even better than we had hoped. The students we attracted to our presentation were generally red meat eaters who didn’t have strong feelings toward the environment, as shown by nineteen of the twenty participants surveyed admitting to eating red meat, and only three who self-identified as environmentalists. We assumed we would have much better results with participants who identified as environmentalists, which we did, but we didn’t predict the success we would have with the non-environmentalists as well. After our presentation, which used techniques such as graphs and visuals to explain the impact of red meat consumption makes in relation to water consumption, land use, and CO2 emissions, one of the questions on our exit poll we asked was, “Do you believe you’ll think more deeply about the impact of your dietary choices?” Sixteen of the twenty, which included thirteen of the seventeen non-environmentalists, answered “Yes,” showing that even people who don’t necessarily evaluate the environmental impact of their decisions, after receiving more education on the idea, are now going to think more thoughtfully about the repercussions of their dietary choices.
Along with our entry and exit polls, we also conducted an experiment to determine the success of our event and educating. We designed the experiment so that the attendees role-played as the President of the United States, and were proposed a hypothetical law: “I, the President of the United States, hereby give my signature of approval to shrink factory farms thereby reducing America’s overall production of beef in an attempt to preserve our environment.” We gave “The President” the option to sign their name and effectively pass the law, or veto the proposition. Signing the law would essentially mean that the person is willing to reduce the amount of meat in their diet for the overall good of the environment. They understood that agreeing to this would mean they would have to be willing to make a sacrifice, so we were amazed when fourteen of the twenty attendees decided to sign it. Especially from a group in which there were only three “environmentalists,” many people seemed to care enough about the environment to make the change to a less meat-heavy diet. Not everyone was willing to make the change, however, but considering all twenty of the participants answered “Yes” to the question, “Did you gain new knowledge about the environmental impact of animal agriculture?” we realized that we did everything we could to convince people to eat less meat.
Even though only about twenty people showed up for our event, and not everyone said they would change, we believe we accomplished something. In the grand scheme of things, we can’t educate everyone, we are but five against seven billion, but at least we started. The main thing that we wished to convey with this essay is that it is possible to save the environment, in a way that most don’t even think to consider, and in a way that every single person could be motivated to change. In the end, we considered our experiment a success, but upon reflection, we discovered something: why is it that our group was the one to bring this topic to the forefront of your mind? For, is there not a specific body of people that are designed to help you make a decision on such a topic like this? Is this not what Senators and representatives are for? But alas, as you well know, the government is all tied up with the cattle industry, and so we can’t rely on them. However, thinking on it, have we not been in a similar position before? Think back a couple of decades ago when the government could or was controlled by the cigarette companies’ wallets to continue the sale of cigarettes despite their health defects. So, if we think along these lines and see that there are many fewer smokers in present day due to the government campaigns to end smoking, some ads of which you still see today, why hasn’t the government stepped up to the plate and changed our beef consumption not just for our health, but for our environment? What is keeping them so entangled in their politics?
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