Frequently I find myself in a restaurant, reading the menu, looking at all of my choices, and wondering what on earth I should order. More often than I would like, I end up ordering the classic, oh-so-American cheeseburger. Why?
Well because no matter where or when you eat it, that burger will most likely taste good. After all, it is the staple of American eating and pretty much every restaurant will have a burger or burger-esque option to choose and customize so that your creativity is your own limit. This pattern and lifestyle has carried on for generations without anyone blinking an eye. However, now, in a time of both environmental destruction and climate change, government and citizen alike are forced to look into the impact each of their life choices has. This has led to a lot of investigation into the burger, or better stated, beef, production industry. Beef production consumes huge amounts of water and in areas suffering from drought, this brings up a lot of debate about how, what, and why water should be conserved. But it seems that regardless of what science proves is happening to the environment, regardless of whatever adverse effects what we eat has, and regardless of what steps our plans to fix the damage require, we as eaters and consumers are unwilling to change what we eat.
The main problem when it comes to why people refuse to change their eating habits for the environment is the belief that what one person does cannot affect such an enormous industry. Americans eat billions and billions and billions of burgers each year, consuming trillions and trillions and trillions of gallons of water. What would one person ending their burger consumption do to that? Pretty much nothing. Not to mention the fact that there is such a huge disconnect between a burger and its production that saving water by not eating it does not have the same gratifying result as ending your shower five minutes early or buying a more efficient washing machine. People cannot as readily imagine the water going into the production of the beef, so nothing gets changed.
Although many people do find it difficult to see their conservation efforts pay off and therefore do not change their lifestyles, in reality, accusations about the causes of environmental harm have been misdirected, leading American consumers to be unaware of the fact that the meat production industry uses far more water than any area in which consumers work to conserve water. These consumers are being misled by the meat industry and the government as to how much what they eat actually affects the environment. It is this deception, and not a sense of disconnect or helplessness, that results in consumers not taking action towards what they eat. The government does a great job of increasing awareness of environmental issues and helping people in areas of drought conserve water through various programs from increased water costs to specific lawn watering times to recommended shower durations (and as a lifelong resident of drought-prone California, these techniques have frequently been parts of my lifestyle), but the meat industry is one that witnesses no change due to Americans’ lack of interest in and disconnect with the meat industry and the meat they eat.
Meat has been a staple in the American diet for quite some time now, but how did this start? This started during WWII when Herbert Hoover, who led the U.S. Food Administration, said “Meats and fats are just as much munitions in this war as are tanks and aeroplanes” and pioneered the slogan “food will win the war” (Simon).
From a young age, it is instilled in our minds that government agencies such as the FDA and USDA have been created to inform us of potentially harmful aspects of the foods we are consuming, yet many Americans remain uninformed.During WWII, meat became a rationed food item and was sent overseas to feed American and Allied troops. After this, meat became a staple food in the American diet. As science started to show that meat, especially red meat, may be unhealthy and lead to heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses, the meat industry had to figure out a way to promote meat and keep it relevant (Datz). They started to spread the message that meat is a great way to get protein. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) created the campaign “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” to promote meat eating (Simon). Americans see government campaigns such as this and believe that meat is safe and healthy to eat. The US government has been promoting meat consumption for quite some time now, providing subsidies for big business meat producers and loosely regulating production. The US government spends $38 billion each year to subsidize meat and dairy but only $17 million to subsidize fruits and vegetables (Peta). Also most of these subsidies are going towards big businesses and it is getting more difficult for small farmers to stay in business. Along with providing subsidies and creating programs to promote the consumption of meat, government agencies, created to inform us about the safety of our food, are not telling us the real story about the meat industry.
With the current drought going on, I would hope that most Californians understand the importance of taking care of the environment and conserving water. However, understanding the importance of our natural resources and actually taking steps to save them are two entirely different things. The livestock industry is the leaky faucet of the water wastage problem. Thousands of acres of rainforest are cleared simply for livestock, but deforestation isn’t the only problem. Animal agriculture accounts for around 34-76 trillion gallons of water annually. Just to give that a little bit of perspective, agricultural water consumption is responsible for 80% of US water consumption every year (Facts). That is a ridiculous statistic and you may be thinking that agriculture does not necessarily have to be all livestock related, but crop feeds for these animals consumes 56% of water in the US. We continue to support these corporations by buying and eating meat as a regular and prominent part of our diet. The meat industry already grosses an enormous revenue every year, and is extremely profitable.
For instance, programs such as Choose my Plate, a government created website that informs kids of appropriate portion servings and food groups, neglects to inform Americans about the resulting environmental degradation with eating meat as there is no information about the exorbitant amount of water needed for meat production as opposed to vegetables. According to Vegetables such as broccoli and tomatoes use 34 gal/lb and 26 gal/lb of water, respectively, where chicken uses 518 gal/lb of water to produce, and beef comes in on top, taking 1,847 gal/lb of water to produce (Boehrer).
In addition, the website doesn’t inform Americans about the harmful effects of consuming meat in general, especially considering hormone-ridden meat, factory farms, and more. These agencies issue warnings in case of contamination such as the Chipotle or Blue Bell outbreaks to inform of us of possible food-borne illnesses, which in turn builds our trust with these agencies that they’ve “got us covered.” However, they really don’t have the public covered when it comes to the sustainability of all of this factory farming; they more so keep this information quiet, if anything. In David Kirby’s Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment, Kirby tells the story of a grandmother having to take matters into her own hands and advocate for herself when the waste from factory farmed cows took over her home.The presence of these agencies makes us all too comfortable that everyone will be alerted if there is anything of our concern — they must have all of our best interests at heart, right? Wrong. The lack of warnings and information out there about how much water goes into our burgers shows the little emphasis these agencies will put on the environment and sustainability when factory farming and big business is involved.
It all comes back to looking at the menu. The choices are endless, so why not go for that classic burger? But then I remember the realities of that burger. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote a book entitled Eating Animals which codified his experience investigating the meat industry thoroughly. He wrote that “Food matters and animals matter and eating animals matters even more. The question of eating animals is ultimately driven by our intuitions about what it means to reach an ideal we have named, perhaps incorrectly, ‘being human’” (Foer 264). As humans we have the power of self-realization and the ability to question ourselves, our actions, and change. The changes we take and make in life may not be beneficial all the time, but the positive changes we do make do not go unnoticed.On top of that, the government subsidizes these large corporations because they provide so much money for the government through taxes. Essentially the meat industry is a corporate giant that cannot be slain unless we collectively take a stand. We can no longer claim innocence or negligence. The first step in that direction is to educate the general public about the problems with the meat industry. Most people are simply unaware of the real problem, but if more people know, even if they choose to continue eating meat, at least they are making an educated decision. Next, we need to eliminate the stigma surrounding vegetarians and vegans. That goes back to educating people on the harmful effects of the meat industry because if people knew about that then maybe they would be more understanding and supportive of vegetarians and vegans. Realistically, we are not calling for the abolition of meat altogether, because that is just not a plausible outcome. However, if we could make smarter, more environmentally friendly decisions on a regular basis, the outcome would be substantial.
We must act like humans and be humane concerning how we choose to live our lives. So, when I’m out eating, when I choose to eat pizza, I am making the cognizant decision to save 660 gallons of water that go into making that burger. This just contributes to a huge impact and I end up benefiting the world, I end up making a difference. If not cutting out meat cold turkey then I can just try limiting it to eating only one burger a week, or meatless Mondays. Will my one action make an impact? Yes. By demonstrating my commitment to a better tomorrow for future generations, I am effectively standing up to all the forces who try to suade me in another direction. To be true to myself and my standards, I need to take a stand. And, though I am just one person with one voice, I have the power to demand better and more plentiful options from the FDA and USDA who are supposed to be doing the regulation. It just takes one person and focusing on the realities and gravity of this situation is what will make the difference.
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