Pray Ceaselessly and Eat Justly
Eating Our Environmentalism at Every Meal
by Bruce Friedrich
“God has showed you, O human, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? Only that you act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Mic. 6:8
“Pray without ceasing.” 1 Thess. 5:17
In 1987 I was a senior in high school and struggling with the fact that almost a billion people were starving in the world while I was about to pay a liberal arts college enough to feed thousands of starving Ethiopians, Eritreans, or Sudanese for a year. What did the vast gulf between the developed world and the developing world say about the existence of God?
I had been reading Nation magazine and Mother Jones for a few years and had started an underground ’zine and a recycling program at my Oklahoma high school. I had organized protests of US policy in Latin America. I was trying to live out my role as a Christian who was concerned about the plight of “the least of these,” as defined by Jesus in Matthew 25.
I showed up at Grinnell College in Iowa feeling confused and guilty about my role in the world and wanting to do more to help, so I joined Poverty Action Now and the Latin American Support Organization. I volunteered weekends at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen and shelter in Des Moines and organized film screenings about US policy in the developing world.
Then one day I read a book that would radically change my life’s trajectory. In Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé makes a very simple argument: Growing crops to feed animals, who will burn off most of those calories simply by existing, is inefficient and wasteful. Furthermore, it drives up the price of feed crops, which means that the poor in the developing world can’t afford them. As the Worldwatch Institute puts it: “In a world where an estimated one in every six people goes hungry every day, the politics of meat consumption are increasingly heated, since meat production is an inefficient use of grain … Continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grains to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat-eaters and the world’s poor.” In other words, by eating meat, I was participating in a system that took food from the mouths of the global poor to fatten up farm animals for those of us in affluent countries.
Lappé’s is not an overtly faith-based book, but for those of us who take Christian discipleship seriously, its themes of looking deeply, acting justly, and loving radically touch a deep spiritual chord. Lappé challenges us to examine the systems that put meat on the table, to act from this knowledge, and to love the people of the developing world by committing to make measurable changes in our everyday lives.
Over the past 25 years, the argument for avoiding meat has only gotten stronger for those who prioritize environmental stewardship and solidarity with the developing world.
Eating meat wastes resources
At its most basic level, eating meat is the environmental equivalent of tossing more than 10 plates of beans and rice or spaghetti into the trash for every one plate we eat. None of us would do that, yet that’s the effect each time we eat parts from a chicken, pig, or cow. It’s much more efficient for us to eat grains, corn, and soy directly rather than feeding them to farm animals that we then consume, because the majority of those calories are used up simply by keeping the animals alive.
And that’s just the pure calories-in/calories-out equation. If you take into account all the additional tilling, irrigation, crop dusting, etcetera involved in raising all those feed crops, you can see how exponentially greater the cost is for growing crops for animal feed as opposed to growing them for direct human consumption. Then consider all the extra stages of production required to process animals for our consumption. Gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing 18-wheelers transport all that grain and soy to the feed manufacturers and then to factory farms.
Then massive amounts of energy resources are consumed in trucking the animals from factory farms to slaughterhouses to meat processing plants. Finally there is the cost of operating all those businesses as well as refrigerating the meat in grocery stores.
While non-meat foods also require some of these stages, they cut out the factory farms, slaughterhouses, and multiple stages of heavily polluting tractor-trailer trucks, as well as the extra energy use and subsequent pollution from each of those stages. Sometimes when I make this case, someone will point out that vegetables are also resource intensive—and that’s true. But meat-eater or not, all of us are supposed to get five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. The substitute for meat is not vegetables but protein-providing beans and grains, which is also what is fed to farm animals. Eating these crops directly means cutting out the interim pollution and waste from feeding it to animals raised for slaughter.
Let’s look at some of those environmental costs now:
Eating meat is the number-one cause of global warming. UN scientists have concluded that eating meat accounts for almost one-fifth of all carbon emissions or about 40 percent more than all cars, trucks, planes, and other forms of transport combined. World Bank agricultural economists Dr. Robert Goodland and Dr. Jeffrey Anhang, however, point out in a Worldwatch Institute study that if you add in the effects of the respiration of animals raised for slaughter, the amount of warming caused by animals rises to more than 50 percent, which means as much as all other
human sources of warming combined. That’s why Al Gore’s Global Warming Survival Handbook notes that the single best thing any individual can do to reduce their own carbon footprint is to stop eating animals.
Eating meat wastes and pollutes water. All food requires water, but animal foods are much more wasteful than vegetarian foods. According to the National Audubon Society, water used for crop irrigation, factory farms, and slaughterhouses is roughly as much as all other water uses combined. Environmental author John Robbins estimates that it takes about 300 gallons of water to feed a vegan for a day, 1,200 to feed a vegetarian who consumes dairy and eggs, and about 4,200 to feed a meat-eater—that’s 14 times the water usage of a vegan.
Raising animals for food is also a water-polluting process. Farm animal excrement is more concentrated than human excrement and is often contaminated with herbicides, pesticides, toxic chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and other harmful substances. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the runoff from factory farms pollutes our rivers and lakes more than all other industrial sources combined.
Eating meat destroys the rain forest. A few years ago, Greenpeace unveiled the largest protest banner in US history. It said “KFC: Amazon Criminal,” targeting KFC because the Amazon is being razed to grow soy for chickens that end up in KFC’s buckets. Of course, the rain forest is being used to grow feed for other chickens, pigs, and cows, too; KFC isn’t the only culprit. The World Bank reports that 90 percent of all Amazon rain forest land cleared since 1970 is used for meat production, mostly to grow feed. Occasionally, someone will point out to me that the rain forest is being chopped down to grow soy. That’s true, but it’s worth noting that more than 95 percent of that soy is fed to farm animals, not people. If we ate the soy directly, we’d need a fraction of our current soy crop, and we could stop chopping down the rain forest.
What about eating fish?
Commercial fishing fleets are plundering the oceans and destroying sensitive aquatic ecosystems at an astonishing rate. One super-trawler is the length of a football field and can take in 800,000 pounds of fish at one time. These trawlers scrape along the ocean floor, clear-cutting coral reefs and everything else in their path. Hydraulic dredges scoop up huge chunks of the ocean floor to sift out scallops, clams, and oysters. Most of what the fishing fleets pull in isn’t even eaten by human beings; half is fed to animals raised for food, and about 30 million tons each year are just tossed back into the ocean dead, with disastrous and irreversible consequences for the natural biological balance. And then there is aquaculture (fish farming), an industry that is increasing at a rate of more than 10 percent annually. Aquaculture is even worse than commercial fishing, because a farmed fish consumes four pounds of wild-caught fish for every one pound of flesh it provides.
Farmed fish are often raised in the same water that wild fish swim in, but fish farmers dump antibiotics into the water and use genetic breeding to create “Frankenstein fish.” The antibiotics contaminate the oceans and seas, and the genetically engineered fish sometimes escape and breed with wild fish, throwing delicate aquatic balances off-kilter. Researchers at the University of Stockholm demonstrated that the horrible environmental impact of fish farms can extend to an area 50,000 times larger than the farm itself.
What about meat that isn’t from factory-farmed animals?
Is meat better if it doesn’t come from factory-farmed animals? Of course, but its production still wastes resources and pollutes the environment. The UN report looks at meat at a global level and indicts the inefficiency and waste
that are inherent in meat production. No matter where meat comes from, raising animals for food will require that exponentially more calories be fed to animals than they can produce in their flesh, and it will require all those extra stages of CO2-intensive production as well. Only grass-fed cows eat food from land that could not otherwise be used to grow food for human beings, and even grass-fed cows require much more water and create much more pollution than soy, oats, or wheat. So while it’s certainly preferable to eat meat from non-factory animals, little of my discussion above deals only with factory farming; the caloric equation and extra stages of production and
global warming and the rest are just as true (and in some cases even more true) of small family farms. Shouldn’t just action and radical love entail doing the best we can rather than just making choices that are a bit less bad?
Farm animals are God’s creatures, too
From 1990-1996, I helped run a Catholic Worker family shelter and soup kitchen in inner-city Washington, DC. We lived in voluntary poverty (earning $5 per week, plus a room in the shelter and the food we dumpster-dived from the local wholesale markets or were given day-old by local bakeries), shared our lives with the city’s least fortunate, and attempted to live in solidarity with Jesus’ mandate of Mathew 25—feeding the hungry, housing the homeless,
clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned.
While there, I read Christianity and the Rights of Animals by the Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey, an Anglican priest and professor of theology at Oxford. Linzey’s argument is very simple: God’s animals are made of flesh, blood, and bone—just as we are. And they have the same physiological senses; they touch, taste, smell, see, and hear—just as we do. Every time we sit down to eat, we make a choice about who we are in the world—do we want to choose mercy or misery, compassion or cruelty? While not the central argument of this article, I do think that for those of us who want to love radically and act justly, we should be making choices that are as compassionate and merciful as possible, and a no-meat diet satisfies that faith-based obligation.
Considering the proven health benefits of a vegetarian diet (the American Dietetic Association states that vegetarians have a reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, and various types of cancer), there’s no need or excuse to eat chickens, pigs, and other animal products. God has shown us what is required of us, and it’s simply no longer possible to reconcile acting justly, loving mercy, or walking humbly with raising, killing, and eating animals.
But make no mistake. For most people, not eating meat is a big deal. Society is all but founded on meat-eating. You can’t watch 10 minutes of television or drive three blocks without being confronted with the societal normalcy of dead animals served up as food. However, God doesn’t call us to make easy choices but rather faithful ones.
And while eating less meat is much better than eating more meat, and while eating meat from small family farms is better than eating meat from KFC or Tyson Foods, if we are to “look deeply, act justly, and love radically,” as PRISM urges us to do, we will come to see that more is required of us.
When I was running the homeless shelter for families in inner-city DC in the early ’90s, I spent a fair bit of time with Muslims, and I came to deeply admire their devotion to God. No matter what they were doing or where they were, five times per day they would stop and praise God. Similarly, Dorothy Day wrote about the centering process of daily Mass—about the daily recommitment to Christ’s radical compassion for the least of these.
For me, one of the great joys of choosing a plant-based diet is the spiritual centering of a daily life in which every time we eat we’re reminded of our commitment to just action and radical love—or as PRISM’s mission statement puts it, “the transforming power that Christ brings to the whole of our lives.” St. Paul calls on us, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, to “pray without ceasing.” For me, a plant-based diet is a joyful part of that—my every meal becomes a prayer to God for radical justice and radical love.
Amen, and bon appétit.