There have been several new reminders in the past couple of days that you have to be really careful with what you say about eating. We all do it, we all like it, and we all talk about it, but sometimes it can touch a nerve. Just yesterday we saw employees at the Department of Agriculture get into trouble for making suggestions about what to eat in the cafeteria. And now Michelle Obama is being criticized too – not for what she’s said about food, but for what she hasn’t said.
This is close to home for me, because I’ve talked in previous blogs about the connection between the foods we eat and tropical deforestation, and we’ve published two reports in the last few months about the agricultural products that drive the loss of forests. The most important of those are meat, especially beef, and vegetable oils, especially palm oil and soybeans, and we’ve talked about solutions for going deforestation-free – including suggestions for consumers (i.e., for people who eat).
The USDA employees made the mistake of talking about the idea of Meatless Mondays in an internal newsletter, pointing out that there are serious environmental and health problems associated with meat production. This provoked an immediate denunciation from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, whose President called Meatless Monday “an animal rights extremist campaign to ultimately end meat consumption”. Within hours, the USDA took the newsletter down from its website and issued an apology. As Al Kamen put it in the Washington Post, “Former Redskins cornerback Darrell Green, in his prime, couldn’t backpeddle faster.”
Maybe that’s not so surprising. After all, the beef industry are the folks who sued Oprah in the 1990s for what she said about hamburgers and health during the mad cow disease period. Nobody’s exempt from getting flak about food.
Not even First Lady Michelle Obama. She got attacked yesterday, but it wasn’t because she said anything. Rather, the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) denounced her “Let’s Move” campaign, which encourages exercise, for not criticizing hot dogs, hamburgers, cheese, milk and junk food.
So, in today’s political environment, you can get criticized both for talking about food and for not talking about food. At UCS, we’ve seen how upset people can get about the issue recently when my colleague Elliott Negin wrote a Huffington Post blog about beef and deforestation, based on our meat report and a Washington Post column. Between the original posting, a follow-up blog in which I responded to questions, and a short news piece by the Huffington Post itself, there have been nearly 2,000 comments on the subject on the Huffington Post so far. We’ve gotten it from both sides — on the one hand from defenders of beef, and on the other hand from vegetarians who say we should have criticized all kinds of meat, rather than emphasizing that, in terms of deforestation, health and the need for land, chicken and pork are much better than beef.
In today’s atmosphere, such nuances – and the strong scientific evidence for them – are hard to get across. It seems that many people prefer simple statements: “Meat is bad!/Meat is good!” rather than those pesky details that science is always bringing in.
Nonetheless, we’re going to keep on trying. So, here’s a graph from our report, originally from a 2010 review article in Livestock Science by M. deVries and I.J.M. den Boer, that shows how much land is needed to produce the same amount of protein from pork, chicken, beef, milk and eggs.
You can see that beef is by far the least efficient way to use land to produce protein. (We also cite data and explain in the report why eating plant products is the most efficient).
OK, that’s enough science for now. Back to the debate! Who had said – or hasn’t said – something about food today?
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