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Local, free-range meat is an improvement over factory farming. However, we can’t possibly raise 9 billion animals “sustainably.” If we’re truly going to switch to a more sustainable food system, everyone needs to drastically reduce the amount of animal products they consume, even if they’re coming from smaller, more local production facilities. Also, animal protein is a less efficient food source, so plant-based proteins are always going to be more affordable and sustainable. It takes far fewer resources, water and fossil fuels, to produce plant-based protein than animal-based protein. It's also important to keep in mind that, as we talked about, many of the “humane” and “cage-free” labels are deceptive. 99% of meat in the U.S., including much of what's marked “humane” or “free-range” is really coming from factory farmed animals. Any animal products that are truly produced by small farms that raise their animals in the best possible conditions are going to be limited and expensive. Whole Foods can't even sell meat that meets its highest criteria because it can't find a producer to supply large enough quantities. Anyone who's serious about eating meat sustainably is going to be eating a mostly plant-based diet.
Animals like lions and our early ancestors had no choice but to eat meat in order to survive. We live in a modern agricultural society, rather than a hunter-gatherer society, so we have a huge array of plant-based proteins. Unlike animals or our ancestors, we don't need meat to thrive. Also, there's nothing “natural” about factory farming. Our ancestors ate meat a few times per month, not three times a day, nor did they eat products produced with pesticides and antibiotics.
You don't have to give up the tastes and textures you love in order to become a vegetarian. There are now products like Gardein and Beyond Meat that fool chefs in taste tests. And even if you really don't think you can give up meat completely, you can still make changes. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. More and more Americans are becoming “flexitarians.” Participating in Meatless Mondays, using soy crumbles instead of ground beef in tacos or chili, getting Trader Joe's Meatless Meatballs, switching from cow milk to almond milk... all of those choices make a big difference, even if you're not 100% vegetarian or vegan.
It's true that if everyone begins eating plant-based, some farmers and workers would have to find new jobs. But factory farms employ far fewer people than small farms, and slaughterhouse jobs are traumatic and debilitating. If everyone switched to a plant-based diet, there would be thousands of new jobs created on farms growing fruits and vegetables and in companies making plant-based products. Keep in mind that there's nothing new or unusual about the process of an entire industry disappearing. For example, people who worked in the horse carriage industry needed to find new jobs after cars were invented.
Farm animals exist in such large numbers only because they're being bred to be slaughtered for meat. If the demand for meat decreases, they breed fewer animals. So the more people become plant-based, the fewer animals are bred into a life of suffering. The whole world isn't going to go vegetarian overnight, so it would be a gradual process of decreasing the number of animals that are bred to be slaughtered.
The United States is ground zero for factory farming, with one of the highest per capita rates of meat consumption. Unfortunately, many American agribusiness corporations are now multinational agribusiness corporations, spreading their operations to countries with less regulation, like Mexico and Romania. Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, was recently bought by a Chinese company, so many of the pork products from pigs raised in the U.S. are sent back to China. The world’s largest meat producer, JBS, is a Brazilian-owned company. So just like all major industries now, the meat industry is globalized with complex supply chains. The EU generally has more stringent regulation of food safety and animal treatment conditions, though there are factory farms in Europe, and most other countries have more small farmers than the U.S.
Beans, lentils, whole grains, soy, nuts. People need about 50g of protein a day, which if you’re eating a healthy, varied diet isn’t hard to do. Most Americans eat twice as much protein as they’re supposed to, which causes its own health problems. You're probably already eating plant-based proteins without thinking about it. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, falafels, and veggie burritos with beans and rice are all complete proteins. For more nutritional information, check out www.chooseveg.com
Flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and dark leafy greens are all good sources of omega 3's. Personally I add flax seeds or hemp seeds into my smoothies in the morning.
Dark leafy greens like kale have lots of calcium, as do some other foods like walnuts. Most plant-based dairy products, like almond milk and soy yogurt, are fortified with just as much calcium as cow milk-based dairy products. There are many cultures that don't traditionally consume dairy products and still have healthy bones, like Japan.
In some cases it’s true that you can raise animals in conditions in which you couldn’t raise other food sources. But remember that 99% of animal products are raised on factory farms. Right now those situations are purely theoretical. What’s not theoretical is that cutting down your animal product consumption and switching to plant-based proteins dramatically reduces your carbon and water footprint.
The simple answer is that it’s tremendously profitable, and these companies use a lot of their profits to lobby the government at all levels. It’s much like the oil and gas industry. That’s why we have to use our own power as citizens and consumers to fight this industry.
Food access is definitely a serious issue in the U.S., and we tailor our message according to the audience. For instance, we speak to students at high schools in Oakland who live in foods deserts, and we encourage them to take small steps like leaving the pepperoni off their pizza, or buying almond milk at Walmart instead of cow milk. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to well-equipped kitchens and healthy foods, the best thing that we can do is to exercise our power. Food deserts exist because the government subsidizes meat & dairy but not fruits & vegetables. By voting with our dollars, we can increase demand for healthier products, and slowly shift our food system. Almond milk is a great example of that – a few years ago you could only find it in Whole Foods or health food stores, but now it's sold at nearly every major supermarket and chain store, because people showed there was demand for it.
The cheapest protein sources are plant-based– lentils, tofu, beans. If you think about it, most traditional diets worldwide are predominantly vegetarian or vegan. While some of the specialty products, like coconut ice cream, are expensive, it's easy to be vegan on a very low budget, especially if you can cook for yourself. There's a blog called plant-based on a budget, where they post recipes that can feed a person for $25 per week, or just over $1/meal.
Unfortunately, Big Ag has a lot of power over the federal and state governments, so it’s hard to get laws passed addressing this issue. But there has been success with ballot initiatives that take the issue directly to the people (talk about Prop 2). Some groups do work on legislative issues, so you can subscribe to updates from the Humane Society of the United States to get notified when there’s a local or federal bill related to farm animals, so you know to call your congressperson. Writing letters to the editor is also a great way to help draw more attention to this issue. The best thing to do on a personal level, besides changing your diet, is to talk to friends about this issue. Let them know what you've learned, and share the delicious new foods you're eating! Also, of course, you can help schedule an FFAC presentation!
We looked around and saw a niche that wasn’t being filled. There are lots of national nonprofits with offices in Washington D.C. that are doing policy and lobbying work. But Congresspeople aren’t going to push for change unless their constituents want it, and right now there are still far too many people who don’t know about factory farming. We’re working in tandem with the bigger nonprofits to educate and empower consumers so that there will be more popular, widespread support for reforms.