All Things Considered called a few days ago. (You can listen to the interview called "The Food World Ramps Up the War on Meat" here.) What, Michel Martin wanted to know, did I think of the latest brouhaha about meat? Joe Biden taking away your burgers, Eleven Madison Park going vegan, Epicurious not publishing new recipes for beef? 

In reality, little has changed, though it seems people are beginning to pay attention. Is beef bad for the environment? (I’m tempted to answer, “Do bears shit in the woods? Is the Pope Catholic?”) Yes, it is—when we consider how the U.S. produces 95 percent of it. Pork too, and even chicken. Waste management, or lack of it—really, no one knows what to do with all that shit—is a big problem. Animal production facilities causing cancer in their neighbors is a tragic offshoot of that. 

There’s more: You have to grow grain for all those animals, who number in excess of 10 billion per year in this country alone. And how do you grow it? With great damage, to land, to resources, to the climate, the change of which is largely due to industrial agriculture. 

Do you want to talk about food waste? How about devoting tens of millions of acres of the world’s best soil to produce food for animal production that devastates the climate and deprives people of better quality food? (I’m not detailing this at the moment; we’ve been down this road twenty times, and I’ve fact-checked this stuff to death; there is no fake news here.)

And while it’s probably true that most meat is not as bad for your internal functioning as was once thought, it’s still not as good as the better alternatives. (By “alternatives,” as I wrote last week, I don’t mean overpriced and hyper-processed veggie burgers, but legumes and vegetables and whole grains.) 

Furthermore, if you consider “internal functioning” to include our souls, or whatever you want to call our inner beings, the parts that we don’t have direct access to but we all feel exist … it can’t be good for us to be part of a system (and most of us are) that literally tortures billions of animals a year before killing them “efficiently,” that is, with no thought to their experience -- at which point underpaid and abused workers take over and “process” them so that we don’t have to pay “too much” for them. 

The system stinks, and people with money are opting out left and right, choosing better-raised meats that cost three and five and sometimes ten times as much money — which, for the most part, is the appropriate price. But not everyone can do that. So, as usual, the people with less money are forced to participate in a system that they didn’t ask for or design, which harms them disproportionately. 

This argument goes on; if you find it intriguing, you might look at Animal, Vegetable, Junk. But this didn’t start as a pitch for my book, and it’s not going to end that way. The original questions are pertinent. 

Joe Biden can’t take away your burgers. It doesn’t appear he knows where to start, although if he’s serious about dealing with climate change, he’s going to have to figure out some way to mitigate the damage done by industrial agriculture. Could you manage with 10 percent less meat per year? Yes, and probably without noticing. Twenty percent? Perhaps that would cause you a minor inconvenience. That’s an excellent place to start. And our great- or great-great-grandchildren will be fine with that because the change will have beneficial and, if we (or they) are lucky, it will have been gradual. 

But Joe Biden doesn’t appear to be even able to put an FDA commissioner in place. So we’re still — 12 years after the Obama administration could have put a dent in industrial animal production by outlawing the routine use of antibiotics — waiting on that relatively minor change that would have an immediate and positive impact.  If he can’t move in that direction, I think you can be about as “frightened” about Joe Biden taking away your meat as you should be about him taking away your guns. This “fear” is as credible as election fraud. 

How about Eleven Madison Park? Raise your hand if you’ve ever eaten there or plan to. Right: probably two percent of the people reading this. If you have, or will, enjoy yourself. Rest assured, it will be just as wonderful (or not, depending on your patience for fine dining and your worry about affording it) as it was when it served meat. It’s a fine idea for one of America’s most expensive restaurants to go vegan; it’ll give a great chef room to become even more inventive and create more intriguing dishes. It’s good PR for them, and it’s good that they’re spotlighting the issue.

Same with Epicurious. They’re taking a position that costs them nothing. They’re not taking down existing beef recipes, of which they have hundreds or thousands. (To be clear, neither are we, though we’ve thought about it.) They’re just making a statement, and it’s a meaningful one. We don’t need to produce more beef. We don’t need to promote beef. We’ve got plenty of beef. The question is, how do we produce and make do with less? 

Joe Biden, Eleven Madison, Epicurious: These are small gestures in the big picture. In the long run,  how we produce and make do with less beef can only be answered by a society that prioritizes the health of humans, the environment, other species, the whole planet. We’re not doing that yet, and we have a way to go — but that is the job. 

So is curbing junk food. So is prioritizing restorative agriculture. So is getting land into the hands of people who will farm it well, people who’ve had land stolen from them, or never had it in the first place. So is respectfully treating the people who bring us food. So is teaching our children what good eating is. It’s all part of the picture, and though it’s nice to have an excuse to rant a little bit, this beef about beef will be old news by next week. A shame.

Mark Bittman's latest book is Animal, Vegetable Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. His bestselling book, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health . . . for Good, changed how people thought about approaching plant-based food. If you want more content and recipes from Mark Bittman, sign up for the Bittman Project.

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