Future of Our Dinner Plates: A Debate on Sustainable Food Systems
Should animal products be off the menu?
On November 18, the CSULB Environmental Science and Policy Club invited dietitians, environmentalists, hunters and activists to bring their expertise and perspectives for a debate focused on the future of our current food systems. Facilitated by Assistant Professor and Director of the Forensics Department, Michael Eisenstadt, the debate explored the nutritional, ethical, and environmental implications of adopting a plant-based diet.
According to a report from the United Nations (UN) our current food system is responsible for creating 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In measuring the environmental impacts of our food system, several factors are considered including farming, mining, lodging, raising livestock, and growing crops.
Animal agriculture in particular is one of the biggest contributors to our greenhouse gas emissions and has long been a topic of debate as it relates to its nutritional, ethical and environmental impacts. Some argue that a sustainable solution is to switch to a plant-based diet, a strong shift away from the average American diet. A plant-based diet consists mostly or entirely of foods derived from plants --including vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits-- and excludes animal products--including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products.Although there are several perspectives on which food system is the most efficient, most individuals would agree that we need to change the way we manage land use to reduce emissions, increase global food security, and create an overall more ecologically healthy environment. The Future of our Dinner Plates debate event was an opportunity to explore these diverse perspectives. Read on for an overview of what each panelist had to say.
Animal Products and the Effect on Our Health and Wellness
Hunter Activist Perspective:
Activists who support meat consumption argue that animal products should stay on the menu because of their nutritional value. High quality meat, they argued, is an essential part of the human diet. This would include the consumption of meat that is sustainably sourced, such as in free range farms with more ethical practices.
When it comes to the nutritional value, the hunter activists’ (HA) iperspective is that a solely plant-based diet has several disadvantages including:
- Supplemental vitamins are not sufficient. The key to vitamin and mineral success is eating a balanced diet, one that includes animal products.
- A plant based diet can negatively affect one’s mental health. The HA panelist shared the results of research that illustrates a correlation between low meat intake and poor mental health. The reasoning behind this is that the B vitamins are important to mental health and most often cannot be found in plants, only meat.
Vegan Activist Perspective:
The vegan activists (VA) on the panel refuted the hunter activist’s claims by arguing that there are several health benefits to a vegan/vegetarian diet that distinguish it as a healthier lifestyle when compared to one that incorporates animal products: Benefits discussed included:
- People who eat eat plant-based diets have longer life expectancies. Those who have a diet that incorporates animal products are at a higher risk of diabetes and other deadly diseases/conditions, even when smoking is taken into account.
- Plant-based options provide the supplements that a body needs. For instance, vitamin B12 is plentiful in foods like natto, tempeh, and nori. The reason why meat proteins also contain B12 has to do with the fact that the animals eat plants that contain B12. Plants provide the necessary vitamins and minerals the human body needs to maintain and strengthen their health.
Ethics of Having Animal Products on Your Plate
At a young age, conservationist/hunter Breanna Bashford was inspired by Disney’s The Lion King and became fascinated with the philosophy behind the circle of life -the idea that energy flows from one being into the next.
Originally a vegetarian, her perspective shifted as she started to view animal products as a way to be an active participant in our ecosystem.
“Not everyone can be a hunter, but everyone can support positive change; support a healthy, holistic, meat production model or better yet support conservation efforts by engaging in the natural food webs around you,” said Bashford.
“Animal products belong on the menu but emphasis should be placed on quality of life for those animals,” she explained.
Here are some of the ethical arguments made by the HA:
- One can be an ethical consumer of animal products. Animal products that are free range, not treated with pesticides, and locally sourced are ethical and have a lower carbon footprint than factory farmed animals.
- Social and economic classes would be put at a disadvantage. If animal products were taken off the menu, people would have to purchase more supplements to obtain the essential nutrients their bodies need. However, supplements are expensive so not everyone would be able to access them.
- Crop production has an environmental cost. Land, water, fuel, and other inputs are required to create the crops to support a plant-based diet. Consider how many square miles of Alaskan wildlife habitat have been, and will be, destroyed to drill the oil wells that will keep the farming trucks and tractors rolling. Even as one tries to keep hands clean of unnecessary suffering, loss of life is still occurring, explained the HA.
Veganism is an ethical lifestyle, explained Animal Rights Activist and Vegan Youtuber Brian Ruppenkamp, that seeks to exclude animal exploitation and cruelty, be it from food, clothing, or any other purpose. It attempts to limit the exploitation of animals as much as possible.
The VA made several ethical arguments to support a widespread practice of veganism in the U.S.:
- Eating animals and animal products are unnecessary. For example, a cow’s milk is designed to feed a cow’s baby. Therefore, is there a physiological reason for a human to need this milk? The VA reiterated that plants provide all the nutrients humans need, so making the decision to consume animal products is not out of necessity.
- Animal rights are an extension of human rights. Whether animals experience emotions, in the same sense that humans do, has long been a talking point in this debate. Animals, like humans, are sentient. Referring to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, he argued that many animals have a subjective view of life and possess neurological processes that are the same as human emotion. .
- A majority of our crops are grown to feed livestock. We currently grow enough food to feed 10 billion people. At the same time, almost a billion human beings are starving around the world while crops are being grown to feed 70 billion land animals instead.. Our planet’s resources can be more efficiently utilized to benefit the wellbeing of millions who struggle across the globe.
Environmental Impacts of Animal Products
As a strong advocate for regenerative agriculture, Certified Educator and Savory Accredited Professional of Holistic Management, Director of the Permaculture Research Institute Owen Hablutzel claimed that a plant-based system would lead to further soil degradation and is not an effective method to feed the global population.
He explained that plant-based agriculture’s top product is the degradation of the soil. Globally, about 83 billion tons of topsoil is destroyed in agricultural practices.
By contrast, he offered several points that he felt were important when evaluating the impacts of an agricultural system that involves raising animals for food. These include:
- Animal agriculture is just one cause but not the leading cause of climate change.
- Studies released by the UN support that ethical meat production allows carbon sequestration.
- Methane makes up 2% of GHG emissions. Animal agriculture produces methane but plants that break down anaerobically also release methane.
Basler contends that there is no comparison between the negative impacts of animal agriculture and those of a plant-based diet.
"The most lethal weapons of mass destruction has become our forks, spoons and knives as we eat our way to our extinction," said Basler.
She pointed out that the levels of greenhouse gasses present now in our atmosphere put us at a tipping point. Methane, which is produced in the guts of ruminant livestock, is one of the top three greenhouse gasses that creates the most destruction. Basler made several other arguments to support the claim that animal products negatively impact the environment:
- Animal product production threatens biodiversity. About 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction due to animal agriculture
- Conventional factory farming is a polluting and unsustainable method of food production. These farms are responsible for the deaths of around 9 billion animals, massive deforestation, and the creation of high levels of methane and cesspools of waste.
- Factory farms pollute the water. The runoff of animal waste from factory farms is the leading cause of water pollution in the United States. This pollution leads to the creation of dead zones, areas in which less oxygen is dissolved into the water, causing most marine life to die.
At the end of the debate, the audience placed their votes to decide which side --the hunter activists or the vegan activists-- presented the most compelling and persuasive arguments. The majority of the audience decided that the vegan activists presented the strongest argument, ruling that all animal products should be off the menu.
Regardless of your position on this topic, these conversations are beneficial to broadening one’s world view and highly contribute to the learning process. Whether you are an omnivore who commits to Meatless Mondays or a vegan who isn’t perfect when it comes to choosing sustainable products, making an effort to live a low impact lifestyle and educating yourself on the world around us is far more important than being “perfect”. After all, there is no such thing as a “perfectly” sustainable lifestyle. As the debate illustrated, there are a plethora of intersectional social, economic factors that the food on our plates contribute to.
When considering your own daily choices and the current system that affects our environment, we hope you reflect on ways in which you can be a more conscious consumer and lower your personal carbon and environmental footprint.