Now, I am not a vegetarian and probably never will be (the lure of venison tenderloin and morel mushrooms when I'm at my dad's is not something I ever intend to resist). However, I believe that eating less meat is a really important piece of environmental activism.
Let's talk about the reasons that eating less meat is better for the planet. First off, even if you're eating ethical meat (either ethically-raised organic animals raised on small scale farms, or wild caught or hunted animals), more resources go into a meat-based meal than a plant-based one. That cherished venison tenderloin, for example, belonged to a two or three year old buck, who spent those two or three years drinking water and eating grass and leaves and bark and bait carrots and apples and whatever else it is that deer eat...which adds up to a lot of resources just for that one animal. Veggies use less resources, because they only take one season to grow and be harvested for eating. Choosing veggies over meat effectively reduces the amount of energy that goes into making your meal, and reduces your water footprint. It's a sneaky way of conserving energy and water.
Beyond that, though, there are the horrors of the industrial food system. Factory farms and their CAFOs not only rob animals of dignity and any kind of reasonably enjoyable life (like, say, sunshine and fresh air), they pump them full of antibiotics and feed them processed corn and petrochemicals....a diet that is not natural for most livestock animals. Industrial meat (which is what you get in most supermarket - including Whole Foods - meat departments, frozen processed foods, restaurants, and just about anywhere else you encounter meat you don't know for a fact was hunted or caught) takes up an incredible amount of resources: water (which, in addition to what the animals drink, is used to spray down animals and holdings pens to prevent fecal dust from making the animals and farm workers constantly sick), petrochemicals (fertilizer for the animals' feed, as well as the prophylactic antibiotics and nutritional supplements required to keep the animals healthy), as well as all the energy used in mass slaughter and transport and processing. Even choosing industrially grown veggies is a better option here - while they're still saturated in petrochemical fertilizer, they skip the extra additives and antibiotics, and still have an incredibly smaller water footprint.
((Not incidentally, avoiding industrial meat is a socially just call, too: factory farms often employ undocumented workers for tiny salaries, no benefits, and crazy working conditions....like, say, working in animal pens clouded with airborne fecal dust, for example.))
When it comes to cutting out meat, I'm actually pretty lucky. My natural preferences lean away from industrial beef and pork generally (I was raised on game meat, which spoiled me in terms of flavor and texture), and I live with a vegetarian these days. Other than a couple cans of chicken soup and an occasional frozen pizza, I don't really keep meat stocked at home...so typically, I eat meat maybe once a week when I don't carry my lunch from home and splurge on a turkey sandwich (something I venerate like the sacred and holy delight it is).
So, even if you're like me and don't totally give up meat, it's a big step to try to make one meal a day (or even one a week) plant-based. Try subbing roasted zucchini or extra mushrooms for the meat in a pasta dish, or go with a comfort classic like grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. Try taco night with black beans for filling instead of beef. Make a homemade pizza with as many veggies as you can pile on. Eat a green salad made of handsful of tomatoes and raisins and grapes and blueberries and beets and chickpeas and cucumbers and carrots and croutons and whatever dressing makes you happiest. Soup and bread. Yogurt and granola with fruit for breakfast. Hell, eggs and toast! There are tons of vegetarian options out there; probably ones most people already enjoy without even thinking about the fact that there's no meat involved.
Another way to rock the veggie thing is to patronize vegetarian restaurants - and I don't mean the restaurant that has a token grilled portobello sandwich. In the Chicago area, I can recommend:
- The Chicago Diner
The Lakeview classic that's been around for 25 years. Easy to get to and a nice menu with lots of options. They first got me hooked on jicama.
- Lake Side Cafe
This place is in my neighborhood, and is a new discovery for me. Holy cows, really amazing food - and a substantial portion of their menu isn't just vegetarian, it's vegan (no eggs or milk). They had this vegan artichoke dip that was creamy...without the cream! Miracle of miracles.
- Karyn's Cooked Cafe
The original Karyn's restaurant serves only raw foods...and I haven't been there. But I've tried the menu at the cooked cafe in River North, and the food is tasty and the mead is awesome.
Supporting vegetarian restaurants not only gives you a meat-free meal you don't have to make yourself, but also makes a political statement with your dollars.
I don't necessarily attach any kind of virtue to vegetarianism....but (along with living car-free and trying to grow my own veggies and switching to CFLs and making less trash and buying less stuff ad nauseum) eating less meat is one way I can reduce the impact I have on the planet...so I encourage others to try it as much as they are able to within the constraints of health.
And what better time to try it out than Vegetarian Awareness Month?