This post is part of Protein Angst, a series on the environmental and nutritional complexities of high-protein foods. Our goal is to publish a range of perspectives on these very heated topics. Add your feedback and story suggestions here.

man with "100% vegetarian" T-shirt

Out of fashion and proud of it. (Photo by KayVee.INC)

It used to be that when I told a fellow progressive I’m a vegetarian, I would get one of three reactions: (1) an enthusiastic “me too!,” (2) a slightly guilty admission of falling off the veg wagon, or (3) a voracious defense of the glories of steak.

These days, there’s another increasingly common reaction: People look at me with a mix of pity and confusion, like I’m some holdover from the ’90s wearing a baby-doll dress with chunky shoes and babbling on about No Doubt. I can see what they’re thinking: “You’re still a vegetarian?”

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At some point over the past few years, vegetarianism went wholly out of style.

Now sustainable meat is all the rage. “Rock starbutchers proffer grass-fed beef, artisanal sausage, and heritage-breed chickens whose provenance can be traced back to conception on an idyllic rolling hillside. “Meat hipsters” eat it all up. The hard-core meaties flock to trendy butchery classes. Bacon has become a fetish even for eco-foodies, applied liberally to everything from salad to dessert, including “greenchocolate bars and “sustainableice cream.

All of which has led some vegetarians to give up their plant-based ways. But food fads aside, vegetarianism still has its place and deserves its due respect.

Let me state, for the record, that I wholeheartedly support the shift from factory farming to more sustainable meat production. Treating animals humanely, letting them eat what they’re naturally inclined to eat, raising them without antibiotics and hormones, incorporating them into holistic farms Joel Salatin-style, and, once they’re slaughtered, eating every last bit of them, nose to tail — that’s all good stuff.

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But let’s get real. Only a teeny-tiny fraction of meat in the U.S. is actually produced in any way that could conceivably be described as “sustainable” — less than 1 percent, according to the group Farm Forward — and only a teeny-tiny fraction of that is raised in the super-duper-über-conscientious Salatin style. Most of the meat raised even by those trying to do it right comes with serious environmental impacts, from high water consumption to large land footprints to excessive methane emissions.

So it really gets my goat (ahem) when people claim it’s more responsible to eat supposedly sustainable meat than to abstain from it — like the author of this facile article from Food & Wine, who pats herself on the back for convincing her husband to give up his vegetarianism:

For Andrew and about a dozen people in our circle who have recently converted from vegetarianism, eating sustainable meat purchased from small farmers is a new form of activism — a way of striking a blow against the factory farming of livestock that books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma describe so damningly.

Oh come on. You’re not striking any more of a blow against Big Meat by buying your sustainable sausage at the farmers market than I am by buying my dried beans at the farmers market.

To nudge our horrific food system toward sustainability, we don’t need vegetarians to shift to occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. We need the American masses who eat an average of half a pound of factory-farmed meat a day to shift to the occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. (Americans are actually eating a little less meat overall these days, no thanks to the meat hipsters.)

Eating truly sustainable meat, in modest quantities, is a fine thing. But it’s not better than eating no meat — certainly not when we’ve got more than 7 billion people on a fast-heating planet competing to feed themselves via shrinking, oversubscribed cropland and increasingly limited, degraded freshwater supplies.

Yes, vegetarians can do better too. Just as most meat-eaters, even green-leaning ones, consume at least some less-than-exemplary meat, most vegetarians eat some highly processed, GMO-tainted, decidedly non-local soy products that wouldn’t win any sustainability awards. And just as omnivores can focus on eating better meat, vegetarians can focus on eating better sources of protein. When vegetarians do aim higher, it’s hard to beat them on the sustainability front — a non-soy-based, non-heavily-processed, local-focused veg diet is the definition of low impact.

In the end, vegetarianism — eating lower on the food chain, gobbling up fewer resources and less water — is still an ethical, environmentally friendly choice, just like it was in the ’90s. Maybe even more so now, if you consider how our environmental, energy, and food challenges have compounded in the last two decades.

So, meat hipsters, drop that smug sanctimony. Sometime soon, bacon-spiked dessert will look just as outmoded as lentil loaf and baby-doll dresses — and vegetarianism will still be a good choice for my health, society at large, and our global environment.


Also check out: A challenge to chefs: Make me a delicious vegetarian entree — or stop claiming to care about sustainability

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