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Worldchanging Essay: The All-American Diet
Justus Stewart, 15 Dec 08

12401223_c95a47a8b6.jpgOne of the unifying features of this time of year – of Thanksgiving and the winter holidays – is food, and lots of it. Although the traditional seasonal consumer excess will be curbed by economic pain this year, many people will still maintain the tradition of gathering with others around the table. This in itself isn't a bad thing: food brings us together, and to many people the experience of sharing a meal is a sacred act.

But Worldchanging readers know that all of this food raises questions from a sustainability perspective. And I can think of no aspect of our diets more controversial than meat .

Readers of this site, by and large, attempt to be good environmental citizens; it’s our unifying feature. While not all of us are vegetarian, most of us are aware of the environmental implications of eating meat – and especially red meat. The environmental degradation associated with raising beef cattle in the United States is particularly troubling, and it came up recently in a conversation.

Why do we eat beef in this country, anyway?

Because, really, it makes no cultural sense. There were no cows in America when Europeans landed here. The cattle we know today are here because we brought them here. This history lesson really messed with my head when I started thinking about it, as I realized how much of our culture, particularly the unsustainable aspects, come from thoughtlessly imposing an old culture into a new world, to which it was not well suited. Invasive species is an older idea than I realized.

We eat beef because the English ate beef.
We have lawns because the English had lawns.
Not just that they had them, but because beef and lawns were status symbols – they are relics of our ‘every man a king’ defiance of an old social order. A signal that we no longer need to work the land in front of our houses just to feed ourselves; we no longer need to use the inexpensive bits of the animal (better steak than haggis, yes?).

This train of thought made me wonder, if sustainability requires more thoughtful living, can one solution be to localize a little further by ‘eating American’? It is a small part of the large effort we are undertaking, but I am now personally attempting to eat an all-American diet. No beef, but I will eat buffalo. No chicken, but I will eat turkey. I will eat corn and squash and salmon. These things, after all, were meant to live here. Raising native species requires little intervention, little support. Could this be part of our push to restore the ecology of the United States? What would the benefit be of a nation that ate this way? Would it change our thinking about our stewardship of this land? Is there a wider application of the buffalo commons idea?

I am not implying that this represents a full solution to the question of eating (who among us will switch to only bourbon?), but I do think that the thoughtfulness this requires is useful. How intentionally can we throw off our cultural inheritance and honor what is uniquely ours? What historical baggage are we still carrying? How do we unpack it?

Justus Stewart is an urban planner and designer living in Seattle. He currently works on climate planning for local governments. Justus' main interest is the overlap and interrelation of fields usually held as separate.

Photo credit: flickr/trickofthelight, Creative Commons license.

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I'm reminded of this 'blog post by Eleutheros about peasant cuisine. The basic idea: Start with the local subsistence diet. In some place that's rice and beans, in some places it's cornmeal. The idea being that the local subsistence diet grows out of the ground along with the plants; you're part of the local food chain if you stick to it. In your example, salmon would be more appropriate if you were in the Pacific northwest, for instance. Salmon was (and still is, in many ways) the basis of the local diet in that region. You'd eat buffalo if you were in the great plains. And so forth.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Posted by: Enoch Root on 15 Dec 08

Eating beef is *not* wrong because cow are not native to America. It is wrong because of the suffering it inflicts upon animals as well as all the wasted resources spent feeding, transporting, slaughtering, and packaging these animals.

These problems do not go away by switching to buffalo. In fact, the reason eating beef is worse than chicken besides the fact that cows have a greater capacity for suffering, is that they are such large animals. Contrary to intuition, the energy efficiency per calorie of large animals is worse than small animals. Buffalo, being even larger than cattle, would likely be even less energy efficient.

Granted, these problems can be slightly ameliorated by feeding them grass and other such things, instead of crops, but that wouldn't give Archer Daniels Midland any extra money now would it?

If you truly want to make a difference, eat a vegetarian diet. The options are far better than they used to be for vegetarians. Also, perhaps more importantly, support Cultured Meat research!!

When we can grow meat cells using animal stem cells, there will be no need for any of this.

Posted by: Edward on 15 Dec 08

Given where we've gotten to with invasive species, it strikes me as much more sustainable to eat chicken than buffalo. So rather than "no chicken, but turkey", it might be "turkey before chicken, chicken before buffalo, buffalo before beef".

And, to Edward's point, perhaps better would be "vegetables before cultured meat, cultured meat before turkey, turkey before..., etc".

Also referencing Edward's comment about why something may be wrong, my worldview can recognize an action to be wrong for more than just one reason. And, of course, our challenges the reality that an action can be right for one reason, and wrong for other reasons.

Like eating turkey.

Posted by: Curt Beckmann on 15 Dec 08

In Australia there is a similar push to choose kangaroo and emu over beef or lamb. And there is a growing industry in native fruits like quandong, which I hope will be eaten in preference to thirsty fruit crops like strawberries.

Posted by: JulieG on 15 Dec 08

I've been musing on similar ideas for some time. While I like the merits of cultivating a market for indigenous animals (particularly white tails, but also buffalo, moose, turkey, rabitt, and others), I think shifting away from Eurasian livestock remains a very tall order. I certainly can't give the subject detail to rival William Cronon's Changes in the Land, but the shift toward Eurasian livestock in N. America is related to the end of controled fires set by the indigenous peoples, the accidental import of European grasses and weeds, the assertion of personal property rights, and the market supported by cultural preference. Since extracating all of these is next to impossible, we're left essentially with the options to do nothing; start raising deer, turkey, &c using modern farming practices; or shift existing agricultural practices away from the high-density lot, and toward a more free-range approach. I think the last option has a great deal of merit, though it increases costs.
I also think that as a culture we should encourage people who want to eat meat to hunt and fish. We have only to look at organizations like Ducks Unlimited or Izaak Walton League to see how serious hunters are about conservation.
And, of course, we need to educate Americans that on the whole we eat too much meat. We consume it to the point that we waste much of its nutritional value, and to the point that it contributes to heart disease, obesity, and other health problems.
Regarding spirits, I don't see anything wrong with drinking only or mostly domestic varieties. Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey (and local or regional beer) are just about the only such drinks I consume.

Posted by: E.R. Dunhill on 16 Dec 08

Anyone wanting more information about the Buffalo Commons should look at my Rutgers website, I and my wife Deborah Popper, a geographer at the City University of New York/College of Staten Island and Princeton University, originated the the idea. I chair the board of the only group explicitly devoted to creating the Buffalo Commons, the Fort Worth-based Great Plains Restoration Council, Best wishes for the holidays,
Frank Popper
Rutgers and Princeton Universities,

Posted by: Frank Popper on 16 Dec 08

Hi all, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

@Edward - you write "Eating beef is... wrong because of the suffering it inflicts upon animals as well as all the wasted resources..." (wrong, by the by, is an absolutist word. I happen to agree with language that strong when it comes to animal suffering, just as long as it is used intentionally.)

I think your point is exactly half right. To me (and to you), the suffering of animals is primary. No animal should suffer to make meat easy. Couldn't agree more. BUT, if we put all the cows out to pasture, we'd destroy what little native grassland is left. The point is that cows have never been native, and they destroy the very land they walk on. Buffalo do not, IF they are raised in their native setting. That would be essential to making it work.

As E.R. says, no matter what we eat, we need to "shift existing agricultural practices away from the high-density lot, and toward a more free-range approach." We have some shifting to do with our vegetables as well.

This post is intended to suggest that while we are considering systemic change to our agricultural system, we ought to re-think the very species we use (including crop species). I mean, better than chicken is rabbit - chickens eat a high protein diet, rabbits eat grass... (deer is better than turkey) we can go round and round on this, but the central point remains - we have a lot of native animals, currently existing as part of damaged ecosystems. Eating native and restoring those systems is a way to feed two birds with one scone.

Efficiency: large animal, small animal... efficiency is what we put in v. what we get out. Deer are large, buffalo are large, but if they are eating native grasses, they're very efficient.

Price: as for the increased prices that stem from free-range options - great. Best thing that could happen to meat in this country. E.R. says "we need to educate Americans that on the whole we eat too much meat." Yes we do, but we've been 'educating' people that they use too much oil for decades. When did behavior change? When the price shot up.

Posted by: Justus on 16 Dec 08

Sorry, Frank, for failure to give you due credit! Next time I will link to your site.

Anyone who isn't familiar with the concept - check it out!

Posted by: Justus on 16 Dec 08

I'm all for eating local, but how would eating more bison and turkey restore native ecosystems? We already eat a lot of turkey, and it's no benefit to the environment as far as I know. I think it would be a tragedy if bison became just another domestic animal in CAFO's. Bison should be free to roam, as the buffalo commons idea suggests.

Posted by: John Giezentanner on 17 Dec 08

The corn grown in North America is hardly a native plant. It is the product of thousands of years of breeding and would die out hopelessly if left in the wild.
Admittedly, I'm a generation off the farm, but to quote my father (who grew up on the farm) and my grandfather (who still runs it) "compared to corn, wheat is a weed."
I'm no biologist but the one that takes the fewest resources to grow, invasive or not, sounds like the more sustainable option.
Then again, we're in Canada and corn was never grown here "naturally" anyway. your mileage may vary.

Posted by: Tyler August on 22 Dec 08

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