Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, in for Tanzina Vega. In April, the recipe website Epicurious announced that they would no longer be publishing new recipes that use beef. They cited beef's environmental impact and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with raising livestock as their reasoning. Not long after the Epicurious announcement, Eleven Madison Park, a New York-based Michelin-starred restaurant, announced they would stop serving animal products. Again, pointing to sustainability.
The announcements were met with mixed reactions, and it reignited conversations about the role and responsibilities of individual consumers for battling climate change. In the US where meat is often the centerpiece of our meals and where according to the USDA, the average American eats 222 pounds of poultry and red meat each year as of 2018, reducing or removing meat from our diets can feel like a big hurdle. Joining me now is Alicia Kennedy, a food writer and author of the newsletter From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy. Alicia, welcome to The Takeaway.
Alicia Kennedy: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about how significant the decision was for Epicurious to decide to no longer publish beef recipes.
Alicia Kennedy: It is a hugely significant decision in the food media landscape, where meat is still really, really prominent, as well as shrimp, as well as fish. There's no move in the broad food media toward saying, "Hey, that there is a problem with the amount of meat and animal products that we consume in the United States." There's very much a sense that we have to say that it's okay to eat as much beef or as much chicken as you want.
We have to say that it's okay to get these products anywhere. Not go to your local butcher, not make sure the rancher is using sustainable practices. It's very much a hedonistic type of approach to eating and consuming meat, especially. When Epicurious made this decision, they really broke the food media kind of unspoken rule that you don't tell people that anything is bad about something that we eat.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk a little bit about what are the problems around meat consumption. I think for a lot of folks, they think about either vegetarianism or veganism or even reduction of meat consumption, either around like a personal health question. Reasons that it might not be "good" for you and then this more collective question of why it might not be good for us as a species, as a planet. Can you maybe say a little bit about both?
Alicia Kennedy: Sure. Well, the food system globally accounts for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. That encompasses lots of different things, that's not just meat, but beef specifically accounts for 14.5% of that. A lot of that is maybe not specifically the practices of beef or that sort of thing but in total the way we produce, the way we process, the way we transfer and transport beef accounts for 14.5%. That's a big chunk of those emissions, and it's also, yes, this place where we can make a personal choice to reduce or give up consumption of this product totally because of its impact.
Personal choice, of course, is a tricky subject because we want to talk about really getting at those corporations who are responsible for massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. We don't want to say it's all of our personal problem that has caused global warming, but at the same time, we can make these smaller choices in our day-to-day lives that make a difference and recognize the big impact of what we eat on climate change. In terms of beef consumption, it's especially important because of that big number.
Also, if we were going to kind of change the way we produce and process beef, if we were going to stop subsidizing industrial meat and dairy in the factory farms, we would have to change how we consume. We would have to probably lower that amount of meat we're eating every year, from 222 pounds, we're going to have to drastically reduce that. That would be a kind of a natural progression if we did change regulations. It's a very tricky subject because it is about all of us, but it's also about how we all respond to this knowledge.
Also, the fact that the government does subsidize those industrial beef and dairy for $38 billion a year. It's not all about our personal decisions, it is about the regulations, and it is about the government. That money is making the cost of meat artificially low in the supermarkets, it's not accounting for the workers who are often not paid properly. They haven't been attended to properly during the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe 59,000 meat processing workers came down with COVID-19.
It's these places where they are situated, these factory farms, they're going to have runoff that is going to have environmentally detrimental impacts on people who live in those areas. It's a really big issue, but at the same, time, one of the only ways we have to combat it is to say, "I'm not going to eat meat if I don't know where it's coming from."
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's almost as though in the complexity of your answer and the swiftness of it, we're starting to capture some of the complicated realities in our food system. Those subsidies also impact farmers, but farmers aren't always who we think they are. They are also farmworkers, who are not the same folks who own the land. All of these questions, and then it comes down to, "What am I having on Tuesday?" Or "Does meatless Monday make a difference?" Or that long-term practice in Catholic traditions of fish on Fridays.
Do those individual choices make a difference or do we need big institutions like colleges or these other folks who feed a lot of people on any given day. Does it have to happen at that institutional level or can we make a difference on our own family plate?
Alicia Kennedy: Well, I think that institutional level, of course, would be huge. It would be such a massive impact on the ways people eat and of course, that would also be a very angering decision, I'm sure, if they were to make that call, but on the individual level, when we're talking about feeding our families, I think that that's where we have this cultural impact that is so important.
We're not going to change policy, we're not going to change the institutions unless-- We're having these smaller conversations with our friends and with our families about what we eat, the impact that it has, how we can try as individual people and smaller communities to do better in terms of our environmental impact when we're sitting down to eat. Also, taking into account those workers who aren't the ones benefiting from big governmental subsidies. The workers tend to be undocumented, they weren't eligible to get Unemployment when the pandemic hit, they were forced back to work.
We have to think about all of these things. No one is ever going to be perfect, but when we have those conversations on the smaller scale, I think that that's how we start to see bigger change incrementally.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk about our actual plate. For so many Americans who are brought up with a particular-- the meat is the biggest part, then there's a little starch and maybe a little starchy vegetable right next to it. What does a plate look like that isn't that?
Alicia Kennedy: Well, for me, this is such a hard question because I stopped eating meat 10 years ago, so I don't remember even what it was like to center my plate around meat, but it's centering beans, legumes, where there's so much variety, so much diversity in those, that kind of family of proteins. We have tofu, we have tempeh, we have seitan. There's just so much abundance in mushrooms as well for creating meaty dishes. There are proteins that are plant-based. It does take a little more work though to get them to the plate.
You can throw a steak in a cast iron pan with a little salt, and that will be delicious, but when you're talking about beans, it does mean you need to get a little more creative. You have to use citrus and herbs and figure out how you're going to make those delicious, but in the end, it's worth it. It's better for our health to at least cut back a little bit on meat and replace that with legumes.
I think that it's just about kind of finding that groove with replacing proteins that are animal-based just a few times a week and figuring out that you can eat really deliciously without it. That's why I think meatless Monday is something important and those days where you don't eat meat are important because they're how you kind of figure out that, "Hey, I'm not starving, and I'm not miserable and grouchy just because I ate beans instead of chicken." I think that that's a really important thing to learn.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thank you so much, Alicia Kennedy, food writer and author of the newsletter From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy.
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