Vegetarianism has recently gained more traction in mainstream US culture, moving away from its status as a mocked diet and into a common form of protest. The latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change underscored the United States level of meat consumption’s contribution to global climate change. Although the report states that eating less meat is unquestionably better for the environment, it is not the act of meat-eating itself but the wasteful, harmful means in which it, and other processed foods, are produced that make consumption from mainstream distributors so detrimental.
If we want to continue eating meat—as the Student Council has made clear by striking down the proposal for “Meatless Mondays” at Peirce Dining Hall—we must call for a structural change in the system of agribusinesses so everyone can enjoy all food in an ethical, accessible and sustainable way.
One of the central flaws of our food system is the fact that sustainable foods are more expensive and less available in certain regions compared to processed and fast foods. The increasingly resonant plea for people to change the way they eat often ignores the fact that many people do not have the means to do so. Before people can feel righteous about their own vegetarianism or locally sourced diet, and before they can expect other people to follow suit, we must implement a sustainable food system predicated on a framework of inclusivity.
According to a recent UN report, the global food system accounts for about 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions due to harmful methods of farming that are financially supported by governmental policy at the expense of smaller, sustainable farms. Over the past 15 years, due to unchecked food company mergers, industrial farms have consolidated into monopolies. These massive agribusinesses are destroying the environment through immense waste production, mono-culture farming and greenhouse gas emissions, while simultaneously running smaller farms out of business.
The government directly subsidizes a select few crops, such as corn, soy and wheat, while providing almost no subsidies to farms that produce specialty vegetables and fruits. This disproportionate distribution to the largest monoculture farms ensures that food from industrial farms is drastically cheaper than the more sustainable products of smaller farms. Not only does this make sustainable food less accessible, but also greatly hinders the ability of smaller farms that rely on diverse crop production and sustainable livestock cultivation to compete in this market, much less make a profit.
Thankfully, there have been massive efforts on the part of grassroot organizations to bring about a large-scale revolution in our food system. Many organizations like The Agroecology Fund and RegenAg are promoting the implementation of regenerative agriculture: a philosophy of agriculture that is in touch with nature’s assets, rather than big industry’s degenerative method of land colonization. Locally based organizations involved in this cause include Rural Action, which is facilitating sustainable development in exploited local communities, and Co-op Dayton, in an innovative approach to community support, is working to build a cooperative-model grocery store to increase sustainable food accessibility in Dayton, Ohio.
The onus for change, however, cannot only fall on grassroot organizations. Top-down political change is necessary to effectively reform the system. Leading Democratic candidates of the 2020 presidential race have expanded on the Green New Deal’s idea for transforming our current exploitative agricultural system into one of regenerative and sustainable practices. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the two candidates who seem to have given this topic the most focus, have come out strongly against industrial agriculture and released comprehensive policy proposals to reform our food system by fostering food accessibility and strengthening the livelihood of sustainable farmers.
Although they diverge on specific details, both plans emphasize the need to break up corporate agriculture mergers and ban future consolidation, reform agricultural subsidies so that more of federal support goes to smaller sustainable farms and provide grants and funds to encourage farmers to transition to sustainable farming practices while meeting their cost of production. These plans, both of which are drastically more substantial than these few points, are potentially transformative and provide a framework for a sustainable future where rural workers can maintain a dignified livelihood and affordable sustainable food can become the norm.
Systemic changes require a great amount of invested effort and time to implement, so in the meantime, while we are stuck with our current broken food system, do what you can within your budget and your power to minimize its harms: buy locally, eat less meat, donate to grassroots organizations and volunteer at local farms or community gardens. Perhaps most importantly, we must pressure politicians to stress agriculture reform within the larger goal of climate justice, and draw the rural communities, who are most directly facing the adverse effects of the modern agricultural industry, into the political conversation. If we work in solidarity to create a just and viable system for these communities and their environment, we may once and for all move past our single means of protest “to just not eat meat.”