Sara Klimek: How essential is meat, really?

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President Trump's newest executive order passed April 29 declared meat plants to remain open as "essential infrastructure" despite surmounting COVID-19 cases in packing plants. This order brings a wake of consumer fears regarding "meat shortages" and skyrocketing prices. As someone studying food politics, this begs an important question: can we feasibly increase our consumption of plant-based protein in lieu of meat, to both decrease the number of factories reopening (hence lowering the rate of worker exposure) in the short-term and improve the long-term sustainability of the American diet?

First, how essential is meat right now? According to the National Institute of Health, Americans receive 15 percent of their daily calories, 40 percent of their daily protein, and 20 percent of their daily fat intake from animal-based sources. Americans have a higher per capita meat consumption (220 pounds annually, on average) of any other developed nation globally. But America is also a leader in other things, too — diet-related disease, surface-water pollution, and agriculturally-derived greenhouse gas emissions. In short, our current dietary habits are killing our bodies and the planet — which makes those habits anything but essential.

Plant-based protein sources, such as beans, legumes, soy (e.g., tofu), and grains, have the potential to decrease the environmental footprint and negative health outcomes associated with diets higher in animal products. Rather than using dwindling fossil fuel and water reserves to feed people, we're inefficiently allocating those resources to feed to animals — which then feed people. It would be more pragmatic (in terms of both time and space) to move those calories straight to people rather than using animal agriculture as a middleman. Most of the bacon, filet mignon, and chicken nuggets that find their way to the American table are not raised in picturesque fields, but rather concentrated "factory farms" where they are fed a diet of anything but what they would find in a pasture. Beef requires nearly five times as much water per gram of protein than oats and tofu, thus rendering agriculture as one of the most hydro-exhaustive American industries.

Furthermore, because animals are sessile beings, they require an immense labor force to grow, process, and package them. Although the meat industry can try to modify their operations to promote appropriate social distancing and adequate worker protections, it is nearly impossible to prevent the rapid transfer of disease in such a close space. In forcing processing plants to remain open, Trump has asserted that the health and well-being of plant workers falls second to making sure that Americans can still have hamburgers on their dinner table.

Even if I haven't sold you on the deeply-rooted inequities and inefficiencies of animal agriculture, it's almost impossible to discount the impact of our dietary choices on our health — and as a result, our own susceptibility to disease. Health experts have drawn connections between greater instances of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes to processed red meats for decades; now, the Center for Disease Control is suggesting that obesity and age are two of the most important factors for COVID-19 susceptibility. It should also be considered that plant-based proteins contain more than just protein: they also include healthy fiber, nutrients, and minerals needed for a balanced diet.

Expecting that Americans would wake up tomorrow morning and never eat a piece of bacon ever again is not only wildly unrealistic, but also wholly unpractical. Even health experts admit that a diet with moderate meat consumption can still be considered healthy, so long as it is balanced with an emphasis on whole fruits and vegetables, moderated caloric-intake, and low levels of processed foods. I, for one, would argue it would be more effective for Americans to actively supplement their diets with plant-based proteins — such as substituting soy protein for ground beef in homemade chili or eating a black bean burger instead of a chicken sandwich for lunch. We've all learned the importance of "doing our part" to stop the spread of COVID-19: washing hands and staying home. But what would you say if "doing your part" meant substituting plant-based protein for animal-based protein three times a week? We must invest in our future health, planet and society by adopting a more plant-based diet during COVID-19 and beyond.

Sara Klimek is a student at the University of Vermont studying environmental studies, food systems, and nutrition and food science. She is originally from Norwich, Conn. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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