I gave a talk in South Texas recently on the environmental virtues of a
vegetarian diet. As you might imagine, the reception was chilly. In
fact, the only applause came during the Q&A period when a member of
the audience said that my lecture made him want to go out and eat even
more meat. “Plus,” he added, “what I eat is my business — it’s

I’ve been writing about food and agriculture for more than a decade.
Until that evening, however, I’d never actively thought about this most
basic culinary question: Is eating personal?

We know more than we’ve ever known about the innards of the global
food system. We understand that food can both nourish and kill. We know
that its production can both destroy and enhance our environment. We
know that farming touches every aspect of our lives — the air we
breathe, the water we drink, and the soil we need.

So it’s hard to avoid concluding that eating cannot be personal.
What I eat influences you. What you eat influences me. Our diets are
deeply, intimately and necessarily political.

This realization changes everything for those who avoid meat. As a
vegetarian I’ve always felt the perverse need to apologize for my
dietary choice. It inconveniences people. It smacks of
self-righteousness. It makes us pariahs at dinner parties. But the more
I learn about the negative impact of meat production, the more I feel
that it’s the consumers of meat who should be making apologies.

Here’s why: The livestock industry as a result of its reliance on corn
and soy-based feed accounts for over half the synthetic fertilizer used
in the United States, contributing more than any other sector to marine
dead zones. It consumes 70 percent of the water in the American West —
water so heavily subsidized that if irrigation supports were removed,
ground beef would cost $35 a pound. Livestock accounts for at least 21
percent of greenhouse-gas emissions globally — more than all forms of
transportation combined. Domestic animals — most of them healthy —
consume about 70 percent of all the antibiotics produced. Undigested
antibiotics leach from manure into freshwater systems and impair the
sex organs of fish.

It takes a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of conventional
beef. If all the grain fed to animals went to people, you could feed
China and India. That’s just a start.

Meat that’s raised according to “alternative” standards (about 1
percent of meat in the United States) might be a better choice but not
nearly as much so as its privileged consumers would have us believe.
“Free-range chickens” theoretically have access to the outdoors. But
many “free-range” chickens never see the light of day because they
cannot make it through the crowded shed to the aperture leading to a
patch of cement.

“Grass-fed” beef produces four times the methane — a greenhouse gas
21 times as powerful as carbon dioxide — of grain-fed cows, and many
grass-fed cows are raised on heavily fertilized and irrigated grass.
Pastured pigs are still typically mutilated, fed commercial feed and
prevented from rooting — their most basic instinct besides sex.

Issues of animal welfare are equally implicated in all forms of meat
production. Domestic animals suffer immensely, feel pain and may even
be cognizant of the fate that awaits them. In an egg factory, male
chicks (economically worthless) are summarily run through a grinder.
Pigs are castrated without anesthesia, crated, tail-docked and
nose-ringed. Milk cows are repeatedly impregnated through artificial
insemination, confined to milking stalls and milked to yield 15 times
the amount of milk they would produce under normal conditions. When
calves are removed from their mothers at birth, the mothers mourn their
loss with heart-rending moans.

Then comes the slaughterhouse, an operation that’s left with
millions of pounds of carcasses — deadstock — that are incinerated or
dumped in landfills. (Rendering plants have taken a nose dive since mad
cow disease.)

Now, if someone told you that a particular corporation was trashing
the air, water and soil; causing more global warming than the
transportation industry; consuming massive amounts of fossil fuel;
unleashing the cruelest sort of suffering on innocent and sentient
beings; failing to recycle its waste; and clogging our arteries in the
process, how would you react? Would you say, “Hey, that’s personal?”
Probably not. It’s more likely that you’d frame the matter as a dire
political issue in need of a dire political response.

Vegetarianism is not only the most powerful political response we
can make to industrialized food. It’s a necessary prerequisite to
reforming it. To quit eating meat is to dismantle the global food
apparatus at its foundation.

Agribusiness has been vilified of late by muckraking journalists,
activist filmmakers and sustainable-food advocates. We know that

has to be done to save our food from corporate interests. But I wonder
— are we ready to do what must be done? Sure, we’ve been inundated
with ideas: eat local, vote with your fork, buy organic, support fair
trade, etc. But these proposals all lack something that every
successful environmental movement has always placed at its core:
genuine sacrifice.

Until we make that leap, until we create a culinary culture in which
the meat-eaters must do the apologizing, the current proposals will be
nothing more than gestures that turn the fork into an empty symbol
rather than a real tool for environmental change.

James E. McWilliams, an associate professor of history at Texas
State University at San Marcos and a recent fellow in the agrarian
studies program at Yale University, is most recently the author of
“Just Food.”