RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Vegetarians, Revisited

It's happened again. One of my dear friends has told me that, if you love the planet, forget about driving less or living in a smaller home. If you're a real environmentalist, he said, you've got to be a vegetarian.

I applaud my friend's dedication. I applaud anyone's dedication to food issues, and their willingness to follow commitment with action. With fast food stores on every corner and grocery stores loaded with cheap factory fare on every aisle, it's hard to commit to any kind of healthy diet. I would never ask vegetarians to give up their commitment. But there's more to the story.

Adele Davis's book Diet for a Small Planet launched vegetarianism into American mainstream thinking. John Robbins followed with Diet for a New America, and other books on sustainable living have gotten in line. The benefits of a vegetarian diet almost made environmental sense when foods of all kinds came from the nearby countryside.

But today most food -- animal and vegetable -- doesn't come from the nearby countryside. For much of the year -- November to April -- we buy our veggies from far away, grown under conditions we barely believe. These fruits and vegetables -- fresh, canned or frozen -- have been raised on former rain forests, at the expense of local people, and sprayed with chemicals unimaginable.

Our veggies are sprayed with petrochemicals to nourish them, then sprayed with -icides to protect them from predators. They're sprayed to keep them from overripening during shipment, then sprayed to ripen.

Some of these foods should get frequent flyer miles. They've ridden on airplanes, ships, and trucks. The food industry is a major reason that trucks are running you off the road, and that our highways are so bad.

People have suffered to raise our vegetables. People have been put off their land so that corporations can plant giant fields of tomatoes, potatoes, corn, bananas, coffee, sugar and other crops. People have been sprayed with pesticides along with the crops. And people have been forced to work under slave conditions in the fields for our veggies. And now industrial foods have become frankenfoods, with genetic alterations that may affect all the plants on the planet.

Put bluntly, if you think of food as an environmental issue or a social justice issue, eating vegetarian isn't going to solve anything unless you put another screen on your decision making. Vegetarian or meat eater, if you want to know how your food is raised, you need to buy from local farmers you can talk to.

If you don't take that step, you are supporting the same industry that confines animals, ravages land, and cares absolutely nothing about you except that your money adds to their bottom line.

Corporate foods which use animal products depend on huge numbers of animals, raised in steel buildings as big as football fields. No sunshine. No fresh air. If you drink milk or eat eggs from the grocery store or fast-food place, you're just like a meat-eater supporting the industry.

The corporate animals are dosed with antibiotics, sprayed with insecticides, and given every kind of growth chemical science can come up with. Male milk calves and worn-out cows, by-products of milk production, go to slaughter. Worn-out egg layers, by-products of egg production, go to slaughter.

But maybe you're vegan. If you buy veggies from a big producer, you're still supporting the meat industry. Here's why: Waste from animal factories is a necessary part of the veggie industry. The waste -- or "nutrient" -- sometimes is composted, sometimes not. Sometimes it's pumped to lagoons and left to rot.

The stuff is used by organic growers as well as conventional growers. If you don't believe me, ask the certifiers for a copy of their standards. Waste from animal factories is spread on organic fields to produce wheat, popcorn, soybeans and other foods.

The huge producers say they're only doing what family farms have done all along. Even old McDonald grew gardens with the manure from his cluck-cluck, moo-moo, oink oink and so forth.

That's true. Small farmer Old McDonald saw plants and animals as two sides of the cycle of life. Without plants, animals die. Without animals, plant diversity dies. Grazing animals distribute manure and seeds all over their pastures. But Old McDonald was a small farmer, not a corporation.

Many small farmers combine plant and animal raising to restore land burned out by industrial methods. The goal is to have only the number of animals that the land can sustain, and that animal manure can nourish. The factory places have thousands of animals in one place or hundreds of acres of one vegetable crop. This destroys nature's balance.

Small farmers work to establish this balance and sell the sustainably-raised products directly to you at the farmer's market or through Food Circles. However, all family farmers are struggling now because of policy decisions our lawmakers have made. One excuse for our lousy policy is that if we raise enough food to export some of it we can balance our trade deficit.

This is ridiculous. The food factories use so much petroleum that every calorie of food we consume costs several calories in petrochemicals -- pesticides, herbicides, transportation and so forth. But, food, petroleum and trucking are powerful political players at the state and national level.

In the twenty-first century, small farmers still grow food sustainably and safely. Some of it is meat, because some terrains cannot be plowed and farmed for crops, so, since the beginning there have been animals on our pastures. Other local foods are vegetables and fruit, some grown using "green manure," or plowed-down clovers and other beneficial plants, instead of animal manure.

If you want to consider your food choices as environmentally sound -- and who doesn't? -- you need to get to know farmers who are working hard to raise food and to stay on the land. Use these winter months to organize a farmer's market or delivery system on your church or school parking lot. Make it a rule that producers market sustainably-raised foods from your region.

If you're committed to environmental issues, ask to visit the farms where your food is grown. Offer to buy an entire year's worth of produce in return for an explanation of everything the farmer does with his or her land. Those who farm sustainably are glad to tell you how we do things and why. And we need your consumer dollars to stay on our farms.

In the mid-1980s, 80,000 farmers lost their farms due to a lousy farm policy. That means those people lost their livelihoods, their heritage, their hope for the future. Unprepared for urban life, they brought their despair to urban places, maybe close to where you live.

There are, obviously, fewer farmers now, but things are as desperate as they were in the mid-1980s. Support a farmers' market, buy local stuff, and make a real environmental difference.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 The Progressive Populist