Eating for the Environment

The Beef about Beef
Harvard Magazine
April 11, 2017
By Jonathan Shaw

When Gidon Eshel sits down for a meal, his plate holds a full agenda. There’s the food, of course—plant-based, in his case. But beyond the barley and snap peas spills a cornucopia of environmental, social, and political considerations. “When you make a choice between any two competing ingredients or any two competing meals,” Eshel said in a December lecture (on “Rethinking the American Diet”), “you are making a whole cascade of important choices that you may or may not be aware of. For example, in that choice you determine…the nature of rural communities” in terms of structure, land use, and population density; the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted “on your behalf” for food production; the biodiversity of rangelands; the likelihood of species extinctions; and the health of waterways and coastal ocean fisheries, where massive die-offs are one consequence of agricultural pollution. “You even get to take sides in things that we don’t often associate with food choices, like societal strife,” he said, citing the example of a water-rights dispute pitting alfalfa farmers against a Native American tribe in Oregon’s Klamath basin. And finally, of course, nutritional choices “determine your health as powerfully as genetics or exercise.”

Eshel is a geophysicist; a research professor of environmental science and physics at Bard College, he spoke at the Radcliffe Institute, where he is a fellow this year. His field was conventional climate science when he was a professor at the University of Chicago, until a lunch conversation about the geophysical implications of food production led him to a new focus: environmental-geophysical consequences of human diets. Since 2006, he has examined the effects on the planet of various diets, from vegan to lacto-ovo to the mean American diet (MAD, in which about a quarter of the calories come from animal-based products). His findings have given him a strong message to deliver: lose the beef.

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