V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Where's the beef?

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers February, 2009.

Mark Bittman pauses, cocks his head to one side and looks thoughtfully towards the back wall before answering my first question.

"Neurotically," he says decidedly, pleased with the one-word summation to a question it seems he hasn't been posed recently.

I've just asked the famous New York Times food columnist how he would describe the way the industrial world approaches food.

We're fools to fads and marketing ploys, he says, weak to the dictates of the Big Food industry. We're fuelling a carnivorous appetite for meat that's just not sustainable and will come at the expense of our planet, he adds.

In short, we're overindulgent with food.

Bittman is in Toronto for his only Canadian stop in a whirlwind tour promoting his new book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating.

In it, Bittman provides some staggering statistics to illustrate how our eating behaviour is imperiling Earth.

For example, eating a typical family-of-four steak dinner is equal to driving around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home, he says.

"In all, the average American meat eater is responsible for one and a half tonnes more CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas -- enough to fill a large house -- than someone who eats no meat," he writes.

Meanwhile, global meat consumption is expected to double within the next 40 years.

Not unlike Michael Pollan's New York Times bestseller In Defense of Food, Bittman's book twins healthy eating with environmentally sustainable consumption in easily digestible bites.

The premise is simple: "Eat less meat and junk food, eat more vegetables and whole grains."

"It's like oil," Bittman said. "We're at peak oil right now. We're also at peak meat. About 70% of the world's farmland is dedicated to livestock production."

In order to satiate carnivorous appetites, we're clear cutting rainforests to breed cattle, he said.

"You can't find a more efficient way to grow and eat meat as it's already incredibly efficient," he said. "You can't increase production of meat without increasing land use. But there's no more land."

Though Bittman advocates a shift away from animal products, he's no stickler to diets, and bristles at the suggestion he's become a vegetarian. He's not a proponent of the locavore or organic movement as he finds them too restrictive and unrealistic. He's a "vegan until 6" at which time anything goes (he freely admitted he was likely to order a room-service cheeseburger for dinner that night).

"I'm not religious about this and I don't go to confession if I cheat," he said.

But like the switch to energy efficient light bulbs, small steps can have huge impacts.

"Eating less meat makes an infinitesimal impact but it is measurable."

For Bittman, the measurable results are in his waistline and cholesterol levels. Bittman, 59, is over 6-feet tall. At peak weight he tipped the scales at 214 lb. (97 kg). But within four months of following this new lifestyle, he lost 35 lb. (16 kg), dropped his elevated cholesterol and sugar levels within normal range, and conquered his sleep apnea.

"If you're conserving energy, you're making some measurable sacrifice for the global good. But in food, if you shift the proportion of the way you eat away from meat, you're making a change for the global good but you're also changing your own health."

More than 50% of the corn grown in the U.S. is fed to animals, Bittman points out.

Meanwhile, one billion people in the world are chronically hungry, and another billion people are overweight. While bad distribution and market speculators have been blamed for the global food shortage that rocked the world last year, there's another simple solution, he said.

"If that amount of corn were to feed humans, there would be no hunger in the world."

Moreover, we've developed overindulgent, uncontrollable eating habits, Bittman said, satiating our hunger needs whenever they strike. But we don't do the same with fatigue or sex, he points out, dropping to the floor at work when we're tired or fulfilling our carnal desires anytime anywhere.

"I don't mean to sound new agey, but there's nothing wrong with being hungry. Little fasts can be tolerated and enjoyed."

Food Matters contains 75 recipes. Bittman is also author of the bestselling cookbooks How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.




9B - Chicken

250M - Turkey

36M - Cow

10M - Pig


Not eating red meat and dairy one day a week for one year (for a family), is equivalent to: Driving 1,223 km less annually (based on annual 19,312 km/yr mileage).

SOURCE: Food Matters


511 litres

That's equivalent to the use of land, chemical fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow the corn to feed the steer, plus transport, drugs and water, during its lifetime.

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