Because I want to make sure people read them, I'm re-posting the super-thoughtful and provocative comments that three readers posted in response to yesterday's post, and that I hope to respond to in some fashion soon:
Great post. From a practical standpoint, I'd say I solve the problem by almost always making my own "meat substitutes" from less objectionable ingredients. And by not relying on meat substitutes most of the time. (Caveat, I am only mostly vegetarian: I sometimes eat fish that are on the Monteray Bay Seafood Watch green list--though I know that's not a perfect source.)
But given the choice you put up there, the hamburger is probably more environmentally sound in that instance. Back when I first stopped eating meat, I told myself that I would still eat it if traveling somewhere where vegetarianism was nearly impossible, or if I would seriously offend a host. And somewhere along the way I have come to feel that eating local, small farm meat (preferably where you have actually seen the farm) is fine. So I have never drawn hard line.
But when it comes down to it-- even though I actually enjoy the smell, say, a the farmers market when that one stand always has bacon and sausage frying --I am not tempted to actually eat it. I think it has just been too long. So, partly it's habit. But actually, even though my primary *reasons* are environmental, I do find myself thinking of the animal and kind of giving myself a mental choice: live cow or steak? I'm going with the cow. I like animals. I've met cows. I want to have chickens one day, and knowing me, I'll name them. Can I eat a chicken I've named? I'm fine with people who can, but I couldn't. So, while rationally, I think eating meat you know you've raised humanely is good (and better than eating soy grown in a former rainforest), viscerally, I just can't do it.
For most Americans, most of the time, though, it's not a matter of the ambiguous choice above. It's a matter of vast quantities of factory farmed meat versus eating more vegetables. So I feel that every minute individual food choice I make is less important than being out there as a visible (mostly) vegetarian person and make eating less meat look like a viable option to people who wouldn't otherwise have given it a thought. (Without doing *any* preaching.)
I'll give an Alaska perspective, in hopes of providing a unique context for an important discussion like this:
Alaska is a place where veganism, and, to a lesser extent, vegetarianism are wholly unsustainable food lifestyles, given the meat-generating capacity of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the state, the relatively little human pressure on these systems, and the inability of Alaska's climate to support the diverse kind of agriculture needed to sustain such meatless lifestyle.
Alaskans, as a population, eat more than twice as much meat as the rest of America--a pound a person a day, and for good reason. Seventy-five percent of this meat is hunted-fished--whether that be moose or salmon, deer or halibut, caribou or crab--under the watchful eye of Alaska Fish and Game, a state agency that, for the most part, puts science above profits in its management decisions. This hunter-fisher lifestyle, moreover, generates and regenerates Alaska's subsistence cultures and, as important, recreates a connection for Alaskans between life and landscape.
In our day to day lives, many of us hunter-fishers would pull salmon straight from local sound and rivers--salmon, mind you, which were preparing to spawn and were months if not weeks away from the end of their lives anyway--to be used for salmon bakes, salmon grills, salmon sushi, salmon burgers, salmon salad, salmon loaf, you get the picture. Others would pull moose roasts, deer straps, or caribou loins from deep freezers for use in everything from stews to soups. Important to me: all of this food lay outside the industrial system, is harvested in a sustainable way, and, often, is hunted with a reverence for the animal as prey.
And yet: our vegetarian/vegan friends insist on tofu from Oregon, beans from California, Lentils from Washington--all of which are shipped via freight from the warehouses of Seattle that act as lifelines for Alaskans who insist on subscribing to foodways extant in the lower 48.
The ecological conditions of Alaska make it impossible to grow any of the essential vegetable-based proteins that make up the diets of those who don't eat meat. If the goal is environmental health and economic, social, and ecological sustainability, I guess I'm not sure how the argument for a meatless diet works in Alaska.
Molly Gardner said:
This is a great post! But here is the part that I am not sure about. You write, "Boca Burgers are also full of processed ingredients ... which means the energy that goes into each factory..., not to mention all the pesticides/fertilizers/herbicides that have to be used to grow the corn and soy from which most of those ingredients are derived, has got to be at sky-high levels."
I don't really know how the details shake out here (so feel free to explain why I'm wrong), but it seems possible that even if each factory as a whole uses a lot of energy, the energy per burger could still be quite low. Perhaps the processed-food industry benefits from an economy of scale, not just in monetary terms, but in energy terms.
My other thought is that the demand for Boca burgers is not really what's driving us to produce so much corn and soy. Therefore, if you didn't eat the Boca burger, it's likely that virtually identical quantities of pesticides and fertilizers would still be applied to the corn and soy fields. However, if you didn't eat the beef burger, you might have a larger causal influence over whether a particular cow in Wisconsin produces methane gas while munching on resources that could be used for growing vegetables. But I could be totally wrong about this.