In the context of climate change and what individuals can do to take personal action, eating a plant-rich diet is often cited as one of the most important steps we can take to reduce our individual carbon footprints. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, total global emissions from livestock is 7.1 Co2-eq Gt, which equals 14.5% of all human-produced GHG emissions. Of this, cattle raised for milk, beef, and other inedible outputs like manure, comprise about 65% of emissions. If cows were a country, they would the third greatest producer of greenhouse gases. It’s not just cows; pork (9%), buffalo meat and milk (8%), chicken meat and eggs (8%), and small ruminant milk and meat (6%)—are also part of the problem, but at a much smaller scale than beef.
For many years, I resisted the notion that I could ever be vegetarian, because, well, I’m Korean. Anyone who is familiar with Korean cuisine knows that meat is essential to Korean cooking and culture. Most well-known, are K-BBQ and Korean fried chicken, which are staples for social gatherings. Stews and soups use meat and seafood as a base for the broth and dumplings are stuffed with beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, you name it. My favorite foods—that I crave, especially at the end of a long day or week—are all hearty, meat-centric dishes like gamja-tang (pork rib soup), seollong-tang (ox bone soup), and budae jjigae (“army” stew with kimchi, ham, spam, hot dogs, bacon, and ramen). These dishes replenish not just my energy, but provide a certain kind of comfort—a combination of nostalgia, my childhood, and deep, traditional flavors. Even kimchi uses anchovies or shrimp products in the pickling process to give it that lip-smacking, umami flavor.
The average American eats almost 215 pounds of meat annually. It’s no wonder that Covid-19 affecting meat plants and production is having a far-reaching effect across the country. In times like these, the question of whether or not be vegetarian seems more important than ever, especially since eating animals is one of the theories behind the origin of pandemics; in the case of coronavirus, bats are considered to be a possible source. While Americans may scoff or wonder in horror how anyone could eat bats, in parts of China, bats are consumed as a delicacy. What makes some animals worthy of eating and others less so seems to be matter of local and cultural context. Different cultures prize different animals as pets versus pests versus dinner. Koreans (some, not all) eat their fare share of foods that might make others squirm like san-nakji (live octopus), dak-bal (spicy chicken feet), gopchang-gui (grilled beef intestine), and sundae (blood sausage made of pig/cow intestine). While I don’t think I would ever eat bat, the act of solely criticizing someone from a different culture for what they eat seems superficial, xenophobic, and incredibly limited in perspective. If anything, it prompts the greater question of whether or not we should continue to eat any kind of animal meat, knowing the risks and potential consequences—pandemics, growing GHG emissions, and also possibly negative health consequences.
Our diet choices are highly personal ones that are made on the basis of many things, including where we grew up and currently live, the kinds of foods we ate as children—when we didn’t have much control over our diets, the cultural trends of our time, our education, and perhaps our desire, or lack thereof, to adventure and try things that exist elsewhere. For me personally, I think I’ve come to a middle ground after years of refusing to really contemplate the options seriously. I want to keep eating meat and all of the dishes I love, but I want to eat less of it—smaller portions and less frequently. And as Michael Pollan says, to treat meat as a food for special occasions or flavoring. I think this is a great way to appreciate and enjoy meat without over-consuming it. I also want to understand where my meat comes from and how it was raised and remind myself that eating meat has consequences. Most of life is not black and white, but a reckoning of conflicting values and wants—essentially, trade-offs. The question of whether or not to eat meat is no different. Focusing on eating more plants, consuming a variety of foods that are in local, fresh and in season, and enjoying the experience of eating mindfully are ways to incorporate meat without making it a primary focus. Our lives and our impact are the sum of our actions, of which diet is just one part. Though our food choices have significant implications for our planet’s future, I believe that we can be conscientious stewards of our culture and the planet even if we choose to eat meat.