By Emma Lyness, Husker Writers
Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series of persuasive essays produced in partnership with the University of Nebraska’s Husker Writers program in spring 2019. Students in Prof. Mark Houston’s English 254 course worked with ninth graders at Lincoln High School to research a specific topic embedded with civic engagement during the spring semester. For more on the project, click here.
Author’s Note: I’m a junior from Lincoln in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program with a painting emphasis. She hopes to do artist residencies after graduation and continue growing in her art practice. She is also interested in environmental studies and how personal diet impacts us and our communities. This project addresses how we can be more sustainable in our eating habits while living in an agriculturally dominated state like Nebraska.
The meat and dairy industry is becoming increasingly commercialized, and it plays a huge role in climate change; On a personal level, continuing a meat-based diet has sometimes serious health implications. If we take control of the food we’re putting in our bodies, we’re not only saving ourselves the personal strife but making positive changes to our food system.
I understand why so many people eat meat. It spans across a multitude of personal reasons, whether it be cultural tradition, comfort, convenience, accessibility, taste, social gatherings and the pressure associated with it, out of habit and familiarity, allergies… the list goes on. I truly get it— how completely cutting out meat or dairy is not feasible for some, or may take some time to groove with or come around to.
The truth is, a big shift needs to happen as a collective food identity if we want to become more sustainable. Continuing our meat consumption habits are not sustainable. Diet plays a massive role in our everyday lives. If we chose to ditch meat, it makes a huge impact. “A vegan or vegetarian diet could cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 70% and 63%, respectively save $1 trillion annually by preventing health care costs and lost productivity”. It starts through small actions, educating ourselves, easing into new routines and seeing how it makes our bodies and minds feel over time.
On a global scale, agriculture accounts for “about half of global methane emissions” and “nearly half of all the water used in the United States goes toward raising animals for food” due to food miles, or how far we transport goods before they reach our plate, as well as current (often improper) irrigation practices in place. That’s a lot of water that is often poisoned from pesticides and animal waste, which also end up in our food.
So, where does that leave us? As one individual, it’s impossible to stand up to the whole agriculture industry and say, “Hey, could you please be more sustainable in your practice?” or ask corporations to stop producing plastic or deforesting our trees. Even if we did get through to them the reality of overcoming political, institutional, and social barriers… means that less than 30 percent of agricultural mitigation potential is likely to be achieved by 2030. In other words, while legislation and political engagement are extremely helpful, we have a duty as individuals to put our money where our mouth is and become responsible consumers, especially when it comes to our diets.
As Nebraskans, we have a unique responsibility to support local and organic farmers. First off, “91% of the state’s total land area” is utilized by farms and ranches, according to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. We are also the “second largest producer of cattle” behind Texas. So, agriculture plays a huge role in our state. Unfortunately, the number of independent farmers has drastically decreased. “Since 1980, Nebraska has lost 91 percent of its independent hog producers, 80 percent of its dairy producers and 40 percent of its beef producers”, according to Bold Nebraska. That means— to support our local communities and farmers, we need to buy local food.
Where it gets tricky is how big a role this commercialized farming has on Nebraska’s economy and how many folks are employed by these corporate farms. I’m even asking myself… if we decide to more or less boycott these giant companies, how many people would lose jobs in consequence? But ultimately, neighbors supporting neighbors further decentralizes that corporate hold. Plus, if we decide to put better things in our body, it helps save lives, and that takes precedent.
Aside from environmental implications, our current diets are not cutting it. When our diets lack daily fruits and vegetables, we are far more susceptible to chronic illness. In the U.S, this includes “heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and obesity”— some of the leading causes of death. On top of that, most Americans eat “more than 1.5 times the average daily protein requirement”, according to John Hopkins University. Because of the improper agricultural practices, high-speed meat processing makes beef carcinogenic and on average, vegetarians and vegans live 7-10 years longer than meat eaters.
There are a lot of easy ways to start making the switch. A great way to ease into a vegetarian or vegan diet is by trying delicious local restaurants! They’re reasonably priced, and it helps to introduce new meals prepared by folks who care about spreading good eats and love. Not only are these tasty, quick options, but it’s such a welcoming community and atmosphere. It supports local businesses. You can enjoy meals with friends, too, and treat them to a special lunch. Some of my favorites are Pepe’s Kitchen, Grateful Bread, and burritos from Open Harvest.
When Pepe moved to Lincoln, he was living out of his car, working from the ground up to create a small, successful business. He wanted to make a vegetarian Mexican restaurant, to give people the option. Traditionally, even rice and beans have lard and chicken stock in them. He believes that these recipes can be altered to be sustainable. Pepe’s mission is to be sustainable— to support local farmers and local businesses. He’s an avid community member, and he started a nonprofit called The Bike Kitchen that helps fix and provide bikes at little to no cost. This sort of model showcases how challenging, yet rewarding it can be to be actively involved in the community and promote health.
Open Harvest Co-Op Grocery has been around for over 40 years, providing local and natural foods, including meats and organic vegetables. What’s the difference between Open Harvest and, say, a Trader Joe’s or Natural Grocers? Well, Open Harvest was there first. And it’s not a chain— it’s unique to Lincoln. Pepe’s food trailer has historically met outside, along with other local restaurant owners and food trucks.
Another way to ease into a vegetarian lifestyle is starting to substitute meat protein for beans, peas, lentils, soy products, nuts, and seeds! It is so easy to get the nutrients we need without eating meat, and it can be just as tasty. There are countless vegan recipes online that make cooking vegetarian fun.
Go to a farmers’ market, buy fresh produce, and connect with local farmers. Lincoln’s longstanding Farmers’ market happens every Saturday, May through October in the Haymarket. Artists, musicians, bakers, and other small business owners set up stands and exchange goods. It’s a great opportunity to make all sorts of connections and score some delicious, local produce.
Ultimately, it is up to us to take control of our lives. It’s true that ditching meat has a huge impact on climate change, but really, if we want to be healthier we have to make that choice for ourselves, out of love and appreciation for our bodies.