Stewart David knows how to stir the pot. The longtime Asheville resident has been a persistent presence in the Mountain Xpress Letters section since the early '90s. He's also contributed several commentaries (most recently "Greenwashed," July 1 Xpress).
But two weeks ago, David coordinated a letter-writing campaign pressing us to acknowledge that while our Nov. 18 "Living Green" special issue covered a lot of ground about making sustainable choices — such as switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, insulating our homes and hanging our clothes out to dry — we failed to note the effects of animal agriculture on greenhouse-gas levels or how switching to a vegetarian diet could help fight climate change.
He wrote, "It's time the overwhelming body of scientific evidence linking animal agriculture to ecosystem destruction migrates from the opinion section into the articles that address sustainability" (Letters, Nov. 2).
After thinking about it, we could see his point, and we invited David to expand on it. The Chicago native, a retired CPA, has lived here since 1990. Sometime before that, he'd embraced a vegan diet.
Mountain Xpress: Why did you make that decision?
Stewart David: In my mid-30s, I started reading a lot about how animals were treated and how slaughterhouses were run. An egg-laying chicken has just this — a space the size of a sheet of paper — to move around in for its whole life. I would never do something like that to an animal myself, so why was I paying someone else to do it? I became a vegan for ethical and environmental reasons, and for the health benefits too.
I just turned 60 — that was hard to take! When I was 30, my cholesterol was over 200, and now it's only about 130. I doubled my years on the planet, but I've cut my cholesterol in half.
You've joked that if someone had told you when you were 30 that you'd become a vegan and such an advocate …
I would have suggested they seek psychiatric treatment.
One of the publications you've brought for me today is The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook: 77 Essential Skills to Stop Climate Change — Or Live Through It. Tip number No. 31 calls "refusing meat the single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint."
That's the most underreported story of the decade on the environment: how what you eat is arguably the No. 1 thing that you can do to reduce climate change.
The handbook suggests eating kale, which I like, but not everyone does.
Good for you! There's this perception that if you're a vegetarian or vegan you're eating [nothing but] grains and bean sprouts when, in fact, there's a tremendous variety of foods available.
There are many local options for vegetarians these days, from restaurants to natural-food stores to farms, but in a recent podcast of Our Southern Community, Ned Doyle's WNCW radio show, you maintained that while local, sustainably raised meat is an admirable effort, it's not enough to effect worldwide change.
More than 90 percent of our meat supply still comes from factory farms. That's really not going to change. The small-farm model may have worked in the 1940s or the 1950s, when we had less than half the people on the planet that we do now.
You also noted, in your July commentary, that "supporting a meat-based diet requires five times as much land as a plant-based diet."
The idea of putting food through animals and then eating the animals is just a terribly inefficient process. We keep hearing about turning the water off when we wash our teeth, when the amount of water that goes into animal agriculture is truly astounding. A statistic I saw calculated that by giving up a pound of meat, you can shower all year. We keep hearing about the convenient, feel-good things we need to do to conserve energy and save the environment, but we need to also think about the things that are out of sight and out of mind, like animal agriculture.
Here's something many of us don't realize: North Carolina is one of the top meat producers in the country.
We have more pigs living in this state than we do people.
Most of the hog farms are down east, though. Perhaps because of our mountainous terrain, we don't have large-scale animal-agriculture operations here.
No, but in the 1990s, one [hog farm] spill dumped more fecal material into the New River than the quantity of [oil in] the Exxon Valdez disaster, and 10 million fish died. Animal agriculture produces 130 times as much excrement as the human population in America does. It just piles up.
You're also very concerned about how the animals are treated.
They're really just tortured. Chickens being raised for meat are genetically modified to grow and grow. Sometimes their hearts stop and their legs can't take it, and they start dying at about five-and-a-half weeks, but the industry gives them lots of antibiotics to keep them alive.
In my mid-30s, I just started reading about that kind of stuff, and I thought, why am I paying someone to do this? I don't buy sweatshop goods. I try to be a conscious consumer on other things, so I started looking at what I was doing with my food dollar. And I didn't want to support this.
You mention Meatless Monday, a program sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
It dates back to World War I and conserving resources for the war effort. It's about human health and health for the environment.
The Baltimore school system recently signed on to adopt the program, and you've written our local legislators and school officials about making a similar move.
If the Baltimore school system can do it, so can we. The Environmental Defense Fund says if every American had one meat-free meal a week, the savings in carbon dioxide emissions would be the equivalent of taking 5 million cars off the road. Multiply that by how many meals we can change, and we could see some huge differences.
So how would you suggest we meat eaters start?
Don't come at it as a way of deprivation. A lot of people already eat vegetarian or vegan, and Asheville's a great place for it. And don't beat yourself up. Don't set the expectation that this is too hard. Just get in there and start changing your diet and see what you think. You might just be pleasantly surprised: You might shed a few pounds and feel better too.
You'll also help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
In 2006, a United Nations report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," said that animal agriculture, worldwide, produces more annual greenhouse-gas emissions than all the cars, trucks, airplanes, trains, etc. combined.
Yet officials are downplaying what commitments may come out of the Copenhagen climate-treaty talks, and the negotiations don't seem to be focused on the animal-agriculture side of the equation.
They should be dealing with all sources. Former Vice President Al Gore missed the inconvenient truth about animal agriculture, but now he's acknowledging the implications of meat-based diets too. I grew up eating the standard American diet of meat, meat and more meat. If I can change, anyone can.