Jonathan Safran Foer: If You Care About Climate Change, Cut Out Meat

In "We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast," the author argues that individual actions matter when it comes to the environment.

Jonathan Safran Foer misses meat and says it tastes delicious. Still, the best-selling author is on a mission to convince everyone to join him in almost completely cutting out animal products from their diets.

“Eating Animals,” Foer’s 2009 nonfiction book on modern factory farming, famously convinced Natalie Portman to go vegan. In his new book, “We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast,” Foer argues that avoiding meat is a critical step everyone should take to help tackle the climate crisis. He cites a Johns Hopkins University report that concludes we won’t be able to avoid temperature increases of more than 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — beyond which catastrophic climate change becomes much more likely — if global trends in meat and dairy intake continue.

Foer told HuffPost this week that he continues to wrestle with his own temptations to eat meat and dairy products, but said he manages to not eat animal products during the day — the “vegan before 6 p.m.” diet. He also talked about his thoughts on President Donald Trump, meat taxes, the future of livestock farmers and his own health and well-being since becoming vegetarian.

You wrote a book about not eating meat back in 2009. What you brought back to the subject again?

I actually wanted to write a book about climate change and my own really problematic relationship to it, which had begun to feel intolerably problematic. Knowing what I knew, believing what I believed, feeling what I felt and yet doing, well, nothing. The problem was when you look into the things, eating fewer animal products is, according to climate scientists, one of the most important things you can do as an individual to work against climate change.

Jonathan Safran Foer in Milan on Sept. 9.
Jonathan Safran Foer in Milan on Sept. 9.
Rosdiana Ciaravolo via Getty Images

How would you describe yourself and your diet now?

I am not nuts about phrases or words. I’ve become interested in the idea of a plan. A month ago, at the end of a reading and book-signing I did in Belgium, a young couple due to get married came and gave me their book, which had their own handwriting over the title page. On it, they had a plan: eat vegetarian unless served meat at a friend’s house and there’s no other option. Eat vegan twice a week. Have no more than two kids. And drive no more than 930 miles a year.

Instead of signing it, they wanted me to witness it. I found that really eye-opening because I realized I didn’t have a plan. I’d written a book and yet I felt surprised by my own lack of preparation. It’s easy to get lost in identifiers — I’m a vegetarian or vegan — or in emotions like someone’s got to solve this, or we should fly less.

A plan is in between these. It’s difficult because you have to confront the unambitiousness of your plan. You have to be honest. So I went back to my hotel and made my plan: eat vegan for breakfast and lunch. Eat vegetarian for dinner. Not fly on any vacations. Take only three cab rides a week. Give one full day a week to volunteering to help raise awareness of climate change.

What are your thoughts on the child-free movement and not having children?

It’s the ultimate modification for some people, rather than a daily one. And without a doubt the largest problem when you come to climate change is overpopulation. I didn’t think about it myself at the time because there wasn’t the same consciousness about it.

“You could make an argument that Greta Thunberg is the most important person in the struggle to save the planet. You could make the argument Trump is, as his complete ignorance has forced wisdom on Americans.”

- Jonathan Safran Foer

People over 40 have created so many problems for people under 40 to solve and created so many burdens. I feel sorry that this is yet another thing that people have to consider that my generation did not consider. That being said, if I was in that point in my life, I would be a very enthusiastic adopter. I don’t think it would be a struggle. To me, [adopting a child] would be an even more special choice.

In the past, you’ve said that environmentalists who eat meat have a blindspot. Do you now believe that anyone who believes in climate change but eats meat has a blindspot?

Well, that’s not an opinion. That’s just a fact. The science is totally uncontroversial and unambiguous. The IPCC [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations-backed panel of climate scientists] has said we have no hope in solving this problem unless we dramatically reduce meat consumption.

One of the things that shocked me on the book tour I’ve just done is that 90% of the climate scientists and environmentalists I’ve met are vegetarian. And the ones that aren’t eat very little meat. It’s something that seems to go without saying. I wish they would talk about it more, but it’s been heartening to see.

Do you have sympathy for livestock farmers, and the ones who claim pasture-fed livestock — i.e., animals reared on grass-based diet — can help sequester carbon through the growing of grass?

A forest will sequester more carbon than grassland. So yes, it does sequester more carbon to have cattle on a regenerative pasture, but it would be far better still to get rid of all the livestock and have forest. If this happened, we could sequester half of all human-made carbon emissions. I have huge sympathy for good farmers who treat animals and the earth well.

The enemy is not farmers; it’s industrial agriculture. The Democrats are now choosing who will be their presidential candidate and pandering to voters in those states that make the vote first: Iowa and New Hampshire. And in Iowa, the farming capital of the U.S., they are proposing anti-factory farming legislation.

Intensive agriculture has a huge environmental impact.
Intensive agriculture has a huge environmental impact.
DuxX via Getty Images

That is what it means to pander to real farmers today. [Farmers] despise industrial farming. Its whole model is based on having as few farmers and as little nature as possible. No farmer went into farming to be cruel to animals or to be destructive to the environment. The enemy is the factory-farming complex.

Can individual choices really make a difference in tackling climate change?

We’ve reached this moment where there’s this weird rift between people who think individuals need to play a large role and those who think that to talk about individual choice is to let big corporations off the hook. Individual choice, corporate practice and government legislation are all in a feedback loop.

As people ask or insist upon different things and change their habits, corporations provide different things. It’s not a coincidence that in the past six months Burger King, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts and every fast food chain in America is selling plant-based meat alternatives.

A Burger King in the San Francisco Bay Area advertising the Impossible Whopper, a meat-free burger made from plant protein.
A Burger King in the San Francisco Bay Area advertising the Impossible Whopper, a meat-free burger made from plant protein.
Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images

It’s not for public relations or that they awoke to some ethics. It’s because they know that’s what people want, and they want to make more money. What’s interesting is that as citizens have forced them to offer those alternatives, it makes it easier for us to make those choices. We need legislative action, but I don’t see it happening without individual action.

So does Trump pulling the U.S. pulling out of U.N. climate deal made in Paris in 2015 make a difference?

There are only two countries in the world [Morocco and the Gambia] which will meet the goals of that agreement. And the U.S. wouldn’t have met the goals if Hillary Clinton had been elected president. There’s something psychologically soothing about remaining in the agreement while failing to meet its goals.

You could make an argument that Greta Thunberg is the most important person in the struggle to save the planet. You could make the argument Trump is, as his complete ignorance has forced wisdom on Americans. His complete inaction has forced action.

I do not think we’d have seen millions of people on the streets, the ascendancy of plant-based meats and the environmental movement far stronger than it’s ever been if he hadn’t been the president. He’s made things so terrible and feel so dark that it has inspired a pushback, which has been really wonderful to see.

Would you support a meat tax or any restriction on buying it?

I wouldn’t apply it specifically to meat, but I think a carbon tax is a great idea. There’s another way of thinking about this. Let’s not think of it as a sin tax, let’s just make things what they actually cost. If we are all paying for the environmental cost of the clean-up of the meat industry, why don’t we just make them pay for it?

Eating meat is not a sin. It’s not an evil thing to do, but right now it has an aspect of shoplifting to it. The [meat] industry is stealing from us and the planet and we’re not aware of it. Someone does have to pay for the environmental clean-up of the planet and it’s not us at the cash register and it’s not them [the meat industry]. It’s our grandkids. Whether it be an airplane ticket or a vegetable shipped halfway around the world, things should cost what they actually cost.

Has being vegetarian made any difference to your health or well-being?

I have no idea because I’ve been doing it for so long now. [Note: Foer has been a vegetarian off and on since he was a child.] When I go to the doctor, I seem to be healthy, I have good blood and all that. Would I have more or less energy or would life be any different if I ate meat? I don’t know.

You hear all the time about people who’ve become vegetarian and suddenly some great thing happens in their life and you hear people who don’t feel as well. I’m sure both cases exist. It’s uncontroversial that vegetarians are at least as healthy and there’s every reason to think they’re healthier and have a longer life expectancy. But it hasn’t been a real part of how I’ve thought about this.

It’s relieved some alienation that I’ve felt. I’ve known since I was a kid that eating meat made me uncomfortable and I wanted to do as little of it as I could. It doesn’t feel good to hold that knowledge as a secret from yourself in the same way as it doesn’t feel good when it comes to climate change to know that you really should and want to participate in a real way and not just going to a protest march. I’ve noticed that when I start to act on that secret knowledge I feel better, I feel more like myself.

Do you think the discussion around vegetarian diets is still seen as elitist?

A healthy vegetarian diet is cheaper than a meat-based one. It’s also the case that more than twice as many people who make less than $30,000 a year describe themselves as vegetarian than people who make more than $75,000 a year. So it’s clearly not elitist in the sense of costing more.

It’s better for our bodies, wallets and the planet. That said, there are people who literally do not have access to fruits and vegetables. They live in what we’d call food deserts. They are often pointed at when the elitist argument is made. They’re never pointed at in the sense that this is a problem and we need to make sure nobody lives in a food desert.

It’s totally unacceptable that anyone should live without access to healthy foods.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast” is published by Penguin and was released on Sept. 17, priced at $25.00.

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