Interrogation

What if Fighting Climate Change Is As Easy As Giving Up Meat?

Jonathan Safran Foer explains why he thinks personal actions still matter and how foodie culture can move forward.

Photo illustration of Jonathan Safran Foer with a background of vegan food
Jonathan Safran Foer
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nadine Primeau/Unsplash, Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images, and iStock/Getty Images Plus.

“I am not a climate change denier,” confesses novelist Jonathan Safran Foer early in his new nonfiction book, “but it is undeniable that I behave like one.” Chances are, you do too, at least by the standards that Foer puts forth in the just-released We Are the Weather, a manifesto for meat reductionism. Given the outsize role that animal agriculture plays in global greenhouse gas emissions—estimates range between 14.5 percent and 51 percent of emissions, with the latter figure considering meat production’s role in deforestation—refraining from consuming animal products, argues Foer, is one of the most significant actions individuals can take to help prevent global warming, along with driving less, flying less, and having fewer children. “We must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go,” he writes. “It is that straightforward, that fraught.”

Still, the idea of chosen veganism en masse is as improbable as it is urgent. Perhaps that’s why Foer, who previously wrote the novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as well as the factory farm critique Eating Animals, spends more time thinking through how “knowing without believing” paralyzes our response to climate change than on his main proposal, which is to go without animal products—including eggs and dairy—before dinner. In We Are the Weather, Foer persuasively leads the reader to the inevitability of more sustainable consumption practices—or as he puts it in one of his many elegant neo-aphorisms, “The future of farming and eating needs to resemble the past.” Perhaps just as importantly, he restores the role, and responsibility, of personal choice to the larger climate change discussion—while acknowledging the difficulty of following his own advice (the book includes at least one anecdote of Foer eating burgers on his last book tour).

On Sept. 20, the first day of the Global Climate Strike (and just before he headed to a climate march in Austin), Foer talked to Slate about the necessity of modifying food traditions and creating new culture in response to climate change, meat eaters’ culpability in the Amazon fires, and the ways government—if not the current administration—can help foster more sustainable eating habits. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Inkoo Kang: How did you arrive at the particular formulation of “no animal products before dinner”?

Jonathan Safran Foer: So the science—or the most contemporary analysis of the relationship between food and climate, which was published last year in Nature magazine, analyzing food systems all over the planet—concluded that while people who live in certain undernourished parts of the world could afford to eat a little bit more meat and dairy, people who live in America and the United Kingdom (and implicitly Europe) need to eat 90 percent less meat and 60 percent less dairy.

It’s not controversial that we need to eat fewer animal products to save the planet. The U.N. says it, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says it. If you can find a climate scientist who doesn’t say it, I would be surprised.

So that’s the science. Then there’s the question of, “Well, what do you do with the science?” Do you start much more modestly and try to aim to get to that? On top of which, how do you even do that as a normal person who’s not, you know, an eating calculator?

I, for one, don’t really want to keep a little diary of all the food that I’m eating and do the math at the end of every day or every week. So I was trying to think of what’s a convenient way to think about approaching those numbers that is also going to feel possible. Because it’s all irrelevant if it’s impossible.

So have you cut out animal products before dinner?

Yeah, I have. I should say I only started when I finished this book. So it’s only been nine months.

Can I ask what you ate for breakfast and lunch yesterday?

I had pasta for lunch, a penne pasta with marinara and garlic and onion, and a green salad. For breakfast, I assume I had nothing. I almost never eat breakfast. Maybe I had a banana.

The breakfast part of this is the trickiest one for me because if I’m thinking of mainstream American breakfast foods, other than a banana or something, every single one involves an animal product of some sort: eggs, cereal, pancakes.

Would you say that’s true in your own life?

Yes. I have three eggs and one piece of bacon every single morning.

Whoa. You’re quite a regular eater. You have the exact same breakfast every morning?

Yes. I really love eggs.

I propose breakfast and lunch, but that may be not a good prescription for you at all. And if there are other ways of aiming toward what’s necessary, then great.

There’s nothing better about my way of doing it than somebody else’s way of doing it. It’s just we need to be aiming at the same destination. So for you it might be like, “All right, so do that for breakfast.”

This brings me to a larger cultural question. I was a strict vegetarian for 15 years, and about five years ago I started eating meat again. One of the completely unexpected things that happened when I started eating meat again was that I felt like I tapped into a whole other kind of culture.

I was able to relate in other ways to the Korean background that I grew up in and then had to, I felt, abandon parts of because I couldn’t partake as much in the family rituals of dining. And then I found that, within the foodie world, there were all of these ways of expressing creativity that I had never really paid attention to because it didn’t really matter to me before what a duck confit was.

So that experience really brought to the fore how much culture needs to change in order for plant-based diets or vegetarianism or whatever to gain greater traction, to have different types of cultural connotations.

I completely agree with you.

As a culture-maker yourself, what do you feel like needs to change in the culture, in order for cutting out animal products to become a more common talking point in the climate change discourse?

Well, let me ask something. The Korean meals, were those primarily dinner? I mean, you weren’t eating the bacon and eggs with them for breakfast, right? That’s not a Korean breakfast. And so my guess is most people can maintain the food culture that they want. Most chefs cook dinner, most restaurants specialize in dinner, most family meals are dinner. So I think that that’s something we can preserve, and I think there’s a huge importance in preserving it.

I don’t eat any meat now and I haven’t felt any kind of cultural loss, but maybe that’s because I have less of a food culture for me. If I look at flying, maybe I’m looking at flying like you look at food. I love seeing other parts of the world. I love having my experience and my perspective expanded, and it’s not only pleasurable—it feels to me like an ethical good. I had to really, really think my way around the loss of that. Not even a loss, because we’re not talking about loss, we’re talking about moderation.

But is there a way to promote greater plant-eating other than this call to abstemiousness?

A hundred percent. I approached a couple of chefs when I was writing this book, and chefs are bizarrely, or not bizarrely, the most enthusiastic endorsers of this idea. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in London, who literally wrote the book on meat, is a huge advocate of meat reduction. Yotam Ottolenghi just posted about my book, and it’s kind of worth seeing the little video that he made. [Editor’s note: In the video, Ottolenghi vows to “inject my vegetables with even more flavor.”]

Samin Nosrat, who does Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, the way she describes it is “vegan during daylight.” I know her a little bit. I don’t know anyone on Earth who likes food and celebrates food and loves the culture of food more than she does. I find it unbelievably inspiring and brave that she would even enter this conversation, much less go that far. She hasn’t talked about it that much, but what I’ve read that she said is like, “This is hard. Man, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it. And I doubt I’ll do it consistently and I don’t want to do it, but we have to do it or we have to acknowledge that we’re giving up.”

[Editor’s note: Nosrat said about her “daytime” veganism, “I really don’t want to, but I feel like it’s something I have to do, and I feel like it’s what I need to, not necessarily bully other people into doing, but at least model for people.”]

We have to eat less meat. There’s no two ways around that unless we just decide to give up on climate change.

A big part of this book centers on your own family’s history with the Holocaust. As a father who is also extremely conscious of his cultural patrimony, have there been times in your parenting where you had to weigh meat-eating against passing on cultural values?

Meat-eating isn’t a value. I just don’t think that at the core of that value is the food itself. I think there may be certain very evocative dishes or smells or flavors. My guess is not all, but most, can be negotiated or replaced.

My grandmother, for example, just made vegetarian matzo ball soup. She, of course, always made it with the chicken stock before, and then she learned to make it vegetarian. Was Jewish culture undermined? Are my kids going to feel less Jewish because they’re eating a modified version of a food? No.

Again, I don’t mean to understate the challenges here or the ways in which food, not even just culture, can be embedded with memory. When I see chicken, I often think about my grandma because when I was a kid she made chicken for us every single time we went to her house. When I see salmon, I think of when my mom would get lox on special weekends for us to eat with bagels.

Those are really happy, good memories that are impossible to let go of, and they’re hard to move away from in my own habits. I still find [certain foods] incredibly pleasurable, and I think that there are ways of maintaining a lot of the traditions—just modifying them in the same way that everything about being Jewish has been maintained and has survived with modification.

We don’t live in Eastern Europe anymore. We don’t wear the kind of clothes we used to wear. Lord knows we don’t sacrifice animals anymore. Many of the Jewish laws aren’t applicable in contemporary American culture. We now have women who are rabbis, despite the fact that for thousands of years only men were. Jews marry gay people—a massive modification made in response to the ways we want the world to change. We can take the things that we value and love about our traditions and bring them into the world as it needs to be.

What do you put on your Seder plate instead of the lamb shank on Passover?

I actually don’t make a Seder plate. My mom and my brother host the two Seders and if I’m not mistaken, they put a beet root or something, but it hardly matters. They are symbols, you know? And the importance of a symbol is the story that it’s telling.

There’s a temptation and a danger in understating how tricky this could be. But there’s also a danger to overstate how tricky it can be, especially in the context of what we’re facing. How tricky is it not to eat meat at lunch compared to having to move to a different city? Or compared to having to endure 500-year superstorms every year? Or compared to heat waves that killed 70,000 people in Europe, having those every year? There is no future in which we don’t change.

The Amazon fires, which are ongoing, are the starkest example to me of a climate change catastrophe that’s happening because of our addiction to meat. And yet that aspect is never mentioned, or is only very obliquely mentioned. What was your reaction to the Amazon fires?

Yeah, so 91 percent of the Amazon deforestation is for animal agriculture. The number globally for deforestation is 80 percent. For the Amazon, it’s 91 percent. They’re creating land for the livestock to graze or creating land to grow crops for the livestock to eat.

It is impossible to imagine a worldwide boycott of beef. But if you could imagine that, we would protect the Amazon forever. That would be it. The job would be over.

There’s been a lot of misplaced anger at [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro, who is perfectly deserving of anger. But we’re forgetting that all of this is being done for us. It’s being done because we asked for it, and we underwrite it with our money. It’s actually among the clearest, most straightforward cause-and-effect cases of our diets causing destruction.

There’s nothing more powerful than withdrawing money from these destructive industries. I met so many farmers when I was writing Eating Animals who said, “I grow what people want to eat, I don’t grow what I want to feed them. I grow what people want to eat.” And corporations sell what people buy.

We need governmental help to regulate farms and corporations. We also need governmental help to nudge us to make environmentally conscious decisions. But the government needs our help too. We’ll create a cycle of regulation that encourages better behavior and better behavior that encourages regulation.

In an ideal world, what are some other ways the government can help enable consumer choice towards greater plant-based eating?

I think the best thing that we could possibly do is simply require meat to cost what it actually costs. The price is heavily subsidized for the factory farm industry, mostly to corn and grain, but also through not requiring any environmental regulation. There have been studies that have tried to quantify what a hamburger would cost if it cost what it actually costs without all the externalities. I’ve seen everything from $18 to almost $100.

Wow.

So obviously that’s not going to happen.

But at the very least we can level the playing field, so that it’s not the cheapest thing or among the cheapest things that are available, but becomes more of a delicacy. Historically, meat has always been a delicacy. It didn’t take up the majority of the plate. That was usually the vegetables or grains or rice or beans. And then there would be some meat, almost like a garnish, as a special thing, and people would have their special meat meal on Friday night or on Saturday nights. So it would be a wonderful thing if the price of meat at least approached the actual cost of meat.