Rainforest Beef, Factory Farms and Anthony Bourdain’s War on Vegetarians

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has never made a secret of his disdain for vegetarians and vegans. In his best-selling book Kitchen Confidential the former New York cook remarked somewhat amusingly, “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.” After his book became a hit, Bourdain moved into television and currently hosts No Reservations, a rather unusual and unorthodox travel show which examines far-flung cultures and exotic cuisines of the world.

Over the course of his career, Bourdain has cultivated a cool, bad-ass image and during his program he sports a black leather jacket. On one of his shows shot in San Francisco, he made a point of taking on political correctness by heading to an old steak house and feasting on prime rib. “To me,” he has written, “life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”

A few days ago Bourdain took his relentless campaign against vegetarians and vegans to new heights on CNN. Speaking on Larry King Live, the TV personality remarked that we were designed by evolution to eat meat. “We have eyes in the front of our head. We have fingernails. We have … teeth and long legs. We were designed from the get-go … so that we could chase down smaller, stupider creatures, kill them and eat them,” he said.

The conversation focused on contaminated burgers that had sickened, paralyzed and even killed some people who had eaten them. Bourdain conceded that factory farms and large meat processors had developed “unconscionable” practices which “bordered on the criminal.” Expressing concern about chopped meat, Bourdain said “The stuff they’re putting in these burgers would not be recognized by any American as meat.”

Still, the popular Travel Channel personality could not bring himself to turn against a carnivorous lifestyle. “I think certainly we could eat better in this country,” he remarked. “It would probably not be a bad thing if we ate less meat, if the ratio of animal protein to vegetables changed along the lines of the Chinese model. But to talk about eradicating meat is silly.”

At this point another panelist on King’s show, Jonathan Foer, rightly took Bourdain to task. Foer, a best-selling writer and author of the upcoming book Eating Animals, declared “What Anthony didn’t say, and I wish he had, is that 99 percent — upwards of 99 percent of the animals that are raised for meat in this country come from factory farms.” Foer added, “When we’re talking about meat, when we’re talking about the meat they sell in grocery stores, when we’re talking about the meat we order in restaurants, we are effectively talking about factory farms. I think it’s a wonderful thing for someone with a reputation and as much intelligence as Anthony has to come out against factory farms. The crucial part of the picture is to say to America, this is almost everything.”

Foer is right about how enmeshed Americans have become in the factory farm system. Yet, the discussion on Larry King about meat and its downsides did not go far enough. Today, meat production is putting our planet in peril and hastening global climate change. It’s an issue which has been ignored by the likes of CNN but one which I deal with at considerable length in my upcoming book, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2010).
Here’s the problem which Bourdain and other blissful carnivores choose to ignore: the world-wide cattle industry is linked to destructive deforestation and our climate destiny. Worryingly, deforestation is currently the second largest driver of carbon dioxide emissions after the burning of fossil fuels. To put it in concrete terms, tropical deforestation accounts for a whopping 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Amazon rainforest is of particular concern and accounts for nearly half of the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from tropical deforestation.

In the Amazon the cattle sector is the largest driver of rainforest destruction, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of deforestation. To put it in concrete terms: every eighteen seconds on average one hectare of Amazon rainforest is being lost to cattle ranchers. As if the carbon emissions resulting from cattle deforestation were not enough, consider bovine methane emissions (or cow farts, if you want to be less delicate). While much of the debate surrounding global warming has centered upon carbon dioxide–the world’s most abundant greenhouse gas–methane, which has twenty-one times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, is seldom mentioned.

In Brazil, rainforest cattle has accounted for much of the country’s domestic demand in recent years. But now, the cattle and climate dilemma is becoming internationalized as the South American giant moves into the global marketplace. So far Brazil has exported most of its beef to Europe, though the country’s meat may have qualities that some markets view as favorable. Indeed Amazonian cattle are certainly free range, grass fed, and possibly organic, depending on your definition of the term. Ever wonder where that hamburger you just ate came from? There’s a chance it might contain meat from the Amazon rainforest.

In light of our climate difficulties, we’re going to have to reconsider our dietary choices. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization finds that meat production gives rise to more greenhouse gases than either transportation or industry. Furthermore, beef is the most carbon-intensive form of meat production. Consider: a one-pound patty results in about 36 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, or thirteen times the emissions from chicken.

But wait, there’s more: in order to feed the world’s rapacious demand for meat, Brazil has turned large tracts of land over to soy production. Soy has long been popular among vegetarians but it is now prized as a quick, cheap, and safe animal feed for poultry, pigs, and cattle. The Chinese and Europeans have become voracious consumers of Brazilian soy, catapulting the South American nation to agribusiness giant status. In China soy imports have increased exponentially, in large part because of growing affluence and a shift in the local diet. For many Chinese, consuming meat and dairy products symbolizes wealth, status, modernity, and escape from rough rural life.

Though the average American eats more than 250 pounds of meat ever year, the Chinese are now catching up and currently consume 115 pounds. Per capita consumption of pork in China has meanwhile almost doubled. Though China produces a lot of soy on its own, it is now the world’s largest importer of soy to feed its growing livestock sector. In Europe meanwhile, demand for soy has skyrocketed.

Though the soy planters cut down some forest, their influence is often more indirect. Once ranchers have cleared land in the Amazon the soy planters buy up property and move in. But as they take up cleared land, savanna, and transitional forests, the soy magnates push others such as slash-and-burn farmers even further into the forest. Soy then acts as a significant push factor and catalyst of climate change. The farmers who get pushed into the rainforest by agribusiness quickly find that Amazonian soils are notoriously low in fertility. After several harvests crop yields start to disappoint and eventually farmers abandon the land altogether or convert it to cattle pasture. In addition to pushing ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers into the forest, soy magnates exert pressure on the Amazon in other ways. For example, they lobby for highways and infrastructure projects which pave the way for yet more deforestation.

In Brazil, it is large international companies which are fueling the soy bonanza — companies like Minnesota – based Cargill. It’s a fact which apparently eludes Bourdain: speaking on CNN he remarked that it would be “ridiculous” and “silly” to replace Cargill, a huge corporation, with a food system based on fruits and vegetables. Bourdain has apparently failed to consider the nefarious social and environmental costs associated with corporate agribusiness. Perhaps he should talk to poor farmers in Brazil who have been displaced by soy production and must head to the rainforest to practice subsistence agriculture — all in the name of fueling agribusiness exports and expanding the global meat-eating lifestyle.

It’s perplexing how Bourdain, whose show is easily one of the most lively and intelligent on TV, has become such an impassioned foe of “silly” vegetarians and their “Hezbollah-like” vegan cousins. Considering all the disadvantages, perhaps one of the best things anyone can do to tackle climate change is to have one meat-free day a week and gradually decrease meat intake thereafter. It’s not enough, however, to simply transition toward a vegetarian diet which includes lots of milk, butter, and cheese–this probably won’t reduce emissions significantly as dairy cows would still release methane through flatulence. While it may sound a bit naive to think that people will change their eating habits any time soon, such a move is certainly much less complicated than getting people to switch their mode of transport.

Tony Bourdain has a cool show though his overall coolness is rapidly wearing thin. Maybe he should channel his constructive energy into lambasting corporate cattle ranching and agribusiness as opposed to vegetarians and vegans. The host of No Reservations has a great appreciation for traditional cultures and local folk. Why not air a program about how soy and our unsustainable consumerist lifestyle are displacing poor people while simultaneously fueling deforestation and climate change? Now THAT would be a show worth tuning in for.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the forthcoming No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his blog at http://senorchichero.blogspot.com/

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.