Rev. Josh Pawelek
This sermon is about food and diet. That’s not exactly a trigger warning, but the 15 people who purchased this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction and asked me to preach on the rationale for veganism—or plant-based diets—probably should have warned me. I’ve never encountered more anticipation and anxiety about a sermon. I’ve never received as many suggestions for reading from people within and beyond this congregation who have strong opinions about veganism (for and against), vegetarianism, what comprises a truly healthy diet, eating disorders, body chemistry, blood type, DNA, what hunter-gatherers supposedly ate, Big Agriculture, Big Manure, the meat and dairy industries, factory farming, food processing, sugar, salt, racism, classism, poverty, hunger, food deserts, land rights, water rights, water scarcity, animal rights, animal cruelty, species extinction, antibiotics, declining biodiversity, ocean dead zones, environmental justice, climate change, global warming, Oprah and church pot lucks! I’ve also never received as many recipes or invitations to lunch in advance of a sermon. This topic doesn’t just touch a nerve. It is explosive.
I intend to make a case for plant-based diets—that is my assignment. However, I’m not asking anyone to change their diet. There’s no hard sell. Changing diet is one of the hardest things we do. It may lead to health or compromise health. It may bring feelings of confidence and self-worth or guilt and shame. It is not just a physical experience, but a deeply emotional and spiritual experience. My hope for this sermon is that those of you who currently eat meat but who would like to explore a vegan or vegetarian diet will be inspired to join together and support each other in that exploration.
In a worship service last January I spoke about deforestation as a major driver of climate change—right up there with burning fossil fuels. However, earlier that weekend, a group of you had watched the documentary Cowspiracy, which argues that the leading driver of climate change is not the fossil fuel industry, but animal agriculture. When you consider the level of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere by the approximately 70 billion animals on the planet whose only purpose is to be eaten—or for their eggs and milk products to be eaten—by human beings—it far outweighs emissions from fossil fuels. When I mentioned fossil fuels last January, a number of people spoke up, saying animal agriculture is a bigger problem. People don’t cut down rainforests to drill for oil. They do it largely, though not exclusively, for animal agriculture. More than 90% of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is for animal agriculture.
This sounds strange because the global story about climate change focuses on fossil fuels. We ‘get it’ that the gas in our cars is problematic. We ‘get it’ that burning coal, oil and gas for energy is problematic. But we don’t look at steak, pork, chicken, eggs or cheese on our plate and think “global warming.” Cowspiracy argues that despite evidence animal agriculture is the largest greenhouse gas emitter, the public, including major environmental organizations, is oblivious.
The amount of data on this topic is mind-boggling. I’ll include in my online text a graphic from Cowspiracy which provides statistics and links to 25 articles from sources like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Bank, that reveal the negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture. But simple comparisons are often more helpful than plowing through journal articles. According to John Robbins, author of The Food Revolution, if every meat eater in the United States swapped just one meal of chicken per week for a vegetarian meal, the carbon savings would be equivalent to taking half a million cars off the road.
But emissions are only the beginning of understanding the threats animal agriculture poses. Many of you know that certain regions of the planet lack clean water; and in other regions, including in the US, clean water is becoming increasingly scarce. Animal agriculture, because it requires enormous quantities of water to keep 70 billion animals fed and hydrated, is a major driver of water scarcity. According to Robbins, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association claims that producing one pound of California beef requires 441 gallons of water. To me, that sounds outrageous. But evidently that number is low. According to the Water Education foundation, it takes 2,464 gallons of water to produce a pound of California beef. And according to soil and water specialists at the University of California Extension, it actually takes 5,214 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Chicken and pork production use water more efficiently. It only takes 815 gallons to produce a pound of chicken, and 1,630 gallons for a pound of pork. California is very dry, so producing meat there requires more irrigation than in areas of the country with higher rainfall. Comparisons are helpful. Robbins calculates that if you take a seven minute shower every day for an entire year, you would use 5,200 gallons of water. Which means, using the Water Education Foundation’s more conservative number, you save the same amount of water by not eating a pound of California beef as you do by not showering for six months. Comparisons are helpful. It takes 23 gallons of water to produce a pound of lettuce or tomatoes, 24 gallons for potatoes, 25 gallons for wheat, 33 gallons for carrots, and 49 gallons for apples. Reducing or eliminating meat from our diet would radically reduce the pressure on global water resources.
Then there’s the question of land. Not only does it take enormous amounts of land to farm 70 billion food animals, but where does their food come from? In a very passionate 2012 speech, the Australian philanthropist, former Citibank executive and vegan, Philip Wollen, said: “If everyone ate a Western diet, we would need two Planet Earths to feed them. We only have one. And she is dying…. Poor countries sell their grain to the West while their own children starve in their arms. And we feed it to livestock. So we can eat a steak? Am I the only one who sees this as a crime? Every morsel of meat we eat is slapping the tear-stained face of a starving child. When I look into her eyes, should I be silent? The earth can produce enough for everyone’s need. But not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Large segments of Earth’s arable land are used to produce food for animal consumption, and then we eat the animals. It’s a two-tiered structure. But consider the data that show 1.5 acres of arable land can produce on average 37,000 pounds of plant-based food but only 375 pounds of meat. An obvious conclusion emerges: if humanity stopped eating animals on a mass scale, it would no longer require as much land to produce food, and it could easily produce enough food to end hunger on the planet, not to mention reclaim carbon-trapping forests.
And this is still only the beginning. There are problems with the storage of animal waste, waste spills more damaging than the worst oil spills in history, fertilizer run-off, ocean dead zones, over-use of antibiotics. Animal agriculture does immense harm to the environment. I cannot help concluding there is no sustainable meat-based diet for human populations. This is not to say that meat production can’t continue on a small scale, especially in regions that are inhospitable to plant-based farming. But given the data, it is unsustainable for a large-scale human consumption of meat to continue. Planet Earth will not survive it. Some argue that if they just keep a few chickens or a goat for milk, surely that would be sustainable. Yes, for individuals it would be. But if every family on the planet had a few chickens and a goat—mindful that billions couldn’t afford it—that’s still 20 to 30 billion animals, still unsustainable. Our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle is “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” Given this principle, as one who eats meat, it’s difficult to learn of the degradation animal agriculture causes and not begin to wonder how I can, in the very least, reduce the amount of meat in my diet.
Some people are moved less by the environmental arguments and more by the many studies that show plant-based diets are more healthy for the average person. I commend to you John Robbins’ The Food Revolution for his discussion of how plant-based diets correlate with positive health outcomes while animal-based diets correlate with negative outcomes. This is familiar to many of you: consumption of meat correlates with higher rates of heart disease, obesity and cancer, while no such correlation exists for fruits and vegetables. Having said that, Robbins doesn’t address the negative health outcomes from consumption of sugar and highly processed foods. There are competing studies that show low to moderate consumption of meat has little or no long-term health impact when compared to consumption of high amounts of sugar and highly processed foods. Robbins’ also doesn’t account for people who simply cannot maintain health without some consumption of meat, eggs, milk or cheese. I know people who’ve tried desperately to become vegan but simply cannot stay healthy without some animal protein and fat in their diet. That’s real for some in this room.
Robbins’ also doesn’t account for the reality that it can still be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to eat a healthy diet. So many people live in so-called food deserts—often low income, urban areas where there are no supermarkets or farmers markets to offer fresh food at affordable prices. This is changing slowly. I name it to remind us that often it isn’t possible to change one’s diet, even if one wants to. That is true for some in this room too.
A final argument: animal cruelty. César Chávez, co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association, once said: “Kindness and compassion towards all living beings is a mark of a civilized society. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting and rodeos are all cut from the same defective fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves.” Animal cruelty in factory farming is widely documented. For me, it speaks less to our seventh UU principle than it does to our first. Except, as currently worded, our first principle isn’t adequate. For years I’ve heard Unitarian Universalists call for changing that language from “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” to “every creature.” Many do look at the cruelty of factory farming and say, “I don’t want to eat meat because I don’t want to support that.” But I think there’s a more fundamental question that applies even if every food animal’s life were free from suffering and their death free from pain. To eat animal meat we must take a life. Maybe that is an unavoidable law of Nature, just the way the food chain works. But if we claim a principle of respect for inherent worth and dignity, a principle that, for some, implies ‘do no harm,’ do we have the moral right to take an animal’s life for food, especially when there are alternatives that are more healthy for most people and clearly more sustainable for the planet?
I don’t have a definitive answer. Though I will say that while for me this question is more gray than black-and-white, my heart says no, we don’t have that right. Our culture makes it far too easy to ignore this question altogether. If nothing else, let’s at least be willing to wrestle with this question and the others I’m raising this morning.
One of the ways I’ve chosen to wrestle is to attempt to cut meat out of my diet. In our family we prepare or purchase approximately four meals a week with meat in them. Those meals, plus left-overs, means that about 1/3 of my meals have meat in them.
I became a vegetarian on Labor Day. By Thursday of that week I was hungry. I was eating, but I had gnawing hunger. I fried up a few eggs that morning, but it didn’t help. By noon I feeling weak and dizzy. So, I broke down and ate a 6” turkey sub from Subway. The following week I started again. This time I lasted longer. By Friday I was feeling wonky again. On Saturday, I felt so physically bad that I went to Subway for a 6” turkey sub. I felt better.
Apparently I couldn’t go cold turkey without a little cold turkey. I realized I needed to wean myself off of meat. So the next week, I set out to eat a vegetarian diet with a plan to have a meat-based meal late in the week. That worked very well for a few weeks. Then I went to New Orleans. I had to eat a few meals with shrimp and a few with sausage. Actually, I probably ate more meat in New Orleans than I would normally eat on my old diet. But guess what happened: I started not wanting it. On my fourth day in New Orleans, I switched back to vegetarian.
In a matter of six weeks I have reduced my meat consumption from approximately seven meals to three or four meals per week. And on many of those days I’ve cut out cheese, milk and eggs as well. I’m learning. And I recognize I need to try it for a much longer period of time before I know for sure what the impact is on me. But I am committed to weaning myself completely off meat. I’m going to take it slowly, but I am going to do it. And once I’ve succeeded, I will maintain that commitment for a few months before making any decisions about whether or not it is truly right and healthy for me, and whether or not I can move on to weaning myself off of milk, eggs and cheese.
This is personal. But I’ll end with this: We need to balance “what is right for me” with “what is right for the planet and future generations.” Although animal meat will likely never disappear from some regions of the world and from some peoples’ diets, I am convinced there is no meat-based diet that is sustainable for the mass of humanity. And for that reason, I am attempting to change my diet. For that reason, I invite those of you who eat meat to consider how you might reduce your consumption of meat. And I invite all of us, together, to continue this conversation with these two questions in mind: what food system is most consistent with our UU principles? What is best for the planet?
Amen and blessed be.
 Robbins, John, The Food Revolution (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2010, second edition) p. xxix.
 Robbins, John, The Food Revolution, pp. 235-237.
 Robbins, John, The Food Revolution, p. 237.
 Free From Harm staff writers, “Philip Wollen, Australian Philanthropist, Former VP of Citibank, Makes Blazing Animal Rights Speech,” June 24th, 2012. See: http://freefromharm.org/videos/educational-inspiring-talks/philip-wollen-australian-philanthropist-former-vp-of-citibank-makes-blazing-animal-rights-speech/.
 Lauren, Jessika, “Human Rights, Animal Rights, and Nonviolence: César Chávez’s Lasting Legacy,” 2013. Visit Peta Latino at http://www.petalatino.com/en/blog/human-rights-animal-rights-nonviolence-cesar-chavez/.