Richard Oppenlander: The Myth of Moderation
The author of Comfortably Unaware and Food Choice and Sustainability on why eating humane and local isn’t enough, and why there’s no such thing as a “sustainable” meat.
Richard Oppenlander is passionate about what people eat. Trained as a dentist, he became an early advocate for plant-based diets; he opened several vegan restaurants in 1999 and now supplies hospitals, universities, and retail outlets with a line of ready-made organic vegan snacks. He regularly lectures on eating habits that affect human health and the health of our planet.
Oppenlander lives in Lawton, Michigan, where he and his wife transformed 150 acres from a commercial farm into an animal sanctuary. They raised their three children on a meat-free diet and are advocates for animal rights. In 2012, Oppenlander published his first book, Comfortably Unaware, which starkly reveals the ecological cost of eating meat. His newest title, Food Choice and Sustainability, explores the topic in greater depth.
What inspired you on this path?
I lectured for a number of years about the nutritional aspects of plant-based diets while studying the environmental aspects. I thought somebody would take over and bring the reality of our food choices to public attention, but it never happened. In fact, it went the other direction. I saw informative media outlets and popular people such Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman say, “It’s fine to go eat animals; just do a little less of it and change it up a little bit,” when really it’s not.
I appreciate and respect that every human has the right and the privilege to move along at their own pace toward something that might be healthy for themselves. But when you’re talking about the environment, we need to look outside of self. It’s not sustainable to have 7.3 billion people move at their own pace. It’s not just me saying this; lots of organizations say that we have not much more than 50 years remaining as a species because of topsoil loss, freshwater depletion, and other aspects of global depletion.
You maintain that eating animals is the single largest factor of global depletion and climate change.
Climate change is part of global depletion, but so is freshwater scarcity, overgrazing, land-use inefficiencies, ill health of our oceans and ravaged sea life, food security, and rapid loss of biodiversity. The common thread that weaves throughout all of this is food choice—specifically, animal agriculture.
The reason animal agriculture is the common thread is because of its inefficiencies. Livestock use 45 percent of the landmass on Earth and 29 percent of all freshwater consumed. It requires so many more resources to produce any type of animal product than it would to produce a plant-based product. That’s the key; it’s tremendously inefficient to produce and is less healthy for us to eat. When you look at it in those simplistic terms, it absolutely makes no sense at all.
You’ve described a disparity between the publicity that animal-based products and plant-based foods receive. What do you think drives this difference?
Our primary organizations that assist us with preservation and conservation policies and advocacy—the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation, for example—not one of them has made the connection between animal agriculture and the environment. It’s just a topic they don’t want to address. On their websites they attack palm oil or fracking. Those are serious issues, but they are literally a fraction of the concern of animal agriculture. Over the past 25 years, there’s been 50 to 100 times more deforestation due to livestock than to palm oil. If you’re concerned about palm oil, that’s great. Be concerned about it. But be 50 to 100 times more concerned about livestock.
In your second book, Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won’t Work, you claim that other food movements are missing the point. How?
First, it’s not a factory farm issue. It’s a raising-animals-to-eat issue. There’s a great movement to make the public aware of factory farms and to diminish them. But our sustainability issue is not a factory farm issue. In fact, factory farms in many ways are more efficient than pasture-driven and grazing systems.
Second, we can’t just be talking about beef. The inefficiencies are still there with chickens, pigs, and certainly fish. We also can’t allow aquaculture to slip under the table. These systems all have massive electricity problems and feed input problems.
When you look at the “local” or “real” or “humane” food movements, those are all adulterated terms if animal agriculture is included.
One criticism that’s been lobbed at your new book is that it paints in too broad brush strokes; it doesn’t take regional differences into account.
There are regional differences. But the intent of my book is to state that, on a global basis, animal agriculture is unsustainable. Reputable researchers have stated that our topsoil will be lost in 60 years, and the principle reason is due to livestock. We’re facing deforestation, desertification, and erosion—due to livestock. The United Nations has predicted that our food production will need to double by 2050. We’re already running out of food and water. Seventy-seven percent of all coarse grain produced in the world today is given to livestock. Our oceans are being depleted. By 2048, it’s projected that all commercially known fish will be extinct; there will be less than one percent of them remaining. These are the various timelines we’re facing. On a global basis, any type of animal agriculture is not sustainable.
The word “sustainable” needs to be defined more accurately. If we’re doing something that’s “unsustainable” regarding our environment, that means we, as a species, may not survive. What things can we do today that will ensure our existence and that of future generations? Food choice has to be positioned at the top. We’re all capable of taking the right steps. It’s time that we start taking responsibility for our planet—because ultimately, it won’t matter how healthy we are if our planet is not healthy.