Lively conversations over a virtual cuppa

Can we change the way we eat?

An illustration of Chad Lavin and Debra Street in coffee foam.

Chad Lavin (left) and Debra Street. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81


In 2015, the UN recommended that as many people as possible switch to a vegan diet in order to slow down climate change. We asked Debra Street, professor of sociology, and Chad Lavin, associate professor of English and author of “Eating Anxiety: The Perils of Food Politics,” to discuss the implications and challenges of altering people’s dietary habits on a broad scale for the greater good.

Debra Street: There’s an overlap between issues of climate change, food sufficiency and food security. There’s already enough food in the world to feed everyone; it’s just badly distributed. And a high-meat diet, which is what we have in North America, Europe and increasingly in wealthy Asian countries, doubtless contributes to global climate change. Different types of meat-eating contribute more or less, with beef at the top of the list. That said, human beings are omnivores. Even though we ate a mostly vegetarian diet when we were hunting and gathering, we aren’t there anymore.

Chad Lavin: It seems to me that it’s a fairly recent development that these sorts of decisions would be allocated to consumers. A generation ago, the federal government decided that people should not be using lead paint, and they said, “We won’t support the sale of lead paint anymore. It will be illegal to use it.” Of course you can imagine some pretty remarkable political fallout if the federal government were to make beef illegal. But the fact that the response to an issue like global climate change falls on individual consumers making wise choices rather than on an authoritative restriction on certain kinds of habits…

DS: We can’t even get our legislative bodies to agree that we should have food that is labeled accurately, never mind pronounce that we will from this time forward eat a vegan diet. And then what kind of vegetables does one eat? Genetically modified organisms? Part of the green revolution was modifying seed crops in ways that could feed more people more efficiently by doubling up on crops each year, or increasing crop yields, or using smaller amounts of pesticides, herbicides or water. And so we have large multinational conglomerations creating seed that they then own the patent for, and creating large monocultures of plants that could be as harmful to the planet, over time, as meat-eating.

CL: Absolutely. The question of genetically modified organisms is extremely complicated, because it raises environmental questions, and questions of intellectual property and access to resources. People talk about “What is the most efficient crop?” but you can’t necessarily detangle the question of an efficient crop from who benefits from the use of a particular crop. And so people talk about being scared of GMOs for environmental reasons, or for political or economic reasons, but those reasons don’t really work in tandem.

DS: Also, food is such an intrinsic part of everyday life; it communicates to other people about our belief systems and cultures in ways that mirror language. It carries that much meaning—what we eat, who we eat it with. So I think trying to change food choice on a massive, global scale in ways that ignore the realities of cultural difference, never mind political and economic circumstances, would be very challenging.

CL: It is promising that so much discourse about food choice is now leaning toward social expressions of concern about environmental welfare and universal access to food. People go to farmers markets and spend more for local produce because it affirms their commitment to an environmental or social justice program. People are linking their diets up with political movements, and that’s a good thing.

DS: Yeah, I think there’s hope there.

CL: But again, to me, implementing a vegan lifestyle on a mass scale seems impossible to do without pretty aggressive federal action. You can’t serve vegan lunches in school every day without running afoul of the USDA in some way. I have a child who goes to public school and there’s meat in every meal because that’s the cheapest and most efficient way to get the requisite amount of protein into a child’s body, or into a few million children’s bodies, every day.

DS: I think it’s politically impossible. We know from social history that when people’s diets have changed dramatically, it’s always been in response to a crisis. A drought, a famine, a war. That’s when people change their usual food ways on a large scale. Individually, we can exhort people, we can educate people, we can provide the science, but like so many things in consumer culture, even when we know it’s not good, we’re not going to stop because we see people around us doing it. The thinking is, “Why should I go without my ribeye steak? My friends are still eating steak.” So leaving it to individuals makes it impossible. Leaving it to government, especially our government, which has invested heavily in subsidizing the kinds of foods that most climate scientists think are part of the problem … I just don’t see how that would happen.

How do you take your coffee?

Jody K. Biehl and Michael Stefanone.

Debra: Large latte, one sugar.

Chad: Black in the morning. With cream and sugar if it’s dessert.