Food for Thought: What’s on Your Plate Matters to the Planet

At a U.S. Embassy New Delhi-sponsored session at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival author Jonathan Safran Foer and journalist Jeffrey Gettleman discussed how daily actions can make an impact in the efforts to combat climate change.

May 2021

Food for Thought: What’s on Your Plate Matters to the Planet

Books have a way of bringing people together—even from the other side of the world.

The North India Office (NIO) of U.S. Embassy New Delhi recently supported a session on climate change at the virtual Jaipur Literature Festival 2021. Organized by Teamwork Arts Pvt. Ltd, the festival has featured nearly 2,000 speakers over the past decade, including Oprah Winfrey, Paul Beatty and Amartya Sen, and hosted more than a million fans of literature from India and throughout the world.

NIO supports the many linkages between U.S. and Indian people, including in the realm of arts and culture in North India, by sponsoring events at the festival. This year, in addition to the session on climate change, NIO sponsored a series of short videos on “Raising Women’s Voices in Business,” as well as a special screening of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” The screening of the film by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore further emphasized the U.S. government’s support to addressing climate change.

During the embassy-sponsored session on February 28, American author Jonathan Safran Foer and Jeffrey Gettleman, South Asia bureau chief for The New York Times, delved into Foer’s 2019 book “We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.” Foer and Gettleman discussed how daily actions accumulate and can make an impact over time in the efforts to combat climate change.

U.S. Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs (MCCA) Donald L. Heflin said that by sponsoring this session, the U.S. Embassy hoped “to highlight the United States’ commitment to combating climate change.”

“There is much to be done in India, in the United States and around the world,” the MCCA added. “I am confident that the United States and India will rise to this challenge as the world’s two largest democracies and the world’s first- and fifth-largest economies. But there’s also responsibility for individuals to do our part. Author Jonathan Safran Foer focuses on this very aspect.”

Excerpts from the conversation between Foer and Gettleman.

Tell us what the book is about and why you wrote it.

Stories are always born out of a problem. That’s been my experience, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. With fiction, I don’t exactly know what the problem is. I can’t easily articulate it. [It’s just that] something is sitting uneasily inside of me or something is unresolved. Fiction is an effort not to solve any problem, but maybe to give it words, to share it. Nonfiction, for me, has been about problems that I can name. I know at the beginning of the book what it is that’s eating away at me.

“Eating Animals” was the first nonfiction book I wrote and that was in response to something that had been a problem for me since I was a kid. It’s one of the oldest problems in my life, which is, how do I feel about eating meat?

“We Are the Weather” was also born out of a problem which I could articulate. Which was, how is an individual to live in this moment of climate crisis? I knew what the science was, because everybody knows what the science is, at this point. I knew what the rhetoric was. I knew what kinds of posters to make for what kinds of marches that I should attend. But on the level of daily life, and the choices that I would make for myself and my family—I didn’t exactly know, or at the very least, I was aware that I wasn’t doing a whole lot. That was a problem I found quite easy to ignore most of the time, but it was there in the background. There was a little window, about two or three years ago, when it was at the forefront of the news. And, I think, it brought my internal crisis to a head.

I’m lucky to be a writer because I am able to set aside time and space to think things through. So, I decided to set aside some time and space to the question of how to live as an individual in this moment of climate crisis.

One thing I found especially interesting was your idea that if a problem is so big, it’s almost unbelievably bad. If it’s so big and horrible, we can’t wrap our heads around it, that it paralyzes us into inaction. Tell us a little bit more about that and how we can overcome that.

Climate change is in no way unique, in being something we can know but not exactly believe. I could probably think of 10 things in the course of the day I’m about to have that will fit into that category. The most obvious one is that we’re all going to die. It’s something that we all know but we find ways not to think about. Maybe even to the extent that we stop believing that it’s going to happen.

There is a very broad consensus that human-caused climate change is happening. But even knowing what we know, I think most of us, and I include myself, often find it hard to believe.

How can we overcome that? It’s so big, it’s so bad, it’s so dire.

Well, it’s not clear that we can. It’s a huge impediment to action. It’s interesting actually to compare Covid. Why it is that we had the response that we did to Covid, why it was that individuals were willing, by and large, to quarantine. Why individuals were willing, by and large, to wear masks, to wash their hands regularly. Why it is that cities were willing to shut down their economies, that the country was willing to shut down the economy, to radically change policies of who can travel, where and when, what kind of businesses can operate.

I think it’s because we were afraid and not afraid in an abstract way and not afraid for other people and not afraid for those living in the future but afraid actively afraid fearing for our own well-being.

There are people right now who are suffering and who are dying because of climate change. But, by and large, they aren’t the perpetrators of climate change. They aren’t the people who are living in the countries that are most responsible for what we’re now facing.

So how do we persuade people or persuade leaders in those countries who are not themselves afraid of the effects of climate change to act? That is the challenge in front of us.

In my book, I look at it not so much in terms of legislated change and systemic change, which is necessary. I look at it though from the lens of the perspective of individual change which is also necessary and how can we, as individuals, overcome our own psychologies to do the things that are necessary and my feeling is it has to do with norms and routines.

If I were to ask you, if you go into a store and you see something that you like, how do you persuade yourself not to steal it? Do you have to have a memory of the social contract you have to have a strong feeling about the shopkeeper and why you wouldn’t want to take money from his or her pocket? My guess is you would say, I actually don’t really have any kind of internal debate at all. I just don’t steal because I don’t steal. That’s who I am.

So, we need to somehow find a way to turn ourselves into people who just don’t steal from the planet or don’t steal from the future. And I think the best way to do it is to take the burden off of the need to have some kind of strong thought or feeling and instead just shape our habits.

In the book I write about food and eating in particular, which we know is the most important choice that we make as individuals vis-à-vis the environment. If we can set up some sort of regimen for ourselves, like a set of habits that we don’t really think about, we just do them because that’s who we are and that’s what we do.That is far easier and far more likely to succeed than this like everlasting debate with ourselves.

I want to talk about the food issue because that’s a huge part of what you’re interested in, what this book is about and what your previous book is about. You talk about the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent that is necessary to produce servings of different foods. Beef is 6.61, cheese is 2.45, pork is 1.72. It goes through the different types of food we eat—eggs, milk, and as you get into vegetables, the amount of carbon dioxide necessary to produce a serving of vegetables is very low. Carrots is 0.07. That’s almost a hundredth of what it is for beef. But you yourself struggle with following this perfectly. You yourself struggle with just eliminating meat because it’s part of our habits.

Now I’ll ask you this question that you pose in your book. How could you argue for radical change, how could you raise your children as vegetarians while eating meat for comfort?

Whatever your position on meat is, everybody recognizes that we’re talking about something pretty serious. It happens every now and then that I would give a reading on the subject and somebody will stand up and say, who do you think you are, telling anybody else not to eat meat? This is what my parents ate, my grandparents ate and it’s healthy food. And the way I always respond is, we obviously agree that this is important. If I had been giving a talk about why we should drink carbonated water instead of still water nobody would stand up and get upset. People get upset because they instinctively know that the stakes are high. So, I think a good starting point is, this matters and it matters in a way that makes us vulnerable. That often makes us feel aggressive or defensive.

If you were to ask me what are the odds that half of Americans will be vegetarian in 10 years, I would say zero. What are the odds that half of the meals eaten in America will be vegetarian in 10 years, I believe that will be the case. So if we’re looking at it from the perspective of identity, those are very very different things. If we’re looking at it from the perspective of outcomes, reducing the amount of destruction and reducing the amount of violence, then they’re identical. But we’re so used to only being able to think about this in terms of identity, the perfection of your own identity, that’s why we have so many and such convoluted names for how one eats. You’re a vegan, you’re a vegetarian, you’re pescatarian, you’re a flexitarian, you’re a reducetarian. I used to think about it in those ways as well. I think because I was vulnerable and because it feels good to claim an identity. But we have to be very careful about those good and bad feelings leading us away from the outcomes that we actually want.

If, instead, our conversation had a little bit more flexibility, a little bit more forgiveness, a little bit more humility—if we were able to say, look I know what the right thing to do is by my own standards not by anybody else’s. But I know what I think the right thing to do is, and I know that I can’t always do that because I have cravings, because I’m lazy, because we’re imperfect, because we’re people. Then we might actually be able to accomplish a lot more.

It happens all the time, almost every time I give a reading somebody will come up to me and say something like, hey, I read your book. I’ve been a vegetarian for three weeks. It’s going strong. I’m feeling good. On the one hand that sounds great. On the other hand, I will often say to them, just make sure you’re setting yourself up for success and not failure because what you’re saying is for 21 meals you’ve now been a vegetarian. What happens if on the 22nd meal you eat some kind of meat. Well, then you’re not a vegetarian anymore. There are five times as many former vegetarians as there are vegetarians right now. And I think it’s because we think of that term, I mean that term is an all-or-nothing. It’s a binary, you are or you aren’t.

If instead that person had come up to me and said, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about the relationship between food and the environment or animal welfare or whatever and I’ve been trying to eat as little meat as possible and I haven’t eaten any for three weeks. If that person then at the 22nd meal eats meat, he can say 21 out of 22 times, I did it. That’s great, that’s an amazing success rate. Just by tweaking the way that you describe what you’re trying to do, the exact same outcomes can be understood as a complete failure or an amazing success. So, I prefer not to think about these things in terms of rigid identities, but this kind of cause-and-effect chain that we want to participate in.

The idea is that primitive man was living much differently than we live today for most of the existence of the human species. Some people say we’re meant to eat meat, like our bodies are designed to have a little meat now and then. How do you reconcile that with the need to change our habits to save the environment?

Well, if you said to me, can you imagine a planet where people eat a little meat every now and then, I would say that would be a very very different planet than the one that we live on and we wouldn’t have the same environmental problems that we have. The problem that we have now is people are eating you know, two-thirds of their plate is filled with meat, at least twice a day.

I would begin by saying I’ve never met a nutritionist who agrees with the statement that we need to eat meat. Meat, like a lot of other foods, like cake, can be perfectly healthy. It’s just that we wouldn’t want to eat too much of it. And we know that it’s linked to heart disease, cancer and all kinds of other health problems but I think that there’s a kind of rigidity behind that observation or a stubbornness when people say that.

There are an awful lot of things that hunter gatherers did that we don’t do now. Hunters and gatherers don’t wear eyeglasses. Is that an argument against my wearing eyeglasses now? Of course not. I think it is worth acknowledging that most humans have eaten meat for most of human history and that’s an important fact. I’m not dismissing it. My vision of the future isn’t futuristic actually. It’s conservative. It’s moving back to a kind of farming that our grandparents practiced and moving back to a kind of eating that our grandparents practiced. I don’t want to eat meat and I am not going to eat meat. And I am as healthy as anybody else. But also my interest isn’t in imposing my specific choices on everybody else. My interest is in sharing the indisputable and unambiguous science with everybody else.

And when it comes to climate change, the science couldn’t possibly be more clear. The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], which is like the gold standard for climate science for the United Nations, has said that we have no hope of meeting the goals of the Paris climate accords unless we change how we eat and specifically with respect to animals.

So, when you said eating some meat every now and then—maybe that’s right about at the line where we should all be able to agree that we can’t do more than that. We won’t have a sustainable food system if we’re eating more than some meat every now and then. But after that then there’s room for like a respectful disagreement.


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