The coolness factor is wearing thin

2009-10-30 00:00

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.

Recently Bourdain took his relentless campaign against vegetarians and vegans to new heights on CNN. Speaking on Larry King Live, he ­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, paralysed and even killed some people who had eaten them. Bourdain conceded that factory farms 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 recognised by any American as meat.”

At this point another panellist 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 over 99 % 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, the meat we order in restaurants, effectively we are talking about ­factory farms.”

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 is ­hastening global climate change.

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% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Amazon rainforest 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% of deforestation. To put it in concrete terms: every 18 ­seconds on average, one hectare of Amazon rainforest is being lost to cattle ranchers. As if the carbon emissions ­resulting are 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 21 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, is seldom mentioned.

In Brazil, rainforest cattle has ­accounted for much of the country’s domestic demand. But now, the cattle and climate dilemma is becoming internationalised as the South American giant moves into the global marketplace. So far Brazil has exported most of its beef to Europe. There’s a chance that hamburgers eaten in ­Europe 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 transportation or industry. Furthermore, beef is the most carbon-intensive form of meat production. Consider: a 500-gram patty results in about 16 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, or 13 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 soya production. Soya has long been popular among vegetarians but it is now prized as an animal feed for poultry, pigs, and ­cattle. The Chinese and Europeans have ­become voracious consumers of Brazilian animal-feed soya, catapulting the South American ­nation to agribusiness giant status. In China soya ­imports have increased ­exponentially, largely because of growing affluence and a shift in diet.

Though the soya planters cut down some forest, their influence is often more indirect. Once ranchers have cleared land in the Amazon, the soya planters buy up property and move in. But as they take up cleared land, savanna, and transitional forests, the soya magnates push others such as slash-and-burn farmers even further into the forest. Soya then acts as a ­significant catalyst of climate change. The farmers who get pushed into the rainforest quickly find that Amazonian soils are notoriously low in fertility. After several harvests, crop yields start to disappoint and eventually farmers abandon the land or convert it to cattle pasture. In ­addition to pushing ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers into the forest, soya 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 fuelling the soya bonanza — companies such as 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 soya production and must head to the rainforest to practise subsistence agriculture — all in the name of fuelling 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, simply to transition towards a vegetarian diet that includes dairy products — this probably won’t reduce emissions significantly as dairy cows would still ­release methane through flatulence. While it may sound a bit na ï ve to think that people will change their eating habits , 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 programme about how soya and our unsustainable consumerist lifestyle are displacing poor people and 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 Published courtesy of

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