Books reviewed by Janis Petzel, MD
Meat Me Halfway—How Changing the Way We Eat Can Improve our Lives and Save Our Planet by Brian Kateman. Prometheus Books, Guilford, CT 2022.
Farming for Our Future-The Science, Law and Policy of Climate-Neutral Agriculture. Peter H. Lehner and Nathan A. Rosenburg. Environmental Law Institute. 2021.
When I was a resident in psychiatry back in the 1990s, I used to moonlight in a mental health crisis unit in Norfolk, Nebraska. The little town’s claims to fame were being the hometown of Johnny Carson, and its multiple cattle feedlots. Nebraska is a little hillier than people think it is, but not by much. Before I reached Norfolk, I could make out what looked like a mountain on the outskirts of town. An atrocious smell hit me through the closed car windows before I could see the mountain, even in below-zero temperatures in January.
By the time I hit the Norfolk town limits, I could see that the mountain was a massive pile of cow manure, with live cattle standing knee deep in their own poop on top of it, their sides and legs coated with excrement. It’s hard to imagine that the manure could be removed before the animals went to slaughter. Between the smell and the thought of how much cow poop was in food, I would come home from a weekend of work determined to be vegetarian.
That resolution would last for various periods of time, but inevitably, we’d fall back to the menu pattern I learned from my mother: meat, starch and a veggie on the plate for dinner. As it turns out, our family was not alone. Many people with good intentions fall off the vegetarian wagon.
Brian Kateman, the originator of the “Reducetarian” concept which advocates eating less meat, provides reasons for this carnivorous urge. He notes in Meat Me Halfway, that even before Homo Sapiens had evolved, our relatives on the Homo branch of the evolutionary tree were eating meat at least 2.5 to 3 million years ago. Kateman traces the difficulties many people have in giving up meat, due to habit, marketing ploys, economics, and a preference for our bliss-generating response to fats, sugars and salt.
Far from being a diatribe on the dangers of eating meat. Kateman’s book takes an even-handed look at health and human history both ancient and recent, in sections titled “Rise of Carnivorous America, Why We’re Still Hooked on Meat Today,” and “Meat of the Future” (the most disturbing but hopeful section). I used to work in a biochemistry lab growing cells in tissue culture. The idea of eating lab-grown meat is difficult for me to contemplate. But apparently, it tastes good and is way less damaging to the environment than current Big Ag methods. I need to have a more open mind.
The book was an enjoyable read. Kateman is an engaging writer. He makes his factual material relatable by interspersing personal stories. He ties together all kinds of interesting historical tidbits linking the abundance of meat in Colonial America, the influence of technology such as refrigerated rail cars, and federal subsidies, the impact of demand for shelf-stable meat during the World Wars, all leading to the fast-food lalapalooza that is America today.
Kateman quotes Sigmund Freud on the “narcissism of small differences” which leads groups who have much in common to reject and look down on each other. An example is of some vegans who are more dismissive of ovo-lacto vegetarians than of people who eat meat. Kateman cautions that large scale husbandry of animals for meat and profit, such as in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are the enemy, not each other. People concerned about health, ethics, animal welfare, and the environment must avoid infighting and work together to make change.
If you’re looking for ways to do that, Peter Lehner and Nathan Rosenberg’s Farming for our Future is an invaluable source. Both authors are affiliated with Earthjustice and at various times with the National Resources Defense Council. The book is dense with data and policy ideas. If you’re a person who writes letters to the editor or who communicates with your legislators, this book will help you see the big picture and offers potential policy solutions.
If you’d like an easier to digest introduction to Lehner and Rosenberg’s ideas, you can watch a YouTube of Lehner’s presentation at a Maine Conservation Voters Lunch and Learn on April 8, 2022 (https://bit.ly/YouTube_Lehner_AgandClimateChange). I bought the book after I heard his talk.
Knowing the history and seeing a path to a better future is motivating to me, and I hope for you. These books are worth your time and money, as is supporting small farmers using sustainable agriculture methods. Next stop for me: to the library for vegan cookbooks. I don’t intend to be vegan 100% of the time, but I do plan to try a new way of looking at what goes on my plate.
Janis Petzel, MD is a physician, grandmother and climate activist whose writing focuses on resilience, climate, and health. She lives in Islesboro, Maine where she advocates and acts for a fossil-fuel free future. She serves on the Islesboro Energy Committee and is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.