Is a Meat-Eating Cyclist a Contradiction?

(Photo: Sarah Gilbert)

In response to James McWilliams‘s still-reverberating post about why more environmentalists don’t promote veganism, a reader named Mary writes:

I have always wondered why environmentalists are so reluctant to promote veganism, but eager to promote alternative transportation. Many residents of the U.S. are currently locked in to their car-dependent lifestyle, with large mortgages in suburbs with no safe sidewalks or bike lanes and inefficient transit. Ditching their car is logistically much more difficult to do than buying beans instead of meat at the grocery store. Currently, the infrastructure for reducing car use is lacking in many communities, though vegan foods, like beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, are much more easily obtained.

It’s an interesting point. A few related thoughts come to mind:

  • One reason that “vegan foods, like beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, are much more easily obtained” is because of our transportation network.
  • When we did a recent podcast about the perils of drunk walking, there was pushback from a quadrant I hadn’t anticipated: the anti-car movement. Their argument was essentially that pedestrians shouldn’t be blamed for vehicular accidents because they (even when drunk) are essentially innocent bystanders, whereas cars are essentially weapons.
  • As we explored in another podcast, about personal biases, human beings are pretty good at lining up the facts that fit our personal preferences, even if our preferences are sometimes contradictory. In other words, if I hate cars because of their pollution but love meat, I may find a clever cognitive twist that allows me to keep loving the latter while slamming the former. In fact, the smarter you are, the better you may be at living with these contradictions. Like Whitman said:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

What do you have to add?

If nothing else, Mary should be reading James Howard Kunstler and watching Portlandia .

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  1. Weston Tanner says:

    Why does every cyclist story have to be about making a statement? Can’t we just ride bike because their fun?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 85 Thumb down 5
    • Ian M says:

      Why does everything have to be extremes? Extremes are difficult to maintain.
      I ride my bike to work often. I don’t ride in the winter because it is uncomfortable and I feel it is dangerous. I don’t like to ride in the rain because I am soft.
      I eat about a third of the meat that I did three years ago. I probably won’t reduce my meat consumption more. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that I enjoy meat even more now.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 29 Thumb down 0
    • Goatherd says:

      Dead right. I cycle to work for transportation and because it is much more fun than driving, not because I am an environmentalist.

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      • Brian says:

        I ride to work because it is much cheaper than driving and paying to park or taking the bus. I save $15 a day over driving and $5 over taking the bus. Although riding in the rain sucks and in the winter I gladly pay $5 to ride the bus over riding in the rain, in the dark in the cold…

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  2. Cameron says:

    While it is the case that ““vegan foods, like beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, are much more easily obtained” is because of our transportation network,” is it not also the case that when acquiring foods through this transportation network that one can make better or worse choices? Are you suggesting that because they both were delivered to your local grocery store on a truck that somehow washes out the environmental differences between meats and beans?

    As you warned, it’s important to watch out for personal biases that might help you order the facts in such a way so that “the facts that fit our personal preferences, even if our preferences are sometimes contradictory.”

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    • Keep it local says:

      Why let the cows have all the fun? Stop eating meat and start eating beans. That way you can start your own methane production source right where are, in your own home, or at work. Let your flatulence inform those around you that you support local, small scale, green energy sourcing over the agricultural/industrial complex output. Be natural!

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 8
  3. George says:

    Veganism (in America) is much more tied in to morality than is bicycling. I know a lot of bicyclists who essentially fell into it — “Oh, I found this great apartment only a few miles from my office, and the streets are really good between it, so I figured, what the heck…”

    On the other hand, I’ve never met a single vegan who wasn’t doing it at as a distinctly moral choice. While there are certainly bicyclists who are as evangelical and self-righteous as any vegan, it doesn’t seem as tied in to the lifestyle.

    I will admit that many people get into _vegetarianism_ generally for personal health reasons, but even among “merely” vegetarians, I’ve never met one who didn’t eventually point out that meat was bad for the environment or that animals had feelings too or somesuch.

    Because of the moral dimension, veganism is something you essentially have to do all the time — there’s not nearly as much advocacy for simply reducing meat intake — while being a bicyclist and still keeping a car in the garage for trips out of town doesn’t make you less of a bicyclist (at least, not to nearly the same extent). It’s a lot easier to convince people to ride a bike to work or the movie theater every now and then than it is to convince people to change their entire eating regimen.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 44 Thumb down 2
    • Mike B says:

      It’s a moral choice because Vegan foods are almost always awful than foods that actually cater to human biology and evolutionary preferences. Remember, Humans do not have a biologic need to drive whereas they do have a biologic need to eat meat. Veganism is basically liberal abstinence. It’s a personal choice that goes way against nature and results in a lot of foregone utility with little practical gain. Morality and other soft reasons are the only tools that people have to justify the decision.

      Cycling on the other hand has many direct benefits including better health, lower costs and lower stress. I personally hate driving and only do so where other modes are impractical or too time consuming. having increased transportation options means more personal freedom and more choice. Being vegan means much much less personal freedom and personal choice.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 38 Thumb down 27
      • Brian M says:

        Vegan foods are not “almost always awful” and they do “cater to human biology”. The human digestive tract is not a carnivorous digestive tract. It is designed for omnivores, so that we can eat both meat and non-meat so that millions of years ago we could survive in many situations. Your body does not have a biological drive to eat meat, sorry. You might have a mental need for it, but your body does not have a biological drive for flesh. Plus, scientific research has shown a direct correlation to heart disease and cancer due to meat intake, specifically red meat. A vegetarian/vegan diet shows remarkably lower rates of high cholesterol, diabetes, and the above mentioned ailments. I would say abstaining from meat intake with a balanced vegetarian diet would cater to your health MORE, but that’s a choice you need to make for yourself.

        Secondly, being vegan doesn’t reduce my or anyone else’s personal freedom. I still have the same freedom you do, as a meat eater. Name one freedom you have that I cannot exercise if I wish. It also doesn’t limit my personal choices. I have the same number of choices as you are anyone else, however I CHOOSE to abstain from meat products because I see the benefits of doing so outweighing any costs to myself.

        The “soft reasons” you speak of are not soft at all. The environmental and health impacts of a meat based diet are much larger than most people wish to learn about, as attested by the people in my life who I explain it to. These are not “soft reasons”, they are very real consequences of a meat based diet that I don’t wish to be a part of anymore now that I have become a vegetarian.

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      • Des says:

        The healthiest populations in the world eat very little meat (2 servings a WEEK or less). Google ‘blue zones’. You don’t have to eat zero meat to benefit the environment and your health. Most Americans just eat way too much.

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  4. Swanky Cyclist says:

    Veganism not necessarily greener anyway:

    http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/how_low_report_1.pdf

    Anyway, I’m not an enviromentalist just because I ride a bike. I’m a bit of a bastard, truth be told.

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    • Brian L says:

      This is 80 pages. Whats the gist?

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    • max says:

      I don’t think going vegan is about being greener. I believe the most influential reason people go vegan is to combat animal cruelty (my neighbor says he doesn’t eat anything with a head). Now don’t get me wrong, the same type of person who is worried about the emissions from their cars affecting the environment is likely to be a person who is deeply effected enough by animal cruelty in slaughter houses to not eat meat. However, there is the “going greener” as a lifestyle, in which case going vegan would help promote that “green” lifestyle.

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      • Brian L says:

        The summary of the summary is basically that if you switch from pasture raised animal products to highly processed vegetable products (tofu and quorn) you could substantially increase the amount of crop land required (while decreasing overall land use due to reduction in pasture).

        For a factory farm system this advantage probably no longer exists as they are eating minimally processed soy and corn. Also it would seem that a vegan eating less processed grains and beans might bypass this effect.

        The summary also recommends major changes to infrastructure and organic farming. It’s general conclusion is that the UK food supply could be ~%70 decarbonized without major changes to diet.

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    • Cows are not the problem says:

      1st) Start with an ad hominem attack: Note that the “How Low Can We Go?” report is an attempt at a solution from the people who brought you the original mad cow disease.

      2nd) Raise a key talking point missed by others: Note that the problem arises with the creation of the industrial cow. Bring a cow to a feedlot, feed it an expensive to produce and unnatural (for ruminants) corn diet for 150 days prior to slaughter to fatten it for market (creating in the process an unhealthy, highly inflammatory, arachidonic lipid profile to feed to consumers, and a high methane output due to unnatural specialized anaerobic bacteria needed to break down the corn), then, in order to offset this, create a governmental imposed environmental policy to reward the capture of methane gas with subsidies or tax credits, thereby encouraging the further industrialization of beef. It is just another mindless deteriorating spiral.

      3rd) Suggest an alternative: See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/05/us/05cows.html?pagewanted=all

      4th) Throw out a platitudinous summarizing moral: “Ecology 101: You can’t do just one thing!”

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    • Dylan K says:

      That’s not a fair characterization of the article. They argue that switching from beef to quorn or tofu would require more arable land in the UK (pg 6), but then they acknowledge that this is not true globally, and that reducing consumption of animal products IS important:

      “Our results also show that a 70% reduction in supply chain emissions (i.e. excluding land use
      impact) may be possible without significant changes in consumption. However, if repeated
      across the developed and developing world, such a high level of livestock product consumption
      would require a large expansion in global agriculture and would make contraction and
      convergence of emissions difficult. Per-capita UK meat consumption is more than twice the
      world average, and nearly three times that of developing countries. As the global food system
      becomes more resource constrained and developing countries lift themselves out of poverty,
      consumption based measures will acquire relevance beyond just the UK’s greenhouse gas
      emissions.” (Last paragraph of summary, page 7)

      Under the current system, vegan diets are simple greener (see http://www.worldpreservationfoundation.org/Downloads/ReducingShorterLivedClimateForcersThroughDietaryChange.pdf).

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  5. Dr. Dave says:

    I will repeat my comment that I wrote before: The vegan diet is not biologically sustainable. Humans require B12 in our diet–a compound that our digestive system can obtain exclusively from animal products.

    The ethnic vegans historically did not acquire B12 deficiency (dementia, neuropathy, combined systems degeneration) because of insect particles in their imperfect grain processing. When some immigrated to countries such as the UK, they began to develop the above diseases. The liver can store enough B12 for years, even decades, but eventually the biological reality caught up to them–they got sick.

    This is not the point of your post, I know, but how can we adopt a lifestyle that concludes with morbidity and mortality? That is the inevitable conclusion of veganism.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 20 Thumb down 19
    • Holly M says:
      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 14
      • Dr. Dave says:

        Do your research before posting an ignorant comment. Yes, the bacteria are at the bottom of the B12 food chain, but the only way we can get it is by eating eggs, mild, meat, or other animal products. Somewhere in the chain is an ruminant or some other such concentrator of B12.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 14
    • BJL says:

      This is not true. B12 can be obtained from non-animal sources (B12 is not even actually produced by animals directly), and thus morbidity is far from an inevitable conclusion. One does have to be mindful of nutrition in a vegan diet, just as with any other diet.

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      • Dr. Dave says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Brian L says:

        If a bacteria makes it, we can grow it in a tank. If you read the nice little production bit in wikipedia’s article on B12 that’s apparently exactly how it is made. Much like insulin and all those other fun, low concentration, bio-molecules, it is cheaper to produce them from microbes than to extract them from animals.

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      • Alchemical Reaction says:

        Cyanocobalamin, the cheap and stable form of supplemental B12, is a neurotoxin and an extreme allergen, in addition it leaves cyanide as a byproduct of conversion. The best way to supplement B12 is from Yeast. But, unfortunately, by definition that means you are not a vegan.

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      • Alchemical Reaction says:

        I love vegan food almost as much as I love sea scallop and okra enchiladas, but I find it a bit hypocritical when vegans are against eating honey but have no problem eating bacteria. WTF!

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      • Alchemical Reaction says:

        The Buddha, and MANY OTHER “SAINTS” throughout history, ate meat. Some of their beloved animals were said to have offered their old and feeble bodies to their masters for consumption. I fully admit I am grossed out by eating meat most of the time. And I fully admit I wish I didn’t have to, but I am allergic to dairy. So, doesn’t leave me many B12 options and I am not going to poison myself with Cyanocobalamin. Fermented foods are a good solution when I can get them.

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    • Clancy says:

      This is the problem with the all-or-nothing choice that people are associating with veganism that George (above) points out. The idea of eating less meat is immediately dismissed by “Humans need vitamin B12 and if you never eat any animal products you die.” Well you don’t need to eat much animal to get enough vitamin B12, (not to mention the wide variety of fortified breads, cereals, etc. and good old vitamin pills), so why not jest eat less meat? After learning about the harmful environmental effects of meat production a few years ago I cut down on it. Now I eat red meat about once a week, and chicken or fish maybe 4-5 times per week. I’ve substituted about 25% of my milk consumption with almond milk, but I still eat a lot of cheese. There just isn’t an acceptable alternative to good cheese.

      Lots of people ride bikes for environmental reasons, but very few of them have vowed to never drive or ride in a car ever again.

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      • Brian L says:

        If a bacteria makes it, we can grow it in a tank. If you read the nice little production bit in wikipedia’s article on B12 that’s apparently exactly how it is made. Much like insulin and all those other fun, low concentration, bio-molecules, it is cheaper to produce them from microbes than to extract them from animals.

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    • GDorn says:

      “Humans require B12 in our diet–a compound that our digestive system can obtain exclusively from animal products.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyanocobalamin

      “Cyanocobalamin is commercially prepared by bacterial fermentation.”

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  6. Brian L says:

    Very rough estimate for MPG equivalents with average food production energy estimate included: 18–34 MPG of oil equivalent, and biking comes in at 70–130 MPG.

    This ignores all externalities such as increased health resulting in lower use and thus impact of the medical industry, lower road wear, lower embodied energy of the transportation infrastructure (roads and cars) etc, as well as any resulting in higher energy use such as medical costs after being hit etc.

    If one were to get their daily calories from a lower energy food source (local, vegetarian, etc) then this efficiency most likely sky rockets.

    http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/11/mpg-of-a-human/

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  7. JBP says:

    Not eating meat is a bigger deal. Humans are social predators. Switching to biking doesn’t require us to go against our basic nature.

    I know this doesn’t counter the article’s basic point, but I’m pretty sure it’s an important part of the reason for the difference.

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  8. Mike Pudelwitts says:

    Biking is fun. Eating vegan not so much.

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