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Memo to Sierra Club: Stop Promoting Meat

Posted by tinako on April 25, 2012

[I joined the Sierra Club last year and they are asking me to renew.  This is the reply I’m sending.]

To Whom It May Concern:

I’ve been asked to renew my membership, and I’m not going to.  I thought you might like to know why.

While I was disappointed with your earlier national position supportive of the hydro-fracking that is set to cause so much trouble in my state, feeling undermined as I and other local activists worked to keep this industry at bay, I’ve been impressed otherwise with your work on a wide variety of issues.  Overall I like the Sierra Club.  We are on the same side – we recognize how crucial it is to act now to avert disaster.

However, there is one huge environmental issue on which we seem to disagree, and that is meat.  I could live with your simply ignoring this issue, like so many other environmental organizations, and you certainly do that.  I counted two articles in the latest newsletter alone (May/June 2012) on which your silence on animal products was deafening. “Water, Water Everywhere” told readers about the water impact of some items, including several which are probably not discretionary, such as tires and cement, while not mentioning beef’s and milk’s huge waste of water.  Beef and milk are 100% optional purchases, and your readers will probably make these purchasing decisions within hours.  The other article was “Fighting Climate Change With Family Planning.”  The point of the graph is to show that family planning can be as helpful as things like running cars on clean hydrogen, and is an important part of the solution.  But if the U.N. is correct that livestock causes 18% of greenhouse gases, much more than cars, why is it not listed there instead of cars?  Why did it not earn any place in this chart?

In short, I did not see a single mention of diet as any part of a problem or solution to any environmental issue in this magazine, nor do I recall seeing any in the issues I have received over the past year.

Instead, unfortunately, unbelievably, you promote meat.  I usually see meat and dairy praised on your “Enjoy the Green Life” page, and this month, “Enjoy Fast Food,” was no exception.  You didn’t take the hint when Michael Pollan refused to recommend fast food, but instead forged ahead to print “fast-food fare that environmentalists can order with a clear conscience,” as recommended by restaurauteurs with no apparent qualifications to answer this question authoritatively.  So you endorse the “burrito bowl with chicken or steak, beans, veggies, sour cream, cheese, and lettuce”?  Chipotle has terrific vegan options; did your writer calculate the impact of this meal compared to a vegan version?  How can your magazine pass this recommendation on to your readers without comment?  And what about Le Pain Quotidien’s item, consisting apparently entirely of ham, cheese, and egg?  What are you thinking?  These items are an environmental nightmare!  Organic means no pesticides or hormones were used, but says nothing about the greenhouse gases, the manure lagoons, the incredible waste of water and energy, and the breath-taking waste of feeding perfectly good food to animals so they can process it inefficiently through their guts, giving you less than you put in.  These items may be less wasteful and polluting than typical fast food, but that is an incredibly low bar to jump over.  I’m not insisting you should print attacks on these menu items, but you should not be claiming they’re guilt-free or conscience-clearing.

I recall tearing my hair out when the Sept/Oct 2011 issue arrived and I read this same column to find you promoting a single-serve microwaveable beef pot roast, telling readers it’s “Earth-Friendly” because its tray is made partly of calcium carbonate so it uses 40% less plastic and emits 55% less greenhouse gas pollution.  But they could switch their packaging from illegally-harvested mahogany crates to recycled banana leaf envelopes and it still wouldn’t change the fact that beef is the worst thing for the environment you can eat, and a single-serving frozen meal is probably one of the worst ways to eat it.  You concluded, “It’s nice to see a well-established brand make a proactive move toward a more sustainable environment.”  Are you serious?  Put something better in the calcium carbonate box.  I get that you want to reward companies that want to do the right thing, but this product is a total green-wash, and you’re using member donations to help them do it.  I subsidize beef enough through my taxes.

From Sierra Magazine

Back to the current issue, you report in “The Next Big Thing” that perhaps “summer barbeques will solve all our problems.”  After mentioning that readers might enjoy a steak this summer, you tell us, without apparent irony, that bio-scientists have found a new “sustainable fuel source:” beef.  Is there any other environmental organization or independent scientist who has studied these food issues and who believes that beef is sustainable?  I suspect Amtrack wants to use beef tallow not because it’s particularly earth-friendly to produce, but because in these times of high fuel prices it is a cheap, available byproduct, given Americans’ appetite for hamburgers.  Unfortunately, tallow is a cheap, available byproduct of an unsustainable livestock industry which is responsible for a large part of most of the environmental crises we face, from water and air pollution, energy waste, acid rain, greenhouse gases, desertification, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, loss of habitat, food-borne illnesses, and antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Did your writer take these factors into account when trumpeting the hydrocarbon and CO emissions reductions?  Magnifying all these problems by endorsing an increase in the demand for beef tallow is the opposite of what the Sierra Club should be doing.

I have been tabling at environmental and health fairs on these issues for the last five years or so, and I am heartened to see a change: people I talk to are starting to arrive at my table already somewhat aware that their diet has an impact on the environment.  But so far this change is no thanks to the Sierra Club; vegetarian organizations are fighting this battle against ignorance mostly alone.  I hope to someday read that the Sierra Club is joining, even leading the effort of encouraging people to consider how their diet affects the earth.  You don’t have to nag people to be vegan – just be upfront and accurate as you go about discussing issues which diet affects.

A first step would be to stop promoting it.  I can’t support an organization that does that.

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7 Responses to “Memo to Sierra Club: Stop Promoting Meat”

  1. Excellent!

    I’ve been a Sierra Club member for many years and must constantly remind myself that the club is working to raise the commitment of others to the level that you and I already share. Most people want a better environment without having to sacrifice their lifestyle. You and I know that diet is a part of that lifestyle, and that at some point we will all have to change. We can do so now voluntarily, or have the Earth force us into doing so later.

    It’s surprising how blind some people can be to the elephant in the room. I know of an animal rescue group whose executive director wisely mandated that from that day forward, when the organization provided food for its staff that the food would always be vegetarian. The organization saves animals after all, and should not be serving dead animals as food. Some staff agreed, but others were put in such a blind rage that they went to the organization’s board and complained about the executive director. Apparently it is possible to champion both an animal’s right to life and an animal’s imprisonment, torture, and murder. Of course this point of view makes no sense, and it shows the depth of people’s addictions and the lengths they will go to in order to protect their addiction. In much the same way, apparently it is possible to champion both the environment and some of the environment’s biggest sources of pollution and contributors to climate change.

    Most people are not capable of making the change that we did overnight. I imagine that if the Sierra Club were to start proposing a vegan diet they would lose credibility with many of the ag industry polluters that they are still working with. They would also lose supporters who feel addicted to those pollutants. By adopting a middle path they are helping individuals and organizations to more easily adapt. Similar tactics are used by HSUS, Farm Sanctuary, Meatless Monday, and other groups who recognize that people – and especially corporations – get defensive when they feel attacked. We’re more likely to change the world by working with these people and groups than by opposing them. The big question now though is do we have enough time for such an approach? If vegans are just one or two per cent of the population, we may have no other choice.

  2. tinako said

    Sierra Magazine replied to me with three articles about eating less meat:

    Below is a link to our article “Moving away from the meat Habit”:
    http://www.sierraclub.org/sustainable_consumption/articles/meat.asp

    “The True cost of food”
    http://www.sierraclub.org/truecostoffood/leaders.asp

    “Eat less meat”:
    http://sierraclub.typepad.com/greenlife/2009/01/green-your-new-years-resolution-eat-less-meat.html

    This is good, except that the first two are the work of their Sustainable Consumption committee, are undated, and don’t seem to have ever been printed offline. I like that they’re saving paper, but since I never heard of this committee in a year of membership, I’m not sure it can be considered a public profession of Sierra Club’s views. The last article is really just a short blurb from over three years ago.

  3. Chris said

    You can’t be an omnivore and an environmentalist. The S.C. Is bipolar.

  4. Eric said

    Thanks for speaking up about this.

    I agree that environmentalists that continue to eat a meat and dairy based diet are sleepwalking over a cliff of climate change and need to be awakened to the devastation that their diet is causing this planet. Al Gore has taken a lot of criticism over the last decade for continuing to eat a meat based diet and finally made the switch last year.

    The Sierra Club and other environmental organizations will soon be directly challenged by a documentary that is being produced titled “Cowspiracy”
    More on that film can be found here:
    http://cowspiracy.com/

    I personally believe that the best way to change an environmental organization is by it’s own members speaking up and leading the change in direction. I challenge the Sierra Club to change all of it’s outings program to providing only a plant based diet to trip participants and offer this as a way for it’s members to be exposed to how great tasting these meals can be while still providing the fuel one needs to perform strenuous activities.

    I can only find evidence of one 2014 outing that is billed as being completely plant based. It is a service trip in Yosemite that is billed as being a vegan trip with no meat and dairy provided:
    http://content.sierraclub.org/outings/national/brochure/vegan-service-project-spectacular-yosemite-valley-california-0

  5. I feel the same. Sierra Club, you do good work, but that goodness is diminished by your equivocal message on meat consumption. It’s bad for the environment and cruel. Period.

    • tinako said

      About a year ago someone from Sierra Club called to talk me into rejoining and I let him know my thoughts. We talked a long time. He agreed that meat was an environmental problem that S.C. ignored, but seemed unable to understand why I couldn’t just support Sierra Club anyway, since they do other things I do support. He finally accepted that promoting meat was a dealbreaker for me, but seemed to think my position was kind of weird.

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