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Susan Subak
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Meat, climate and kashrut: Is beef the new pork?

What if ecological viability was originally the Torah's paramount reason for establishing a dietary prohibition?

Recently, a Jewish deli named Fritzi’s opened up in Oak Park, the Chicago suburb where I live. The idea is something of a curiosity in that it is the first such deli in the town’s century-plus history, and the resident Jewish population is pretty sparse. Fritzi’s offers a “corned” tofu sandwich but otherwise, you find only beef on the sandwich menu, pastrami, corned beef, and brisket, dry-cured, brined or braised.

It is the abundant meat in the sandwich, more than the Jewish deli on the street sign that strikes me as incongruous. This town has a strong vegetarian following, a popular vegan restaurant and tends to put vegetable dishes toward the top of the menu. In the 1970s, Paul Obis started Vegetarian Times magazine out of his Oak Park home, the first such periodical in America. I can’t think of a single steakhouse anywhere nearby.

Of course, beef and not another meat – and certainly not pork – is the traditional protein of the Jewish people. The pig prohibition goes back thousands of years, though the reason why it was taken up in the first place and why it has persisted is still open to debate. One explanation, not widely known, is strongly environmental. Pigs eat many of the same plants that humans do, and the food goes much further when eaten by a person than fed to a pig. Therefore, it was best to keep the swine out of the vegetable patch and the grain fields, and better yet, ban them altogether.

The ecological explanation for the pig prohibition was laid forth already decades ago in Carleton Coon’s 1951 book, Caravan: The Story of Middle East and Marvin Harris’ 1985 book, Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture. Coon attributed the decline in pig keeping to deforestation and pressures from a growing human population. Harris examined food taboos around the world and pointed out that swine do not eat the grasses and rough forages of drylands but eat many of the same grains and vegetables that humans eat. In contrast, cattle, sheep, and goats forage on many plants that humans cannot eat and therefore did not “compete” with humans in the way that pigs did. “By raising animals that could “chew the cud,” wrote Harris, “the Israelites and their neighbors were able to obtain meat and milk without having to share with their livestock the crops destined for human consumption….Cattle, sheep, and goats thrive on items like grass, straw, hay, stubble, bushes, and leaves – feeds whose high cellulose content renders them unfit for human consumption, even after vigorous boiling.”

Today, the world population’s propensity to eat beef is by no stretch ecologically sensible. Cattle are typically “finished” and sometimes started on feed crops and various supplements that are environmentally costly to produce using limited arable land supported by fertilizers, herbicides and irrigation. Instead of eating exclusively rough grasses that are indigestible to humans, contemporary cattle that ends up at the table of American Jews, are raised largely on corn and soybeans. Beef consumed in Israel originates in South America and Europe from cattle raised on feed crops and pasture.

In many parts of the world, overgrazing has led to widespread environmental degradation. Today’s cattle are, in fact, competing directly with humans and with species that are endangered because of shrinking habitats and climate change. Moreover, greenhouse gas emissions related to beef production are much higher than for pork and other pigmeat when compared pound for pound. Methane emissions related to beef production are the number one source of methane in the US stemming from human activities and the greenhouse gas emissions are greatly amplified when beef production involves clearing forests for pasture, as is practiced in Brazil and elsewhere.

Although beef consumption looked to be slowing in the US during the past decade, retail sales were almost 60 pounds per person in 2022. In Israel, consumption is approaching the US level and greatly exceeds the average for developed (OECD) countries of 32 pounds per person. As the overwhelming threat of climate change looms, we may consider the irony that traditional Jewish dietary laws would encourage further consumption of this ecologically inappropriate protein.

The dietary instructions stated in the Torah are brief and do not go into an ecological explanation or much of a detailed explanation of any sort. “And the pig, because it has a split hoof, but does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you” (Deut 14:8). Perhaps the resource/ecological reasons behind the dietary laws were so obvious that it was not necessary to state them. However, it is clear that Jews now live in many different ecological environments compared with ancient times and that today the greenhouse gasses stemming from the ruminant animals are a concern that was not on the mind of the ancient Israelites.

What if we have been carrying forward for thousands of years the letter of the dietary law, but not the principle – the principle being that people should choose foods that conserve resources? How many congregants have discussed the ecological principles of Jewish dietary laws with their rabbis or friends? If the ecological viability of a particular food was the paramount reason for establishing a dietary prohibition in the first place, would it not make sense for the Jewish people to continue examining the ecological viability of dietary choices going forward?

Vegetarians may argue that this principle supports a meatless diet, just as other parts of the Torah that do not list dietary taboos exhort principles of kindness that support animal welfare principles. Carnivores who are convinced by the ecological theory might be inclined to eat less beef or switch to another meat, both changes being environmentally beneficial. Adhering to a “climate carnivore” diet, whereby 75 percent of ruminant meat and dairy (beef/lamb/goat) is replaced by other meat could result in more than 3 Gt CO2 eq. emissions reductions worldwide, according to the IPCC’s 2019 Report, Climate Change and Land. These emissions’ benefits are related to fewer cattle and more trees, with local environmental improvements bringing even more advantages to the practice of substituting pastrami-on-rye with any number of other foods.

About the Author
Susan Subak is an environmental researcher and the author of the book, The Five-Ton Life: Carbon, America, and the Culture that May Save Us (University of Nebraska Press, 2018).
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