Changing the way we eat isn’t enough to save the planet,
but we can’t save the planet without changing the way we eat.
With his latest work, Jonathan Safran Foer presents us with a fait accompli: we couldn’t give a fig about the climate crisis. This is for a number of reasons which partially absolve us—as long as we realize why, now, and take decisive action as a consequence—which we won’t list here because Foer does it well enough in the book. Indeed, we highly recommend the book. We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast confirms Foer as a gifted communicator, among a select few who put their pens and popularity at the service of the environment, and it’s a commitment which does him honor.
The book is an ambitious attempt, and a successful one, to rouse our passions for the climate crisis, or at the very least take a more active interest in it. We’re all aware that from a narrative point of view it’s not necessarily a good story—as Foer underlines—and “to use the words of the Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, one of the first researchers to understand that our minds have two modes of thought: one is slow and deliberative, one is fast and intuitive: ‘To mobilize people, this [climate crisis] has to become an emotional matter’.
If we continue to think of the effort needed to save our planet like game played away from home halfway through the season, we’ve got no hope.” And there’s another strong point of the book: the message is singular, strong and clear: we don’t have any more excuses, we’re all called upon to take part now in a collective effort to save humanity and the environment. Because “anyone who knows the way things are going and is ready to admit the most uncomfortable truth will agree that we’re doing way too little, too slowly, and if we keep going in this direction we’re headed for our own destruction.”
BE VEGAN BEFORE DINNER
We have to activate this collective effort, without which we certainly won’t be able to ensure a life such as we’ve had up to now for future generations and the Earth. Where to start? By cutting (and massively) our consumption of animal products, because “we can’t save the planet if we don’t significantly reduce our consumption of animal products.”
Foer’s proposal is very simple: be vegan before dinner. No products of animal origin at least at breakfast and lunch, snacks included. “We can’t maintain the way of eating we’re used to and at the same time maintain the planet we’re used to. We have to give up some of our food habits otherwise give up on the planet. That’s the choice, as clear and dramatic as it is. Where were you when you made your decision?”
To support this thesis, Foer provides a comprehensive review of data, presented with dexterity and extreme clarity. We cite one which, for Slow Food, is of particular concern. “After inserting emissions which the FAO had neglected to include [among which the CO2e exhaled by factory-farmed animals] the researchers of the Worldwatch Institute estimated that livestock were responsible for 32,564 million tons of Co2e annually, or 51% of total global emissions – more than all the cars, airplanes, buildings, nuclear power stations and industry put together”, a statistic which is discussed at length in the book’s appendix, which we invite you to read carefully.
As we’ve been saying for years: our food system is the principal cause, the first victim and also a potential solution to climate crisis: Our food choices have an enormous impact on the future of our planet and reflecting on their importance is not optional. Because while it’s true that changing our food habits alone won’t be enough to save us, it’s just as true that we won’t be able to save the planet if we don’t change our food habits.
Beyond Foer’s proposal, we’d add one of our own: we can’t stop asking ourselves which meat, which cheese, which milk, which eggs we decide to continue to eat. Where do they come from? What kind of meat can we treat ourselves with at dinner? The differences between industrial factory farms and small-scale farmers are enormous in terms of methods of production, animal welfare, and in terms of their environmental impact, too.
INDIVIDUAL CHOICE AND POLITICS
Before we leave you with the interview which we were able to conduct when the author came to present the book in Turin, we’d like to make one more point. Throughout the book, Foer sustains the necessity of individual action that is transformed into a collective effort. He invites us to take immediate action, comparing it to a great Mexican wave that can save the world. But we’re not all sitting in the same section of the stadium, we don’t all have the same economic opportunities, knowledge or tools that will allow us to make these necessary changes. That’s why we’re convinced that while we (at least all those who read the book and participate in the surrounding debate) can no longer afford to turn our backs on the climate crisis, we cannot do this alone. We need political action. If not in terms of cutting emissions, at least in terms of supporting food education. On that note, a case in point quoted in the book: “After Pay and Save supermarkets put green arrows on the ground which brought people to the fruit and vegetable aisles, the sales of fresh products had a sudden boost, because 90% of customers followed the arrows.”
And there you have it: we need those green arrows, which Slow Food has been trying to draw for a long time. But a decisive contribution that strengthens food education (which we desperately need) and supports those farmers who practice agriculture with respect for animals and natural resources would be of great help.
Slow Food: Your new book, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, was published in Italian first, before the original in English—is there a reason for that?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I have a very close relationship with my Italian publishers. It also means people won’t buy the English edition online beforehand!
The book has a central message: that saving the planet begins with what we eat. We all need to do something, but it really needs to be all of us acting collectively in order to have any impact. Slow Food has been working to raise awareness of the relationship between food and climate change for a long time, and as you’re well aware, it’s not an easy story to tell or get people interested in. What advice do you have for others, like us, who are trying to tell the story?
I think such organizations deserve a lot of credit. We’re at a moment when things are going to start changing very quickly, you can just feel it. Certainly in America you can feel it. It’s not like it was a year ago. To some extent that’s because climate change has become impossible to ignore, in part because of the amount of media coverage it now gets. But it’s also because of the way scientists are telling the story, like the IPCC’s most recent report which said that even if we do everything else, we still can’t save the planet unless we eat less meat. But this public awareness also stems from the fact that organizations have been slowly seeding these ideas for a long time. It may be that it takes a long time to change habits, because these habits we need to change are not unpleasant habits. Eating meat is pleasant for most people. Flying is pleasant for most people. And that’s a shame, because it’s really hard to stop doing something that’s pleasant, so I don’t feel so surprised or discouraged by how long it’s taken, but there’s an urgency now, it’s like a ticking time bomb. So I think now it’s important to stop talking about it, and start doing it.
As you say, we all need to do something, but we’re not all starting from the same point. Whether it’s in terms of wealth, access to food, when we think about “food deserts”, for example, or education. A lot of people wouldn’t know what to cook or how if they were eating less meat and opting to cook more vegetarian food. What kind of political action do we need in order to help those whose starting point is more disadvantaged?
I don’t know if it’s political action, or if it’s something that happens in schools. The Edible Schoolyard  is a great program, and it’s expanded pretty broadly in the United States. I think it would be the greatest thing in the world if we could have home ec  again. It used to be that students in America would take home education as well as math, science and English. Home economics would teach people how to shop in a grocery store, how to cook, and those are skills that have not only been forgotten, they’ve largely been erased by the fast food movement and industrial food. In America now, one in five meals is eaten in a car. It’s really depressing. It’s not because we suddenly decided that it would be fun to eat in a car, it’s because our habits have been nudged in a certain direction by food that seems to be very cheap but isn’t.
The real price is paid somewhere else, and not in the grocery store.
Yeah, so we need to nudge habits back in the other direction.
And then there’s meat. As you say in your book, intensive meat production is one of the most, if not the most destructive force acting on our environment, with one of its problems being that it’s so wasteful. This is especially true in the United States where only a select portion of an animal is ever eaten. In Italy there’s more of a culture of eating the parts of the animal – organs and so on – which wouldn’t normally make it onto a typical American menu. Is that something you would support?
It’s not something I especially want to eat, but if somebody’s a meat eater, then I think it’s a great idea to eat it. It’s terrible to waste, but even if you eat all of the animal there’s no way around how inefficient it is. This isn’t a hypothetical or philosophical conversation about whether or not it’s right or wrong to eat animals. This is a question of eight billion people: how do we feed them? There are certainly some ways of raising animals that are much less destructive than others, but the problem is we don’t have enough planet to raise enough animals like that, we don’t have the resources to feed everyone with that kind of agriculture. I was talking to someone recently, and they said: if all the factory farms became small family farms, would you be okay with that? But we just can’t do that because of the demand for meat. The amount of meat and dairy that we consume now is the equivalent of every person that was alive on the planet in the year 1700 eating 400 kilograms of meat and drinking 4500 liters of milk every day. That’s partly because of the population explosion, and partly because of the meat explosion, and the expectation nowadays that we’re going to consume huge volumes of animal products at every meal. So the first has to be just doing it less. Then once we’re doing it less, we can figure out the way to do it best. But we can’t do the best practices unless we eat a lot less.
It seems in your book that you’re almost resigned to the fact that people aren’t ready to give up meat entirely, so you urge them to give up animal products for two meals out of three. But even once you do that, if you are only going to eat meat occasionally,it shouldn’t come from intensive industrial farming. Because otherwise,we’d still be supporting that intensive system.
And by eating meat less often, you’d have a little bit more money to spend on higher quality food.
At one point in the book you give a list of other things we could do to reduce our carbon footprint, which includes driving a hybrid car, flying less, and eating locally-produced food, but you say none of these is as important as eating less meat. As Slow Food we tend to disagree on the last point, because we believe there should the fewest possible middle-men between us and the people that make our food. If we give up meat but replace it with vegetables imported from other continents, we’re still contributing to the problem.
You’re absolutely right. What I was trying to say is that sometimes things become fads when a lot of attention is paid to them. And eating locally, which is a great thing by the way, has become somewhat of a fad in America. The problem is when people become satisfied, when it’s about their feelings rather than what they’re actually doing. So if we ate a lot less meat but didn’t also eat locally or stop driving, we’d still be in trouble. We have to do all these things.
But we have to start with eating less meat.
It’s not so much that we have to start there, but we have to include it. Right now we’re starting in all of these other places which are good, but they’re not considered “high impact”. Unfortunately a lot of people think about their environmental choices as an either/or. Should I get solar panels on my house or should I get an electric car? Should I eat locally or should I eat less meat? But it has to be both.
Do you find many people like that, who are taking all of these actions combined?
I only have anecdotal evidence, I know how people around me seem to behave. And there are studies that show what people are paying the most attention to: people are paying the most attention to recycling, and using less plastic. Those are good things of course, but they don’t have nearly the same impact as eating less meat, flying less, driving less. Eating locally can be a sort of umbrella that includes a lot of these things.
When people like Greta Thunberg talk about the crisis we face, they don’t just talk about the climate but also about ecological collapse, and the huge human threat to biodiversity which is irrespective of climate change. Part of that biodiversity is of course man-made: all the plant varieties and animal breeds which farmers have developed over thousands of years of agriculture. Slow Food has a project called the Ark of Taste, a sort of online catalog of such plant varieties, animal breeds and other food products at risk of extinction. Ensuring the survival of these breeds means farming them, eating them.
The truth is I don’t know a heck of a lot about this, I’ll just say that upfront. I’ve spent a lot of time with a farmer in America called Frank Reese , who is the only person who has some of the strains of turkey and poultry genetics, and he’s starting to spread them around, and as he puts it, “if they die, that’s it”. You could tell me more than I could tell you. They’re valuable because we want to preserve different tastes?
It’s also about genetic resilience. Many of these breeds are more resistant to disease for example, or to drought. Nowadays we tend to focus on a handful of breeds, and the rest are left by the wayside. If we only focus on this small number of breeds because they’re the most productive we’re putting ourselves at risk for the future by having a smaller gene pool.
That certainly makes sense, but it also begs the question of to what extent these are natural things at all. One of the big disagreements when calculating the effect of animal agriculture on the environment is whether or not to include the cows’ respiration, which of course creates carbon dioxide. A lot of people don’t like to include it, they say it’s part of nature. The argument against that is that they’re part of nature the same way cars are part of nature. There were not tens of millions or hundreds of millions of cows on the planet before we had industrial agriculture. The carbon dioxide in their breath is no more natural than the emissions coming from a tailpipe of a car. There’s a balance to be struck. One of the temptations is to go extremes. If you tell me there are good reasons to preserve these different genetic strains I would say “sure, why not?” because that’s not the systemic problem that we’re facing. It’s easy to become distracted from what’s right in front of us: the planet is dying, and we have a certain amount of time to save what can be saved. A lot of it won’t be saved. And we know what the causes are, so we have to not just talk about it but start to do something about it, starting now.
You talk in the book about the fact that we know these things, but like Felix Frankfurter , we’re not really able to believe them. To what extent can news stories like the fires in the Amazon make us realize the scale of the problem? What’s it going to take? Something irreversible?
Irreversible things have already happened, and it hasn’t changed the way we think. And I include myself in this problem, I’m not better than anybody else. I wrote a book about it, I’ve written two books about it, and still when I go to a restaurant I look at the menu and I think “I kinda wanna eat that!” And sometimes I do. So it may be that we should we stop waiting for those things to arrive and start creating new norms. A really inspiring case I just heard about is in Amsterdam, where for all civic functions when the City of Amsterdam is supplying food for an event, whether it be dinner at the mayor’s house or a council meeting, the default is vegetarian. If anybody wants meat and asks for it in advance, they’ll serve meat. It’s not like it’s against the law, they’re not taking it away from anyone. It’s just the default changing.
Like with the case of organ donation .
Exactly like that. And those kinds of nudges are creating new models of behavior that don’t require anyone to feel evil or stupid or guilty. It doesn’t require condescension or taking away the freedom of choice.
And eating is such a private matter, it’s hard for us to tell people “you should eat this, and not that”.
I agree, and the book I wrote is in agreement with that, but there’s part of me that disagrees too, and thinks “who cares about that choice?” Compared to what we stand to lose, who cares? Maybe one day we’ll have that choice again, once we’ve solved this problem, but for right now, we don’t need that choice.
When we do something that’s good for the environment, we don’t immediately perceive those positive consequences, and likewise when we do something that’s bad for the environment we don’t perceive those negative consequences. That’s partly why it’s a hard story for people to believe in.
But when we pay for something in a store instead of shoplifting, we don’t immediately feel any good consequences; we do it because it’s what people do. I’ve been putting together these little videos with chefs talking about the need to eat less meat, and I haven’t had a single chef say no. They all say yes. They want to keep eating meat and cooking meat, they want to serve it to people, but they recognize that we have to do it less. We can have a conversation that isn’t aggressive or defensive but where everybody is together and agreeing that it’s just something we have to do.
One last question: as there’s no point in preaching to people over dinner, you can simply serve them the “right” foods instead of the “wrong” ones. Can you remember what you served your guests the last time you hosted people for dinner?
I can! Do you know Samin Nosrat who did Salt Fat Acid Heat for Netflix? It’s great, you’ll love it. She’s a friend of mine, and she cooked at a party – what did we make? Farro with different kinds of roasted vegetables, fresh bread, and pasta.
So you didn’t miss meat?
No, and what’s funny is my Italian publishers just happened to be there too—they are not vegetarian—and they said “this is the best Italian food we’ve ever had”. I think sometimes we’re too used to the idea that we’re going to be martyrs or that it’s going to be a sacrifice to not eat meat. And there is some sacrifice, there’s no way around that. But there a lot of ways to make really beautiful food.
This interview was conducted on September 10, 2019 before the official presentation of his book in the Aula Magna of Cavallerizza Reale in the context of Waiting for the International Book Fair of Turin.
Interview by Jack Coulton and Michela Marchi, Slow Food.
 Founded by Alice Waters in Berkeley, California in 1995. Alice Waters is also a member of the Slow Food International Executive Committee.
 Home economics, i.e. learning how to cook and manage a kitchen and a household as part of the school curriculum.
 Frank Reese runs the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas, and “maintains the oldest continuously bred flock of heritage turkeys in America according to standards set by the American Livestock Conservancy. Every decision that Frank makes on his farm considers animal welfare, genetic biodiversity, and ecological resilience, and he is one of the only farmers in the country who has been certified by the USDA to sell heritage poultry.”
 In July 1943, on the behalf of the President, Frankfurter interviewed Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance who had been smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto and a camp near the Belzec death camp in 1942, in order to report back on what is now known as the Holocaust. Frankfurter greeted Karski’s report with skepticism, later explaining: “I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.”
 It has been shown that rates of organ donation increase dramatically when the default is in favor of it, and you have to opt out if you don’t want to donate your organs, rather than the default being negative and relying on people to opt in.