Houston, Texas, served as the backdrop of the third Democratic presidential debates held on Thursday night. It’s the perfect place to talk about sea level rise, the United States’ role as the second-largest oil exporter, frontline communities, a just transition for fossil fuel workers, recovery and managed retreat, or any other number of pressing climate questions.
Instead, we got moderators asking Senator Cory Booker if everyone should be vegan like him to save the climate. Booker chose to become vegan in 2014, and there are some genuinely interesting questions about his choice and if the U.S. is ready for a vegan president (no president ever has been vegetarian, let alone vegan). Asking if everyone should become vegan is not one of them. It’s just a cheap gimmick, and it completely obscures the fact that our food system is broken in ways far beyond individual dietary choices.
The bar for news anchors asking insightful climate question is low, and yet Jorge Ramos (who did a generally excellent job otherwise) managed to dig a tunnel under said bar and then crawl through it. Here’s what he asked Booker on Thursday, complete with audience reactions memorialized in ABC’s transcript:
“Senator Booker, let me ask you about Brazil. After the recent fires in the Amazon, some experts suggested that eating less meat is one way to help the environment. You are a vegan since 2014. That’s obviously a personal choice, but President Trump and Brazil’s President Bolsonaro are concerned that climate change regulations could affect economic growth.
“So should more Americans, including those here in Texas, and in Iowa...
“... follow your diet?”
Honestly, if Ramos stopped at how Booker would deal with a far-right president in Brazil hellbent on letting the Amazon burn, it’d have been a great question! Or if Ramos asked him how he would work world leaders to conserve forests and the vital role they play in combatting climate change? Swoon. Am I dead? Is this heaven?
Instead he awkwardly pivoted to asking Booker about his diet and if more Americans, including Super Real Americans in Texas and Iowa, should follow his lead. I mean, why not ask Bernie why he’s not vegan? Or the other candidates about their personal actions to address climate change? (The answer is because those questions are, by and large, stupid.)
Booker admirably swatted it away, answering with a “no” and then translating that into Spanish (also “no”) before pivoting to the real problem (emphasis ours):
“Look, on — let’s just be clear. The factory farming going on that’s assaulting this corporate consolidation of the agricultural industry, one of the reasons why I have a bill to put a moratorium on this kind of corporate consolidation is because this factory farming is destroying and hurting our environment. And you see independent family farmers being pushed out of business because of the kind of incentives we are giving that don’t line up with our values. That’s what I’m calling for.”
That’s a substantive answer to a question that treats Booker’s veganism as some sort of novelty sideshow. And more importantly, it gets at the root issue: large corporate farming screwing our food system and screwing the climate. All told, agriculture accounts for 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and much of it comes from Big Ag. Corporate farms till soil in ways that release carbon dioxide, they dump fertilizer on fields that releases even more potent greenhouse gases, and they overproduce food that ends up rotting in the field or landfills and releasing—you guessed it—more potent greenhouse gases.
And when those fertilizers aren’t busy releasing greenhouse gases, they’re running off into rivers (see: the Midwest this spring) and ending up in the Gulf of Mexico where huge algae blooms kill fish, shrimp, and livelihoods that rely on them. This doesn’t even get at the impacts of factory animal farms, but suffice to say they’re also terrible for the climate and the environment at large. And it doesn’t even begin to address the globalized agriculture system, which yeah, it’s bad.
The whole system is extremely broken, and veganism alone is not the answer. In fact, some research suggests everyone eating vegan in the U.S. would result in nutritional deficiencies. This isn’t to say there isn’t value in people adjusting their diet, and frankly, there’s no way the world can thrive if everyone ate like the average American.
A report put out earlier this year chronicled how the world could fix its food system to support the projected 9 billion people that will live on Earth by 2050, and it included an “average” diet everyone could eat. If the world followed it, greenhouse gas emissions would drop and there would be less obesity and heart disease in the U.S. where the average American eats too much bad food, including red meat. And it would also mean less people going hungry in other parts of the world.
But here’s the thing: The report was largely about changing the entire food system. In fact, one of the report’s authors noted that a “radical transformation of the global food system is urgently needed.”
The seven people Cory Booker converted to veganism last night ain’t that. Instead, policies like the ones Booker mentioned are what’s needed. Or even more radically, you could look to former climate candidate Jay Inslee’s last plan before the Washington governor dropped out of the presidential race. The whole thing focused on the food system and climate. It included a lot of fixes to the farm system as well as a nudge for consumers by climate-focused labeling on food products.
These are the types of things we need to be discussing. Not whether we should all be eating delicious vegan cupcakes.