Save the Planet: Eat Peanut Butter and Jelly

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Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm recently declared March 20, 2010, "Michigan Meatout Day." In an aggressive "proclamation," she recited the myriad health benefits of a plant-based diet. It protects us from salmonella and E. coli O. 157. It reduces the risk of heart disease. It decreases our chances of getting diabetes. And so on.

The governor skipped the environmental justifications for the meatout. Still, she might have noted that 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are directly caused by livestock production. Or that 99 percent of the 10 billion animals killed for food every year in the U.S. are raised and slaughtered in conventional factory farms known for their extensive reliance on antibiotics, conventional corn-based feed, and harmful growth hormones.

Whatever the rationale for her missive, Granholm was unequivocal in delivering it: "In observance of this day, I encourage the residents of this state to choose not to eat meat."

The governor surely knew she was courting trouble. Stumping for reduced meat consumption automatically puts one on the receiving end of bitter invective. No advocate of vegetarianism can enter the carnivorous fray expecting to avoid threats that suggest physical alteration (for the worse). Granholm's words were fighting words.

And sure enough, Michigan meat eaters fought back. One reader of the Detroit Free Press suggested she focus her gubernatorial clout on something truly important, like shaving the warts off her face. Another thought the best thing for her to do would be to "jump off a bridge." Yet another commenter (out of a seething 500) went easy on Granholm but insisted that she resolve the following conundrum: "If God didn't want people to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?"

Industry went apoplectic, too. Michigan Farm Bureau president Wayne Wood said, "It's inconceivable to us that the governor could stoop to this level of telling people what they should and shouldn't eat based on philosophies of 'food elitists.'" Another representative called the idea "an insensitive slap in the face."

From my own experience pushing the virtues of reduced meat consumption I've learned that asking people to make a dietary sacrifice easily backfires, often motivating consumers to eat more of the product in question. Spite can do that. So it was no surprise when members of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs urged members to celebrate the governor's meatout measure by hosting a huge barbecue on the capitol grounds.

The psychology of sacrifice is complicated. Studies consistently show that humans are remarkably quick to give up something for a loved one. But when it comes to self-denial, especially at the behest of a stranger's advice, or in the interest of a disembodied "cause," we tend to be more libertarian. Not to mention defensive and skeptical. Making matters even more complicated is the fact that food is, for many of us, religion. Looked at from this perspective, one could be forgiven for dismissing the public quest to reduce meat consumption as a lost cause.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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