The Complicated Case for Pollotarianism
America should eat more chicken. But how many is too many?
“The 1992–1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak” sounds like a randomly generated target article for a round of the Wikipedia Game. But it goes a long way to explaining, well, me.
I was two months old when Washington State health officials informed the public about a massive E. coli contamination associated with hamburgers from Jack in the Box, and 3 months old when President Bill Clinton addressed the crisis on national television. My mom swore our family off eating red meat in response — understandably, since the outbreak largely affected, and killed, children within a few miles of our hometown in the Pacific Northwest. Her steadfastness was reinforced after my brother was born in the mid-1990s, just as another beef-borne illness was making international headlines: mad cow disease, a.k.a. the “United Kingdom BSE outbreak.”
As a result, I grew up not eating red meat, though by the time I was in middle school, this elaborate explanation for why I wasn’t touching my pepperoni pizza at a friend’s Skate King birthday party was beginning to draw odd looks (E. coli and mad cow disease long having faded from everyone else’s memories, Boston Legal fans not included). Things became much simpler to explain after I made the switch to full vegetarianism in high school, though I’d still occasionally get the disbelieving “you mean you’ve NEVER had BACON?!” response whenever someone got nosy about my dietary history and if I was abstaining “for animal cruelty reasons, or what?”
It turns out, though, that my weirdo childhood diet is now frequently touted as one of the best ways to eat for the sake of the planet (take that, Jennifer). Sometimes referred to as “pollotarianism” — which is incredibly confusing to try to pronounce if you speak any Spanish — the act of replacing red meat in your diet with poultry has been characterized by Gidon Eshel, a research professor of environmental physics at Bard College, as “the most impactful change” you can make for the climate “save going all-out vegan.”
I admit I was pleasantly surprised — okay, fine, smug — upon discovering that this would mean I’ve eaten positively for the planet my whole life (even if the aforementioned pollotarianism, and subsequent teenage conversion to vegetarianism, had nothing to do with the environment at the time). I could proselytize giving up beef as an accessible way of trying “to eat in the manner that takes note of the finality of Earth,” as Eshel so elegantly phrased it to me. After all, I’ve actually lived that chicken nugg life!
Recent climate activism has focused on pressuring big polluters and governments and moved away from the emphasis on individual responsibility, but one place you actually can feel like you’re making a meaningful difference for the planet is, in fact, in how you eat. “Somewhere between 20 and 35 percent of all emissions come from feeding ourselves,” Eshel explained. Our diets are “one of the few things where we can really take a major chunk out of our total emissions.”
And about a quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions from the food industry can be attributed specifically to beef production, which requires 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer, and 11 times more water than other animal products like chicken, dairy, or eggs. By one frequently cited estimate, replacing beef on your plate with chicken could cut your dietary carbon footprint in half.
That’s not insignificant: To become carbon neutral by 2050, every person on the planet would need to limit their emissions to an annual 2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents or less, Germany’s Deutsche Welle reports; meat consumption alone “accounts for [a] … staggering 4.1 carbon dioxide equivalents in North America.” Beef is so significantly worse than other protein sources that if just 20 percent of the Americans who currently eat beef switched to anything else, it would “reduce the overall carbon footprint of all U.S. diets by 9.6 percent,” according to one study. Put another way, “people eating the same number of calories and the same number of grams of protein can have a vastly different impact,” Eshel told me. “Much more so than choices of car, much more — like tenfold or more.”
Sure, we could all just become vegetarians and vegans, but judging by how many people I’ve offended by confirming no, I’ve never had bacon, that reality is a long way off. And according to Eshel, it doesn’t even have to be aspirational: “There is only one thing that I can think of where, each time you avail yourself of it, you’re doing a significant damage to your overall diet: that would be beef,” he said. “Everything else is kind of, let’s call it negotiable.”
Eat chicken to save the planet seems like a simple enough sell. But emissions notwithstanding, there’s an ethical problem with this solution.
Standing in my kitchen, visualizing the production chains, something horrible and obvious started to dawn on me. Cows are big. Chickens are small. If we replace beef with poultry, we’re only shifting the barreling, destructive forces of man onto a track aimed straight at an unthinkable number of hens.
“Oh my god,” I blurted to my husband in horror as he was making us dinner. “I think I’ve created the trolley problem, with chickens.”
Because here’s the thing: The meat from one slaughtered cow is roughly the equivalent of meat from something like 100 to 150 chickens. “Globally we slaughter 320 million cows for meat each year,” Wired U.K. has written. “If we sourced all of that meat from chicken instead, we’d be killing an extra 41 billion animals.” There are some animal activists who are so alarmed by that math that they actually urge eating anything but chicken. As Matt Ball, whose organization One Step for Animals endorses this view, explained to me over email, “The only reason to care about the climate is how it impacts sentient beings. The only ethical stance is to promote choices that lead to less suffering.”
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization anticipates 250,000 additional human deaths due to climate change between 2030 and 2050. Though most people value human life over a chicken’s — arguably, in feeding ourselves, this is what we’re actively doing — 41 billion dead animals is a lot of misery. Industrially raised birds have uniquely ghastly existences, even by factory-farmed animal standards; according to John Webster, a veterinarian and leading authority on livestock welfare, the chicken industry is “the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”
The “climate vs. animal well-being” tradeoff can be extrapolated out even further. Feedlot cows — an animal you don’t especially want to be — are fed greenhouse gas-curbing diets of grain, and thus produce up to 40 percent less methane than comparatively happy, but belchier, grass-fed cattle. Free-range chickens also have higher emissions than those that live in the hellish, windowless sheds exposed in PETA documentaries. There is no way around it: Climate-friendly omnivorous diets, and even climate-friendly vegetarian diets supplemented with eggs and dairy, often come at the expense of the increased suffering of animals.
Reeling in this existential horror, I presented the conundrum to Princeton University professor and renowned bioethicist Peter Singer, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation was foundational in the legitimizing of animal suffering and is considered a cornerstone of the modern animal welfare movement (a revised edition, Animal Liberation Now, will be out in May). The problem with my question, he pointed out, was the entire premise of an “ethical omnivore,” which — while perhaps not entirely impossible — would be very hard to realistically be, given the pervasiveness of inhumane practices in the meat industry. “It’s hard to find what are good choices, both from a humane point of view, not supporting cruelty to animals, and the climate point of view,” he agreed.
But all was not lost! “One thing that anybody can do, of course, is to reduce the consumption of meat and other animal products,” Singer suggested. That way, “you’re then reducing both your greenhouse gas contributions and your support of intensive farming and animal suffering.”
It’s a method Webster, the veterinarian, proposed to me, too. Due to the astonishing production capabilities of modern poultry farms, where hens are bred to grow at monstrous rates and reach slaughter weight around just 6 weeks old, chicken “has become a junk food ... it’s cheaper than dog food, it is grotesque,” he told me. If we’re going to be taking “food from animals, it’s got to be higher quality, less of it,” Webster went on. “And we’ve got to pay more for it, so we don’t eat so much. Which, of course, is incidentally, or coincidentally, entirely good in terms of animal welfare. It’s a win-win situation for the animals.” Of course, it’s not a win-win for the humans always; if meat becomes a luxury good then it will become predominantly a food for the rich, a problematic outcome in different ways.
Still, Americans actually are eating less beef than they used to, but we are also eating more animals, overall, than ever. The year 2022 set a record for meat consumption, and 2023 is projected to set a new one, due mainly to the increased consumption of chicken by U.S. households. “When additional meat choices are offered,” researcher Richard York discovered in a 2021 study, “that additional variety tends to … increase overall meat consumption,” rather than shift Americans from one kind of protein, like beef, to another.
Is the only truly ethical way to eat, then, to be a full vegan? Even that depends on who you ask. In Planta Sapiens: The New Science of Plant Intelligence, a forthcoming book by Paco Calvo, a professor of philosophy of science and the principal investigator at the Minimal Intelligence Lab at the Universidad de Murcia in Spain, the author makes the case that it’s “very unlikely that plants are not far more aware than we intuitively assume.” And if that’s true, then “we can no longer turn a blind eye to the ethical implications of our interactions with them,” he writes, since, “if an organism has awareness, then our treatment of it has implications for its suffering.”
Absurd as such a line of thinking might seem — Singer, for one, outright dismisses the possibility that plants feel pain in Animal Liberation, and Calvo will be the first to admit the theories in his book have yet to be accepted by the wider philosophical and biological science communities — I’ve actually found it to be one of the most enlightening ways to think about how we should approach food. Speaking with Calvo, he advised me against connecting climate-conscious eating and animal welfare too tightly, lest we “run the risk of feeling safe.” Just because someone is a vegetarian, for example, doesn’t mean they’re not practicing or supporting intensive agriculture and in doing so, unnecessarily stressing living organisms; that person might even be in a worse ethical position than someone living off of free-range, free-roaming animals. “It has to do not with the intrinsic value, or with the organism, per se, but with the suffering being inflicted unnecessarily, regardless of the kingdom of precedence,” Calvo said.
The argument of Planta Sapiens, after all, isn’t that we shouldn’t eat salads anymore, but that all life is deserving of dignity, even when that means humbling ourselves with the recognition that we might not have a monopoly on behavior, intelligence, and awareness. While I believe Singer is right — that it is difficult to minimize suffering as an omnivore within the parameters of the world most of us actually live in, i.e. one full of Costcos and Price Choppers — the important thing is to mitigate harm whenever and however we can. “I mean, it takes a toll, being alive,” Calvo counseled me. “So we’ve got to be realistic to some extent.”
Okay, so maybe I don’t have the moral high ground I thought I did on my hamburger-munching elementary school classmates who are now DIYing candles and chronicling their composting efforts on Instagram. The answer to “What is the best and most realistic diet for most people?” continues to be reflected well in the old Michael Pollanism: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”