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Debatable: Should We Adopt Dietary Restrictions to Save the Environment?

Rabbi Barry Schwartz

The single most important thing each of us can do to reduce global warming and save the planet is to eat less meat.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” an exhaustive study by some of the world’s best scientists, concluded that “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Producing a pound of beef releases 20 pounds of carbon into the air; by comparison, chicken produces 1.8, and grains fewer than one. Moreover, it takes 16 times the amount of energy to produce a beef meal rather than a vegetable and grain dish. In fact, the global environmental toll of livestock exceeds that of all the world’s transportation systems!

Yet, until URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie made ethical eating a central theme of the Toronto Biennial this past November, the issue of what we eat was considered so personal, such a “sacred cow,” that not a single Jewish organization dared to make it a priority.

Given Judaism’s historical link between food and faith, modifying our diets should be considered a religious duty. Just as we affirm God as creator and sustainer—“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof”—we safeguard our children’s future when, in eating, we bring minimal harm to God’s world.

Contemporary Judaism is in need of a new ethical hypothesis: kavod kol habriyot. While this expression often means “human dignity” in the rabbinic literature, I believe it should encompass “reverence for all creation,” the well-being of the entire earth.

For the earth, let’s cut way back on beef. This sacred cow needs to be sacrificed for the sake of a new Jewish dietary imperative.

Rabbi Barry Schwartz is spiritual leader of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.


Rabbi Cliff Librach

Few talmudic principles are as clear as that which simply states: “One should not impose a restriction on the community unless the majority can abide by it” (Baba Kamma 79b and parallels).

This principle perfectly applies to the suggestion that we Reform Jews impose upon each other a ban on the consumption of meat for reasons of ecological sensitivity.

Like much of the work of the United Nations, its 2006 report linking the raising of livestock and the eating of meat to global warming, deforestation, land erosion, and air and water pollution is a case of misplaced (and hysterical) political correctness. As more than half of all American agricultural land is unsuitable for growing crops, the grazing of cattle and other animals doubles the production of food products from the available land. Foraging animals also help stabilize the soil and promote the expanded growth of grasses.

The beef industry has a vested interest in being good stewards of the land. Their livelihood relies on preserving a healthy, safe, and clean environment.

The voluntary individual limitation or prohibition of meat consumption for reasons of health may surely be smart. Obviously, encouraging healthy living is a tautology. Who, exactly, would be opposed to that?

As for the paternalistic charge that meat consumption is unhealthy for the rest of the world, I would contend that a diet that includes high protein, vitamins, and minerals is more advantageous than a diet without meat. Populations that consume meat are taller and have more energy and greater immunity to disease than populations who lack this rich food source.

Some would consider exhorting Reform Jews to reduce or prohibit meat consumption for reasons of environmental protection as elitist and obnoxious; others might say it’s unrealistic. I simply call such proposals silly.

Honestly, doesn’t the URJ have bigger fish to fry?

Rabbi Clifford E. Librach is spiritual leader of the United Jewish Center of Danbury, Connecticut.

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