Christopher Schlottmann ’02 Explores Environmental Impacts of Agriculture
The co-author of the recent Food, Animals, and the Environment: An Ethical Approach spoke to Cat Lazaroff ’89 about the harsh realities of industrial agriculture, personal dietary choices, and how Haverford shaped his worldview.
Ten years ago, Chris Schlottmann started assembling a course on ethics and food for New York University’s Department of Environmental Studies, where he has taught since 2007. He quickly realized that most of the environmental impacts of agriculture—particularly industrial agriculture—come from farmed or harvested animals. Those revelations led to the development of Schlottmann’s new book, Food, Animals, and the Environment: An Ethical Approach, cowritten with fellow NYU professor Jeff Sebo. Cat Lazaroff ’89 spoke to Schlottmann about the book during a walk near his home in the Jackson Heights section of Queens.
Cat Lazaroff: How did your new book come about?
Chris Schlottmann: For me, it started when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. It got me thinking about how many difficult, complicated, ethical questions come into play when we’re deciding what to eat. Animals raised for food use a lot of land. They burp methane, eat lots of corn and soy, consume lots of water, and produce a lot of waste. Compared to other kinds of agriculture, they have disproportionate impacts on everything, from biodiversity to climate change. I started teaching my students about this and realized that there was no text out there that offered a good foundation for thinking about food and animals from an ethical perspective. So I wrote one together with my colleague Jeff Sebo. It’s meant to be a plain-language overview for anyone who’s interested in these topics.
CL: The book raises lots of tough questions. Are there right answers to these questions?
CS: You’re right, they are tough questions! We’re looking at really big problems, like, “How do we feed everyone while minimizing harm to the environment, or to animals?” But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean all things are equal. There are definitely better or worse answers to these questions, particularly if we value individual choices. In almost all cases, reducing consumption of animals and animal products decreases climate impact and harm to animals. Answers are often contextual, however. Indigenous cultures that don’t want to participate in industrial agriculture are going to have different answers to some of these questions. And if you’re looking at it from an animal ethics perspective, your views might be different from a proponent of local economies. A central conclusion of the book is that, while there are trade-offs in individual choices, avoiding eating animals is almost always a net benefit to the environment, animals, and humans. We live in a globalized modern world where everything you do has impacts. If you try to be a purist, you’ll become paralyzed very quickly. It’s never quite as simple as “this is good and this is bad.” All our food choices are going to have environmental and moral impacts. So we’re already in a messy terrain before we even take a bite.
CL: What kinds of food choices have you made personally?
CS: I haven’t eaten animals since I was 13 for the noblest of reasons: There was a girl I liked, and I thought not eating meat would draw us closer. I’ve been vegan for quite a while now. I draw my line there; I don’t eat animal products. Living in New York City and cooking for myself, it’s easy, and I don’t find it even slightly depriving. There are more vegetarian and vegan choices here than I can imagine! For others, in other areas, with other dietary or cultural needs, it might be harder. We have an outdated view regarding the environmental impacts of food, the role of animals across our food systems. Even if we don’t eat animals directly, in many cases farmers are harvesting fish to grind up and fertilize organic fields.
CL: It sounds like it’s possible to tie yourself in knots over these issues! Any recommendations for where to start?
CS: In America, we tend to think about social change happening at the individual level. But that doesn’t reflect the nature of these problems—they’re systemic, institutional problems. Many of our choices are being made by corporations and government that control how we get our food. Focusing on individual actions pulls attention away from things that matter most, like voting, or calling your senators. Yelling at a senator—successfully—will have impact that’s going to scale up, in a way individual actions never will. It’s really important for individuals to not beat themselves up over every choice they make. It’s paralyzing, it’s a distraction, and it keeps us from living fulfilling lives. I tell my students to think about which of their actions they can control, rank them, and make choices that are as simple to implement as possible. In terms of environmental impacts, there are a few big areas where you can make an outsized impact—eating animal products, whether or not to have children, how large your house is, how you travel. Recycling is peanuts compared to these. Pick two or three of the big ones to act on, and worry less about the rest.
CL: What gives you hope that we’ll find more ethical ways to meet our food needs?
CS: We grow a tremendous amount of food. If we wasted less by not throwing it away, letting it rot in fields, or feeding it to animals—thereby losing most of the calories—many of our food production and supply challenges would be mitigated. Also, the popular understanding of the environmental impacts of food and agriculture is becoming more accurate as we focus increasingly on animal agriculture. We can’t respond to a problem without understanding the nature of it, so this is a hopeful sign.
CL: What did you learn at Haverford that helps you now?
CS: Haverford was formative for me. It left me with a constant curiosity, this need to examine the tough questions. I try to do the same thing for my students: arm them to ask critical questions and make their own decisions. I thought a lot about my time at Haverford in developing our curriculum for the Environmental Studies Department. It is always changing by incorporating case studies and applied projects, because we can’t fully predict the challenges we’ll be grappling with in a few years. We’ve unleashed this unpredictable, harmful phenomenon that is climate change, and we need adaptive thinkers to respond to it. And we need to be adaptive to the future. The current generation of college students is incredibly sharp, morally motivated, and resilient. They’ve been dealt a very tough hand, but are unfailingly persistent in working to make the world a better place. That’s reason for hope.