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Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?
Meatless Monday. (Photo: Andrew Allio/Flickr)

Meatless Monday. (Photo: Andrew Allio/Flickr)

The Texas Department of Agriculture had long recommended that consumers “substitute beans for meat once a week.” This seemed like innocuous, if not perfectly healthy, advice. And then someone took it.

Earlier this month the Dripping Springs Independent School District joined school districts across the country by enacting Meatless Monday. It pursued this goal by doing exactly what the agriculture department suggested: It filled lunchtime burritos with beans rather than beef. In response, Todd Staples, the Texas Agriculture Commissioner, bashed the beans and threw a tantrum.

Feed production for livestock uses 27 percent of all irrigation water in the United States. On average, animal-based foods require eight times as much fresh water for the same amount of calories produced by plant-based foods.

In a sizzling op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman, he lambasted the school district, located just outside of Austin, for its subversive culinary endorsement of legumes. Such a sinister act of non-faunal protein substitution was not only “irresponsible,” but, as he noted two years earlier in a similar outburst against a meatless lunch plate, it was downright “treasonous.”

Orwellian deeds followed strong words. On September 12, as reactions to Staples’ apoplexy poured into the Austin newspaper—“Shame on you, Todd”—the Department of Agriculture entered crisis mode. First, it snuffed out a website endorsing plant-based protein. Then, two days later, the website containing the standard bean substitution advice vanished as well. Both were deemed by a spokesperson to have “offered advice that was neither complete nor scientifically based.” Or, for that matter, profitable. The livestock industry has, over the years, stuffed Staples’ 10-gallon hat with over $100,000 in contributions.

Hypocrisy can be entertaining. Funny even. But, all humor aside, the real issue here is what’s at stake environmentally. Livestock are major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. The meat industry accounts for almost half of all methane emissions and almost two-thirds of nitrous oxide output—gasses that are phenomenally more potent than carbon dioxide. Farm animals occupy almost half of the Earth’s arable land and are the leading cause of habitat destruction. It’s thus nothing short of lunacy that Staples, in his op-ed, wrote that “it bothers me when a particular group tries to convince the public that meat consumption is ... environmentally unfriendly.” (Talk about treason.)

But it’s on the specific matter of water that Staples’ bean burrito outburst looks especially absurd. As the agriculture commissioner from a drought-stricken state (83 percent of Texas is severely water stressed), he has been especially big on cutting water consumption. Good for him. But Texas raises more livestock than any other state in the nation. Feed production for livestock uses 27 percent of all irrigation water in the United States. On average, animal-based foods require eight times as much fresh water for the same amount of calories produced by plant-based foods. In the American West, up to 75 percent of all water goes to livestock. These alarming statistics lead to one conclusion: If you want to cut water usage, cut out the meat and go with the beans.

Nonetheless, after recently encouraging “all Texans to join me in making simple changes in daily habits to conserve water,” Staples advised ameliorating the state’s water crisis by undertaking such behavioral modifications as fixing leaky faucets, taking shorter showers, adding “mulch to your flower beds,” and washing “only full loads” of clothes and dishes. He promised Texas than these decisions “would make a big difference.”

The thing is, even brisket-obsessed Texans know what bullshit smells like. So if there’s any good news in this dereliction of civic responsibility it’s that citizens formerly inclined to go “ho-hum” over a meatless lunchtime burrito are now taking a closer look at the positive ecological consequences of beans. Overreactions are telling. They can inspire.

As for Staples, just 10 days after his bean burrito broadside hit stands he announced his resignation as agriculture commissioner. The announcement—which stuck to the old standards (God, the Alamo, etc.)—said nothing about beans. We’ll probably never know whether or not Staples was taken down by beans, but we can be assured that gas will remain his friend. He has accepted a position as the president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association.