Schools in meat-loving rural Brazil went vegan. The community revolted.
By Terrence McCoy, The Washington Post
November 3, 2019
SERRINHA, Brazil — Squeezed into plastic chairs, hand fans going full tilt, hundreds of parents listened in the summer heat. The planet was in big trouble, they were told, and the time had come for their community in rural Brazil to do something about it.
The messenger wasn’t one of their own. She spoke with the hard r’s of the wealthier southeast, not the lilting cadence of Bahia, one of the poorest states in Brazil. But what Leticia Baird had to tell the parents was even more striking: Here in meat-producing, meat-eating, meat-loving Brazil, the schools were going vegan.
Baird, a prosecutor in the Bahia state public ministry, had persuaded four municipalities anchoring this dusty landscape of cactuses and farmland to swap out animal protein for plant protein at all public schools. By the end of 2019, only plant-based meals would be served to the area’s more than 33,000 students.
“To preserve the environment for the present and for future generations, we need to take additional measures,” she declared. “Including changing our own habits.”
It’s a surprising paradox of life here: Brazil, the world’s No. 1 exporter of beef — a country where cows outnumber people, and a party isn’t a party without a barbecue — also has one of the highest rates of vegetarianism.
In the past decade, amid mounting awareness of the repercussions of humanity’s meat addiction — from growing rates of obesity to the deforestation of the Amazon — the number of Brazilians who consider themselves vegetarian has nearly doubled, from 8 percent of the population to 14 percent in 2018, according to surveys. By some measures, only India, with its cultural and religious traditions of vegetarianism, has a higher rate.
The carnivores and the herbivores mostly coexist harmoniously, if discordantly. Near the churrascaria sits the vegan sushi shop. In Rio de Janeiro, Burger King rents billboards to tout its newest offering: A plant-based patty with the “flavor and texture of meat.”
But the meeting of meat and health food, conservative tradition and liberal environmentalism would play out differently here in the northeastern state of Bahia, where people eat meat because that’s what people have always eaten.
There would be threats. Furious parents. A battle over science. Eventually, the federal government would get involved.
But before all of that, there was Baird, trying to establish the consequences of inaction before hundreds of parents. The health of children was on the line. The planet was facing an ecological crisis.
“How are we going to resolve this?” she asked.
An exotic food had been set out on a table: Jars of organic peanut butter. Parents inspected it with suspicion.
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