Stuart Waldner didn’t set out to be an activist. He transitioned to a plant-based diet in 2008 and the better he felt and the more he learned about the statistical connections between our dietary choices and the worldwide crisis we’re about to face, the more he felt called to wake people up.

In his new book, Escape the MEATrix, Stuart Waldner chronicles his eye-opening battle against climate change as he exposes the real reason that veggies are more expensive than a burger. It’s not what you think. We might not like the truth but the cost of ignorance is far too high. Today on Author Hour, I’m joined by Stuart to talk about his book, Escape the MEATrix.

Stuart, thank you so much for joining me today.

Stuart Waldner: It’s my pleasure, Meghan. Thanks for having me.

Meghan McCracken: So where I always love to start with authors is exactly how they reach the moment where they decided it’s time to write a book, what was that trigger for you?

Stuart Waldner: That’s a good question, I often ask myself the same thing. It’s like, “When did I decide to do this?” I was reading a lot of articles about climate change and the environment and health and nutrition and animal welfare and I realized that there’s so much going on, on the planet right now. There’s like a five-alarm fire, you know? There’s climate change and emerging infectious diseases. Biodiversity loss, mass extinction rates and environmental degradation. There’s so much happening, it seems like it’s a really a critical time on our planet and as I was doing this research, it really became apparent to me that so many of the things that I just mentioned could be made less or avoided altogether through a plant-based lifestyle and I really didn’t think anyone was really talking about it. So I felt like maybe I should write a book about it and that’s how I got started.

Meghan McCracken: That’s fascinating and I think especially the subject matter of your book. It’s a huge amount of your obvious passion and also knowledge on the subject that comes through and I think even the title of your book, which is a little tongue in cheek, it’s Escape the MEATrix, which I absolutely love, that’s a great title.

It’s so apparent in reading your book that there is so much of your own personal story and passion and really emotion behind the message that you’re giving. So [give us] a quick overview of the most important message to take away from your book?

Stuart Waldner: I think that the most important message is one of hope. You know, all the things I just mentioned that are happening on the planet, it can get really overwhelming and people can think, you know, that they could never make a difference or maybe someone who thinks, “I’m concerned about climate change and biodiversity loss, but what can any one person do?” and my book is saying a person can do a lot, actually. If enough people do it then it could have a huge impact. So that’s kind of where the message is coming from.

Yeah, I discuss a lot of unpleasant truths in my book but it’s still a message of hope. At the end of the day, it’s about how you can make one change and the ripple effect of that one change can be enormous and if everyone does it then, the world would be a much better place.

Painful Truths

Meghan McCracken: Yeah, the part of your book that I think you do really, really well approaching it from the perspective of, “Hey, these are going to be uncomfortable truths, some of these are even painful truths” and I think you did such a great job in the introduction of making really clear that, “Hey, I’m not here to shame or blame anyone” and primarily it’s because that doesn’t work, it makes people stop listening and also because there are a lot of factors here that go into the choices people make.

So tell me about some of these painful truths? What are the main painful truths that you’re bringing to light in this book?

Stuart Waldner: One of the amazing things that I read was in Lancet, which is a weekly peer reviewed medical journal and they said that the global food production was the largest threat to the stability of the earth and that really blew my mind.

If you base what the main media says is you would think that the largest threat to the stability of the earth is burning of fossil fuels. You know, oil and coal, ore, the transportation sector is the biggest threat. There’s a big push to go electric with your cars and you know, this whole component about the global food production is just ignored in the mainstream media and I found that really, really fascinating that it never gets talked about and I hope that my book will help change that so that we could have a discussion around it.

Another thing that I talk about in my book is a study by Oxford University and they said, of all the emissions from agriculture, if we all became plant-based and gave up animal-based foods that the footprint and the emissions from agriculture would be reduced by 70%, so that’s enormous. So we’re talking about the number one threat to the planet, the threat to the stability of our planet and we can reduce that threat by 70% just by giving up meat and dairy and eggs.

Just by adopting a whole foods plant-based lifestyle. That blows my mind and I know people are probably thinking, “This guy is crazy. It can’t be, it can’t be true” but all the information in my book has been fact checked and it comes from reputable sources like Oxford University and the Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine and a lot of prestigious journals and medical facilities.

Meghan McCracken: Yeah, you do a great job throughout the book of bringing in the science while also balancing it really well with a lot of personal storytelling, a lot of great anecdotes, I especially, I again, I just really love the theming in the concept of the plot of the MEATrix. It’s so apt, it’s such a great act, a little analogy in theme.

I’m wondering, if you’re going into writing a book where you know you’re going to be discussing uncomfortable truths, painful truths that you’re very aware through your life experience that people commonly reject. They deny, they say no, that’s not true or “No, I couldn’t do that” or you know, they have resistances.

How did you approach writing this book, knowing that a huge amount of readership was going to get a part of the way into the introduction and say, “Nope, that’s not for me.” How did you apply making sure that they are going to stick with the book?

Stuart Waldner: Well, it’s yet to be seen, whether people will stick with it. I hope they do but I try to, as you said earlier, start off the book saying, you know, I’m not about blaming and shaming people. I spent the first 23 years of my life in the MEATrix. So I know, it’s comfortable. Everyone in our society is living there.

When I escaped the MEATrix and I gave up eating meat, it made a little bit more challenging to go home and enjoy a holiday meal because all of the holiday meals in this society usually centers around meat.

And so it is a little bit of a transition to make but I want people to know that it’s easier and easier and easier. I mean, when I started, it wasn’t as easy as it is today. It’s never been easier to become plant-based. There’s so many products coming out on the market today that are amazing from like, Beyond Meat products and Impossible Foods, they have plant-based meat alternatives. While they’re not a wholefood, they are a processed food, I think they’re much healthier for us and certainly, a lot healthier for the planet. For instance, the Beyond Meat burger, it generates 90% fewer greenhouse gases. It uses 99% less water and 93% less land per burger and that’s a huge win for the environment and it taste great.

If you haven’t tried some of the new plant based meats, I really encourage people to do it because they’re getting really, really good at making the product so much more meat-like. People may say, “Well, aren’t you plant based? Why do you want it to be like meat?” Well, most people don’t give up eating meat because they don’t like the taste of it. They give it up because of what it’s doing to their health, what is doing to the planet and what it’s doing to the animals. Very rarely do I talk to someone who says, “I hate the taste of meat.”  There are a few people like that out there, I know. So I think that these plant-based meat alternatives are great because in our society, we are used to centering a meal around a piece of animal protein on our plate and so what you can do is just add one of these plant-based meat alternatives to your meal, swap it out for the animal protein and you have a meal that’s healthier for you and much better for the planet and certainly, better for the animals.

Global Food Systems

Meghan McCracken: So total imaginary question here. Let’s say everyone tomorrow, everyone on the planet went plant-based, just overnight. They woke up and said, “You know? Stuart, you are 100% right, your book absolutely convinced me. Let’s do it.”

What are the big implications on our global food system, which you do a great job in the book of breaking down how much corporate interest has to do with this, the way we ran our agriculture globally has to like feeds into this problem and really, the myth that we need to be eating meat all the time.

What would be the implications if everyone tomorrow switched to a completely plant-based diet? How would that change how we make food and distribute it?

Stuart Waldner: Well, I think that that would be a major disruption to the food supply system that we have now and that’s a hypothetical that I really don’t think is very realistic. So I think what will happen is I think people will gradually move away from eating animal-based foods and I think it will be gradual and I think that as – it’s all about supply and demand and I think as there’s less demand for animal-based foods and farmers and ranchers will be producing less of it.

And I think over time, it will eventually get to where it is not cost effective anymore for ranchers and farmers and dairy farmers to produce these products. So I don’t see it happening overnight as much as gradually and I hope that the government will help assist farmers retool their operations towards plant-based food economy and I think that they need that support.

The government is very supportive of ranchers and the dairy industry. They give them huge subsidies. I think in 2019, the beef industry received $9 billion dollars in indirect payments from the government and that’s tax payer money going straight into the pockets of beef.

It would be different if we needed beef to live but we don’t and we’d actually become sick from eating it. I know some people are going to say, that’s not true or some people might be offended by my saying that but the science in my book shows that the saturated fats in animal-based foods create a litany of health conditions that could be avoided by simply changing our diets. So I hope that it does come about sooner rather than later.

I would love to see plant-based eating become ubiquitous in my lifetime. I don’t know if it will happen or not. I’m plant-based, I’m very healthy, I could live to be a ripe old age and I hope to see it come to fruition but it will be kind of disruptive if it happen overnight.

But I will say, I know I’m going on and on here but 70% of the grain that we grow, we feed to livestock in this country. So we wouldn’t really have to grow anymore food to feed everybody in our country, plant-based food. In fact, that 70% of grain that we feed to livestock, if we diverted that and grew corps on that existing land, it wouldn’t require any additional land. But if we grew crops for human consumption rather than for animal consumption, we could feed an additional one billion people in the US. And globally, we could feed an additional four billion people if we grew crops for human consumption rather than animal consumption.

Meghan McCracken: Yeah and I think one of the key resistances I hear from people all the time  — and I also, you know, me, not being a plant-based eater myself — a resistance that I think that I had don’t so much share as you write in your book, cognitive dissonance about I know, I know the realities of these things. I make different choices but I think everything that you’re saying and everything you write in the book about how deeply rooted the systemic nature of the way that we eat is, there are so many big pieces of the global food supply machine and also there are political interests, corporate interests that it can feel overwhelming in how to make change and there’s this concept I heard of recently involving climate change. It’s called weaponized hopelessness and I think that corporations, governments who, they have a vested interest in staying the way that we are in continuing to you subsidize meat producing farmers and organizations. They have an interest in weaponizing hopelessness and making people feel like, “Well, I can’t do anything myself, I can’t, little old me, I can’t do anything. So I guess I’ll just keep going” and what then do you say to an individual person of, “Hey, this is something you can do tomorrow, these are changes you can make that do make a difference?”

Stuart Waldner: Well, I say that we have a choice and most of us don’t realize that we have the choice because we were born into the MEATrix and so it’s all we’ve ever known. So most people think that eating animal based foods is natural and necessary and nutritious when the science in my book says, it’s none of those things.

So, the first step is getting people to realize that these foods are not necessary. The MEATrix does not have a monopoly on any nutrient. In fact, the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that, “Plants contain all the nutrients that we need to be healthy at any stage of life.” So the MEATrix doesn’t have a monopoly on protein or calcium, we can get all the nutrients we need.

So I think the first hurdle to overcome is this concept of, that we need to do this and that all this food that we’re growing and giving to animals is necessary and we have to do it because we have their flesh and their milk and eggs in order to be healthy when we don’t. So that’s a big hurdle to overcome.

And then, I’m offering people a choice between a red pill and the blue pill. So, the red pill will allow you to escape the MEATrix and the blue pill, I would tell people is tent them out to just maintaining the status quo and that’s what you were just talking about. There is a lot of vested interest at work here and to think that these changes are going to come about systemically, I really don’t see it. I mean, the government and the meat industry are embedded together and they are going to stay that way. It’s comfortable, it’s cozy, they’re not going to change so we have to disrupt that, you know?

So choosing the blue pill is basically saying, “Let’s keep the status quo going.” It is also saying, “I’m going to line the pockets of some of the wealthiest one percent with every purchase I make of animal based food, I am doing that.” It’s tantamount to saying, “I am fueling poor and poorer health for me and my family and for the planet and it basically as far as climate change goes, it’s tantamount to just watching the planet burn.” Because the carbon footprint of animal based agriculture is that big.

In fact, I talk about this in the book and it was really shocking to me to find out that two different groups independently came to the same conclusion. So Steven Chu, who is the president the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he was former energy secretary and a Nobel Prize recipient, he calculated that animal agriculture accounts for 51% of all greenhouse gases globally.

Then the World Bank Group, a set of environmentalist scientists did a study and they basically came to the same conclusion that livestock and their emissions account for 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally but who is talking about that? No one is talking about that because no one wants to hear it and in fact, the meat industry in the United States between the years 2000 and 2019 spent $200 million lobbying Congress against climate change legislation.

So why would they do that? It’s because they know they have an enormous climate problem and they don’t want to address it and it really can’t be addressed because it is horribly inefficient to grow all these crops and get such little return on investment. We have the best return on investment right now with chickens, thanks to factory farming but even then, we’re feeding chickens four and a half times more edible food than we get back from them. From cattle, it’s even worse, we’re feeding them 25 times more edible food than we get back from them.

And then if you just look at it from a protein input to protein output, 80% of the protein that we feed the chickens and 96% of the protein that we feed the cattle is lost. We never get that back and of course, some people will say, “Well, animal-based protein is so much more superior than plant-based protein.” But again, the science in my book show that that’s not true. That’s something that we’re taught and we’re conditioned to think but the science doesn’t really support that.

Meghan McCracken: Do you think that there is a scenario in which we could responsibly sustainably and without cruelty farm animals for food? Because I know there are farmers who are operating in what they believe is what I just described and I am wondering what your opinion is on that, is it even possible to responsibly sustainably raise animals to consume their products?

Stuart Waldner: I would say that it’s not because of the horrible return on investment that I just mentioned to you. If the MEATrix didn’t have all the government handouts that had had, it would collapse. I mean, the business plan of animal agriculture is so pitiful. I mean, look at the dairy and egg industry. Okay, so we know from grade school of science that nature prefers to be in balance. So for every chicken that’s born that lays an egg, there is a male chicken that’s born too, roughly the same. Well, a male chicken has no value in the egg industry, so what happens? Those chickens are killed, those chicks. They’re either gassed or ground up alive. What industry creates products and throws half of them away? Same with the dairy industry, you have an industry that relies on female cows that produce milk. Well, the male cows are waste product, so they are either sold for meat or go to a veal farm. So again, half of what they’re producing they’re throwing away. So I just don’t see how it’s sustainable and I just would think that it is not going to be something that I could ever really support.

Someone [told] me this just the other day as they source their beef locally from a farmer and they know that the cow has a really great life and so that makes them feel really good. I talk about this in my book, this notion about how cattle have a great life and one bad day and you know, there are some grocery store chains that talk about humane slaughter, welfare meat. Well, that’s an oxymoron, humane slaughter. There is no way you can kill a being that wants to live and call it humane. So I would say that it is not possible to do it in an ethical or sustainable way.

Meghan McCracken: What’s your opinion on the advancements being made right now in artificial lab grown meat? What are your thoughts on that?

Stuart Waldner: Well, I have two thoughts on that. So in my book, I talk about how they created artificial meat from the shoulder of a cow and it contained no fat, so it was all protein and people hated it. They thought it tasted really, really bad and that’s because what people are really jonesing for, for meat, mainly is the fat content. So there’s that part of the equation, so if you create just pure animal-based meat in a lab without fat, people are not going to eat it.

Then I read a really in depth article — this is not in my book so I really don’t talk about lab grown meat— but it said that yeah, they can do it but they can’t scale it up because you are talking about reproducing all these cells, the factory and everything has to stay so sanitary that they’re unable to do it. They can do it to a certain size and then it collapses because you know, inevitably something gets in to the system and it’s contaminated and then they just lose the batch.

So I think they can do it now in small batches but from what I read and what I understood, unless they can figure out a way to do it on a larger scale, just right now it can’t be done because of this contamination issue that they’re having. So I don’t see it being a solution to feed a lot of people.

Meghan McCracken: Right, for when we’re talking global food supply, it is not anything that you think is going to be any kind of large component of the question of global food supply.

Stuart Waldner: Not unless they get that contamination issue figured out so that they can create the meat on a much larger scale. Right now, it’s very, very small. It couldn’t really make a dent.

Balancing Science and Message

Meghan McCracken: So turning more to your journey of becoming an author with this book, so you decided to write the book. You have all of these wealth of experience and knowledge and science that you’ve gathered to tell your story and to deliver your message, how did you approach the actual structure and outline of all of that material? Because it is very dense. This is a science-packed book. It is a strongly messaged book and with the denseness of the content, as a writer, I myself know it can be really hard to keep a strong and clear central message at threading through all of that content and really cohering it together. How did you approach this?

Stuart Waldner: Well, I have great editors, I’ll have to say right off the bat. Writing, since you said you’re a writer as well and this is something – I wasn’t a writer. So I had to learn this but writing is writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. So I went through so many iterations of my book and just trying to organize it in different ways and even kind of late in the process, one of my editors said, “You know, I think we should move these chapters here and here and kind of group these together.”

So, really, I had some really expert advice from very good editors and I have to credit my partner, Lee. She is probably the most ruthless editor of them all but she is amazing and she really, really made my book so much better with her input and suggestions and advice.

So I can’t take much credit for it. I just tried to write from my heart and tried to convey the science and the message and as best I could and I had a lot of people who helped me organize it and structure it and I’m glad it comes off that way. I really wanted it to be something that was readable and science-based and again, my partner Lee, she is all about the science and she really helped me with that. And then she helped me also make it in kind of a non-technical terms, you know? Because I would read these studies and then I’d write something and it sounded like a study. I was like, “No, you got to put this in everyday language” and so she really helped me I think do that.

So I think I want to say to people, you know, it is supported by a lot of science. I think it’s an easy read. It’s not a technical book to read. It has over 400 citations but they’re in the back of the book. So if you want to take a deep dive like I did, you can check all of those out but when you read the book, it just kind of flows naturally and that’s what I was going for and it sounds like maybe I hit the mark on that based on what you just said.

Meghan McCracken: I really think you did. The thing that struck me most when reading your book is that, it is a very strong message and it is a message that for a lot of people, I mean me included, like I said I’m reading your book and I’m like, “Well, he’s right” I have to take a look at this and I think that the way that you’ve manage to balance the strength of the message and not backing off of that message with again, not blaming, not shaming and really just holding up a mirror.

That’s what I felt when I was reading this book, that you were really just holding up a mirror, “Hey look, it’s fine for you to have your choices and your thoughts but these are the implications and these are the consequences and these are the things you need to think through and being mindful about how you choose to feed yourself and your family” and so I do think you struck a great balance of that.

Stuart Waldner: This gave me goosebumps, oh my gosh, just hearing you say that. I can’t tell you, sorry to interrupt, but I just can’t tell you how good that made me feel. So I’m glad, I’m so glad that that message came through. You know, I’m all about helping people make informed decisions. And I think I don’t need to tell them what to do, I think the science is clear. And I think if they follow the science and I think people will make better choices for themselves and for the planet and for the animals. So I really appreciate what you said, that meant a lot to me. Thank you.

Meghan McCracken: I am so glad. Well, it’s been such a pleasure to talk to you about the book. Beyond just buying the book, reading the book, leaving a review and seeking you out on your website, where else can people find you?

Stuart Waldner: Yes, so I am on Instagram and Facebook and of course, my website, which you just mentioned, so people can find me there and my book will be on Amazon starting October 11th and the first week, the ebook will be on sale for 99 cents. So you know, just to help drive some sales but also, it’s a gift to the readers for 99 cents, you can get this information-packed book that could really make a difference in your life.

I just want to say, you know, for me, the choice was binary like the movie, you know, blue pill or red pill and I went all in but you know when you read my book, you don’t have to become 100% plant-based. You know any change that you can make will make a difference. It will have an impact, it will tip the scales and if enough people do it, then we will get to a healthier cleaner and more sustainable world.

So Business Insider said that a hamburger isn’t something bought and paid for but it is a symbol of a debt that one day must be repaid and that is because the climate impact of producing that hamburger is so immense. And so I say in my book that every parent or grandparent that is living in the MEATrix and eating hamburgers and animal-based foods, they’re creating a debt that would be so immense that their children and grandchildren may never be able to repay that.

So if you’re a parent or want to be a parent or a grandparent or hope to be someday, I really hope that you’ll think about the choices that you’re making and think about your children and grandchildren, what kind of world you wanted to leave them and just remember that the hamburger that you’re buying for four dollars is not something that you just buy and is paid for that there is a debt that one day will be repaid.

Meghan McCracken: Wow, that’s an incredible message. I am so excited for you in entering into the journey of becoming a published author. You’re headed towards launch. How are you feeling heading into it? By the time this episode comes out, the book will be available. So how are you feeling in these last few moments before launch?

Stuart Waldner: It seems surreal. You know, it’s a great feeling but at the same time, it doesn’t really feel real because I have been spending so much time writing and working up to this moment. I am very proud to be putting out a book into the world that I hope will make a difference. You know, some of the people in Scribe Media who worked on my book, who edited it, who wrote the back cover copy and did the artwork said that working on my book and reading it changed them.

It changed their life, it changed at how they looked at the world. So that was a real gift and I’m just so happy to finally be putting it out and to be talking about it. It is very, very strange so I am having to overcome that uncomfortable feeling about talking about myself and the book but it will get easier, I know. So it is a big change to go from writing to actually sitting down with you and talking about it.

Meghan McCracken: Yeah, 100%. Well, Stuart, I wish you so much success in this book launch and I am really excited to hold it in my hands when it is fully out, when we can get a copy of it. So thank you so much for joining me and good luck.

Stuart Waldner: Thank you, Meghan, I appreciate it. It was really great to speak with you and you ask some really great questions, thanks.