If one cares about food, and cares about eating well, and cares about making responsible, thoughtful choices, what is one to do about meat?
To start with, there are thorny ethical issues. The author of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas Adams, puts his finger on the problem here. It’s worth clicking the link to read the entire quote, not least because it’s hilarious. The relevant part is summed up by a cow who, in the future, explains how the ethical objections to eating meat were ultimately overcome:
it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.
Even if it were quite so easy for us to set aside the ethical worries over meat, there’d still be grounds for concern. Those grounds have been summed up in one of the most helpful academic review articles I’ve come across. It is now available for free, from the publishers of Public Health Nutrition . [Update: The article, entitled the Public health implications of meat production and consumption, is now available here.]
It’s not a heavy read. The basic arguments are these:
1. Argument of Better Use
- The number of people in the world is growing.
- The amount of crop land available per person is falling.
- The amount of grain fed to animals is high and rising.
- Land used for animal feed is land that is prevented from being used for grains for human consumption.
- Therefore the increased spending power of people who can afford to eat meat is preventing poor people from eating anything at all.
2. Argument of Surfeit
- In the US (and most other rich countries), people want more and more meat.
- The maximum amount of meat recommended by The American Heart Association each year is 138 lb (62.6 kg) of lean meat per person each year.
- The actual amount consumed in the US is 80 lb (36.3 kg) or about 60% more than that.
- Therefore meat consumption is too high from a public health perspective.
2.5 Corollary of Impossibility
- There isn’t enough land on the planet to grow food to feed the animals for everyone to eat this much meat.
3. Argument against Resource Waste
- All animals need food.
- Grain production needs energy – at least a calorie in for every calorie out.
- To grow a kilo of grain requires 1000 kilos of water.
- To produce 1 kilo of beef requires 7 kg of grain. To produce 1 kilo of pork needs 4 kg, and 1 kilo of chicken requires 2 kg of grain.
- therefore eating meat wastes resources.
The article also makes a great deal out of the fact that more and more meat is being produced in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These CAFOs have replaced ‘traditional family farming’. “In the USA in 1966, 57 million pigs were distributed among one million farms; in 2001 these same 57 million pigs were raised on 80 000 farms, and over half were raised in just 5000 facilities.”
As well as destroying a particular vision of family farming, CAFOs concentrate the waste and pollution produced in livestock rearing. The result is vast effluent, which results in a strong:
4. Argument against Pollution
- Animals require a great deal of food.
- This requires intensive production methods which in turn requires pesticides.
- Animal feed lots also generate a great deal of pollution. “As of 1997, animals in the US industrial production system produced a grand total of approximately 1.4 billion tons of waste. This is equivalent to about 5 tons of animal waste for each person in the USA.”
- The run-off is toxic. “More than 70% of all antibiotics produced in the USA are used in animal production: 25–75% of antibiotics pass unchanged from feed to manure and create risks to soil and water quality.”
5. Argument for Workers Rights
- Working in an intensive animal feeding operation is nasty work.
- “Up to 30% of CAFO workers suffer from occupational respiratory diseases such as acute and chronic asthma”.
- They also “suffer high rates of worker injury and repetitive motion syndrome, and report a lack of proper protective equipment”.
6. Argument for Community rights
- Communities “living near large-scale pig
facilities reported higher incidence of headaches, respiratory problems, eye irritation, nausea, weakness, and chest tightness.
- Children of CAFO operators in Iowa have higher rates of asthma than do other farm children. Three studies have documented increased rates of physical and mental illness among people living near CAFOs.”
On top of these arguments comes one from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. In a report last year entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, it makes:
7. The Argument for preventing Global Warming
- Livestock rearing is responsible for 13% of all CO2 emissions. This is more than the emissions caused by driving. US meat eaters are responsible for 1.5 tons more CO2 than vegetarians.
All in all, from an environmental and worker-rights perspective, there’s a compelling case against eating meat. Add the ethical dimension, and the case becomes stronger yet.
But precisely because over a billion people are caught up in the livestock industry (most of those people being poor farmers from the Global South), it’s not going to be easy to make the change. Meat plays a strong part of many cultures, and while cultural change is necessary (if only for environmental reasons), it’s unlikely to happen over night.
If meat is a must, eating less is definitely something to consider. And when the time comes to tuck into a roast or a slice, there’s almost an ethical obligation to make sure to get meat that tastes great (as it did at last week’s Cook Here and Now).
Ask for sustainably reared meat at your local butcher. Ask whether it has been allowed to graze freely, what it has been fed, whether anyone has certified the process, what the pasture was before it became pasture, how workers are treated, and what happens to the waste products generated on the farm, and at the slaughterhouse.
It’s a long list of questions, but once they’ve been answered to your satisfaction, the meat’s likely to taste much less bitter.
Local resources for the US available here.