Is Meat off the Menu?


I’ve a piece in this week’s issue of The Observer on meat, and my intention to stop eating it.

It was a much longer article before the wise people at the Food and Drink desk cut some of my excesses. But I’m sad that they lost a couple of references to Mark Bittman, to whom I’m grateful not only because I get to guest-blog at Bitten but because I find his work on meat, first here and more recently here, tremendously important and I wanted to thank him publicly.

Incidentally, in the same issue of the Observer Food Magazine, Joanna Blythman disagrees with me about meat. Her arguments are unusually flimsy. She suggests that, because the nomadic Masai have developed a complex system of nutrition dependent on livestock, the British have too, and therefore should be let alone. There are a range of other logical leaps, most of which I address.

You can read my position below the fold, and Blythman’s at the Observer Food Magazine website.

America is the most overweight country on earth. Only three out of 10 Americans have a normal body weight. I should have guessed that one of the side effects of moving to the US would be bloating.

Since leaving London for America a decade ago, I’ve put on a couple of stone. It’s easy enough to blame the food environment here. This is, after all, the land where Reagan pronounced tomato ketchup a fruit and, more recently, where French fries and chocolate-covered cherries were legally dubbed ‘fresh produce’ under a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulation known as the batter-coating rule.

I can’t just censure America for my condition, of course. Getting older and stopping smoking have accelerated my middle-age spread. I’m more active now than I used to be, but that hasn’t kept the podge at bay. And I’m convinced that part of the problem is that I eat meat. I came to America a vegetarian and I’ve lapsed into occasional chicken and fish (though, because of a residual Hinduism, no beef).

I’m not the only person to be blaming flesh for bad outcomes. In America, meat has been getting some bad press recently. The Humane Society of the United States earlier this year posted a widely circulated video, filmed undercover at an abattoir in California. It shows workers ramming cows with fork-lift trucks in order to persuade them to walk. There was a financial incentive for them to do it – ‘downer cows’, cows that are too sick to walk, are prohibited from entering the food system. By the time the story broke and the USDA announced a recall, most of the beef had already been distributed and fed to children through the school-meal programme.

Even Oprah has announced that she’s going vegan, if only for a three-week ‘cleanse’. Oprah has had run-ins with the meat industry before. In 1998, on hearing that American cows were being fed to other American cows in very British BSE-generating practices, she ‘stopped cold’ her beef consumption. A group of Texas cattlemen were aggrieved. They used one of the handful of legal restrictions to free speech rights in the US: you’re not allowed to disparage agricultural products here. They claimed that Oprah had done just that. They lost in court. Twice. Yet the implication, not too far from the surface in Oprah’s vegan detox diet, is that there’s something fairly toxic about meat.

Meat consumption has come under attack on grounds of ethics, environment and health and has even been blamed for the global food crisis. A couple of weeks back, George Bush said: ‘Worldwide, there is increasing demand. There turns out to be prosperity in the developing world, which is good… So, for example, just as an interesting thought for you, there are 350 million people in India who are classified as middle class… Their middle class is larger than our entire population. And when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up.’

More people demanding more meat means that more land is dedicated not to growing food for people, but food for animals – up to 9kg of grain for every kilo of beef. Ratcheting up meat consumption will drive up the price of feed grains, other things being equal.

Except that other things aren’t equal. Evidence suggests that it’s hard to impeach either India or China’s meat-eating habits. According to Daryll Ray at the University of Tennessee, the US government’s own figures show that China has been a net exporter of meats since 2001, subsidised to some extent by the running down of local grain stores, and an increased import of soybeans. Moreover, it has produced more grain than it has consumed for every year since 2005, and continues to export heavily. When it comes to India, Ray says the story is much the same as China’s. In fact India has been a net exporter of grains and meat over nearly all of the past two decades even though it has the world’s largest number of hungry people. So the problem is a little deeper than more Indians demanding things, as George Bush claims.

Blaming the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, is a bit of misdirection, particularly when the facts point the other way. Although India’s chicken consumption has gone from 0.2 million tonnes to 2.3 million today, beef consumption is more or less the same as it was in 1990 and, because of the cultural tilt against it, not forecast to change.

China is certainly the world’s largest consumer of meat in aggregate, and that is because it is the world’s most populous country. Meat consumption has increased from 24kg per person in 1980 to 54kg last year, and the chief of China operations for Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat packer, predicts that this is the last year that China will be self-sufficient in protein. Against this, soaring prices for meat in China are certainly taking the edge off demand. But until China’s meat demand extends its footprint beyond its borders, country number three in terms of global population, the United States, remains a little more obviously culpable. Meat consumption here is rather less sustainable than in China or India. Americans eat an awful lot of meat – around 90kg of meat and fish per person per year.

Within the US, meat manufacturing is tremendously resource-intensive. Partly, this is because there’s just so much meat around – nine billion animals per year according to one estimate. They require water, land and environmental services, all of which they’re using unsustainably. More than half of American pastures are being over-grazed, and are losing soil at six times their sustainable rate. Water resources are also stretched to breaking point – it takes 100 times more water to produce a kilo of animal than vegetable.

And you’ve also got the problem of shit. Much of America’s cheaper meat is produced on Concentrated Animal-Feeding Operations (CAFO), huge lots on which animals are confined, fed and slaughtered within the same vast facility. These operations produce the equivalent of five tonnes of waste for every US citizen. But the waste isn’t regulated in the same way. As researchers in a 2005 Johns Hopkins University study noted, a typical CAFO has about 5,000 animals on it. That number of pigs produces as much waste as a city of 20,000 people, but without any of the plumbing.

At one of the largest lots in the US, at the Harris Cattle Ranch in Coalinga, California, 100,000 cattle are housed on a ranch roughly twice the size of Hyde Park. The waste from these animals is stored in a lagoon of shit bigger than Wembley Stadium. Although such lagoons are meant to be insulated from the rest of the environment, there are reports of effluent leaching into local water supplies. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd caused 50 lagoons to flood in North Carolina, and one lagoon burst its banks, releasing 2 million gallons of soupy red liquid.

For CAFO workers, who are some of the poorest in the country, respiratory disease rates are high. And when the waste makes it to the sea, the results are even worse. The run-off is rich in fertilisers. As a result of the run-off in the Mississippi, CAFOs cause an annual ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. And yet CAFOs remain largely untouched by government.

The effects of meat consumption reach beyond America’s borders. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, nearly a fifth of all greenhouse-gas emissions come from livestock – more than from all forms of transport. Global livestock production is set to double between now and 2050, setting another hurdle on the road to sustainable emissions levels.

A University of Chicago study argued that the average meat eater in the US produces about 1.5 tonnes of CO[squared] more than a vegetarian per year. That’s because animals are hungry and the grain they eat takes energy, usually fossil fuels, to produce. It takes 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of plant protein, according to researchers at Cornell University. And lots of that plant protein is required to make animal protein. For chicken, the ratio of energy in to protein out is 4:1. For pork it’s 17:1. For lamb, 50:1. For beef, 54:1.

This is a lot of energy, and a lot of grain that gets diverted. The amount of grains fed to US livestock would be enough to feed 840 million people on a plant-based diet. The number of food-insecure people in the world in 2006 was, incidentally, 854 million. Of course, this isn’t simply an American phenomenon – in aggregate, rich countries feed about 60 per cent of their grain to livestock.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, nearly 70 per cent of antibiotics used in the US are destined to be used on livestock. The meat industry is, understandably, feeling a little defensive. ‘It seems the public is getting a terminal case of nutrition whiplash. A study one week contradicts the findings of a study released the previous week and has led to consumers either being downright confused and sceptical, or altogether tuned out from that kind of news reporting,’ says Dave Ray from the American Meat Institute. Yet the US diet, high in meat and low in fresh fruits and vegetables, is being increasingly indicted. The Johns Hopkins study argues that it leads to higher rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. The cost associated with poor diet in just these diseases has been estimated at $33 billion per year.

Yet there is enough food to feed the world now and in the future. But not if larger and larger slices of it go to feed animals – a fact that the governments of India, China, and the United States seem unprepared to address.

At the moment, only about two per cent of Americans are vegans. So the question remains: why is it so hard to go cold tofu? John Cunningham, consumer research manager at the Vegetarian Research Group, has commissioned a series of surveys on meat consumption since the early 1990s, and he has noticed some trends. The number of vegetarians has been going up. Between 2.5 per cent and 10 per cent of Americans are now vegetarian, almost double from a decade before, with numbers of young people higher than the general population. ‘There’s been a deep change’, says Cunningham. ‘If you talked about being vegetarian in the 1980s, people were incredulous. Today, people say, “Wow, that’s great, I wish I could do that”.’

More people are finding a way to get there, but me, I’m still stuck. Why do I find it so hard to nudge out the meat from my diet? Well, there’s a persistent trend in the data. Vegetarian women outnumber men by two to one. Cunningham notes that there’s a connection between meat and masculinity, particularly around beef. ‘No one had their manhood questioned for not eating a chicken sandwich,’ he says, ‘but if you don’t eat a hamburger, well…’

Bob Torres, author of Making a Killing, a study of the philosophy and political economy of veganism, has seen this too. In his job as a professor, he has worked with young men from sports teams. ‘Many don’t get very far giving up meat – they get all kinds of shit from their team mates, who say things like their athletic performance is going to decline, they’re pussies, they’re not man enough. And when they find out I’m vegan, some people ask me whether I did it because my wife made me.’

There are other reasons why it’s so hard to give up meat. It’s certainly harder for working-class Americans to eat sustainably when they are working and living in ‘food deserts’, those parts of the country where fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to come by, and where processed meats are readily found on convenience-store shelves. But I don’t have these excuses. It’s entirely possible for me to make the right decision.

And the evidence for me rather tilts against meat consumption. I care about climate change, animal suffering and the condition of people in developing countries. Addressing meat’s problems will require a range of policies, from ending the subsidy to meat prices from workers’ low wages, to pricing the full cost of meat’s pollution into its price, to addressing unsustainable practices in agriculture. But in caring about all this, eating meat is a big strike against my conscience. For this, I can’t blame America, China or India. I can only blame myself. It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that I’ll need to become more human, even if, in America, it means I’m less of a man.

One Reply to “Is Meat off the Menu?”

  1. Hi Raj,

    Recently discovered your work and have been reading through your blog.

    I see this entry was written a year ago. I am wondering if you did end up becoming vegan since then?


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