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The Case Against Meat
Evidence Shows that Our Meat-Based Diet is Bad for the Environment, Aggravates Global Hunger, Brutalizes Animals and Compromises Our Health
by Jim Motavalli
There has never been a better time for environmentalists to become vegetarians. Evidence of the environmental impacts of a meat-based diet is piling up at the same time its health effects are becoming better known. Meanwhile, full-scale industrialized factory farming—which allows diseases to spread quickly as animals are raised in close confinement—has given rise to recent, highly publicized epidemics of meat-borne illnesses. At presstime, the first discovery of mad cow disease in a Tokyo suburb caused beef prices to plummet in Japan and many people to stop eating meat.
All this comes at a time when meat consumption is reaching an all-time high around the world, quadrupling in the last 50 years. There are 20 billion head of livestock taking up space on the Earth, more than triple the number of people. According to the Worldwatch Institute, global livestock population has increased 60 percent since 1961, and the number of fowl being raised for human dinner tables has nearly quadrupled in the same time period, from 4.2 billion to 15.7 billion. U.S. beef and pork consumption has tripled since 1970, during which time it has more than doubled in Asia.
One reason for the increase in meat consumption is the rise of fast-food restaurants as an American dietary staple. As Eric Schlosser noted in his best-selling book Fast Food Nation, “Americans now spend more money on fast food—$110 billion a year—than they do on higher education. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and recorded music—combined.”
Americans spend $110 billion a year on meat-intensive fast food, and its growing popularity around the world may be a factor in dramatic increases in global meat consumption. © Jason Kremkau
Strong growth in meat production and consumption continues despite mounting evidence that meat-based diets are unhealthy, and that just about every aspect of meat production—from grazing-related loss of cropland and open space, to the inefficiencies of feeding vast quantities of water and grain to cattle in a hungry world, to pollution from “factory farms”—is an environmental disaster with wide and sometimes catastrophic consequences. Oregon State University agriculture professor Peter Cheeke calls factory farming “a frontal assault on the environment, with massive groundwater and air pollution problems.”
World Hunger and Resources
The 4.8 pounds of grain fed to cattle to produce one pound of beef for human beings represents a colossal waste of resources in a world still teeming with people who suffer from profound hunger and malnutrition.
According to the British group Vegfam, a 10-acre farm can support 60 people growing soybeans, 24 people growing wheat, 10 people growing corn and only two producing cattle. Britain—with 56 million people—could support a population of 250 million on an all-vegetable diet. Because 90 percent of U.S. and European meat eaters’ grain consumption is indirect (first being fed to animals), westerners each consume 2,000 pounds of grain a year. Most grain in underdeveloped countries is consumed directly.
While it is true that many animals graze on land that would be unsuitable for cultivation, the demand for meat has taken millions of productive acres away from farm inventories. The cost of that is incalculable. As Diet For a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappé writes, imagine sitting down to an eight-ounce steak. “Then imagine the room filled with 45 to 50 people with empty bowls in front of them. For the ‘feed cost’ of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full cup of cooked cereal grains.”
Somalian famine victims line up for food handouts. Producing a pound of beef requires 4.8 pounds of grain, and critics of our modern agricultural system say that the spread of meat-based diets aggravates world hunger. © David & Peter Turnley / Corbis
Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimates that reducing meat production by just 10 percent in the U.S. would free enough grain to feed 60 million people. Authors Paul and Anne Ehrlich note that a pound of wheat can be grown with 60 pounds of water, whereas a pound of meat requires 2,500 to 6,000 pounds.
Energy-intensive U.S. factory farms generated 1.4 billion tons of animal waste in 1996, which, the Environmental Protection Agency reports, pollutes American waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. Meat production has also been linked to severe erosion of billions of acres of once-productive farmland and to the destruction of rainforests.
McDonald’s took a group of British animal rights activists to court in the 1990s because they had linked the fast food giant to an unhealthy diet and rainforest destruction. The defendants, who fought the company to a standstill, made a convincing case. In court documents, the activists asserted, “From 1970 onwards, beef from cattle reared on ex-rainforest land was supplied to McDonald’s.” In a policy statement, McDonald’s claims that it “does not purchase beef which threatens tropical rainforests anywhere in the world,” but it does not deny past purchases.
According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), livestock raised for food produce 130 times the excrement of the human population, some 87,000 pounds per second. The Union of Concerned Scientists points out that 20 tons of livestock manure is produced annually for every U.S. household. The much-publicized 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska dumped 12 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, but the relatively unknown 1995 New River hog waste spill in North Carolina poured 25 million gallons of excrement and urine into the water, killing an estimated 10 to 14 million fish and closing 364,000 acres of coastal shellfishing beds. Hog waste spills have caused the rapid spread of a virulent microbe called Pfiesteria piscicida, which has killed a billion fish in North Carolina alone.
Circle Four Farms, a Utah-based pork producer, hosts a three-million gallon waste lagoon. When lagoons like this spill into rivers and lakes as happened in North Carolina in 1995, the result can be environmentally catastrophic. © AP Photo / Douglas C. Pizac
More than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the U.S. are used in animal production. Beef production alone uses more water than is consumed in growing the nation’s entire fruit and vegetable crop. Producing a single hamburger patty uses enough fuel to drive 20 miles and causes the loss of five times its weight in topsoil. In his book The Food Revolution, author John Robbins estimates that “you’d save more water by not eating a pound of California beef than you would by not showering for an entire year.” Because of deforestation to create grazing land, each vegetarian saves an acre of trees per year.
“We definitely take up more environmental space when we eat meat,” says Barbara Bramble of the National Wildlife Federation. “I think it’s consistent with environmental values to eat lower on the food chain.”