Meat. We love it in all its forms: bacon, Big Macs, porterhouses, Thanksgiving turkey. The problem is we love it too much. The average Americanconsumes roughly 220 pounds of flesh per year, twice the recommended amount, and it's taking a toll on our bodies, our souls, our health-care budgets and especially our environment.
Meat production "is far and away the No. 1 cause of global warming," writer Jonathan Safran Foer argues in the most recent issue of New York magazine.
Add Foer's voice to the growing chorus of writers, scientists, ethicists, doctors, organic-food shoppers, farmers, and, of course, PETA members, who have drawn a bead on excessive carnivorism as a major suck on the world's well-being.
It's time to stop tip-toeing around the issue. We're absolute pigs in the meat department (and by we, I mean the richest nations) and we need to change.
-- Beef cattle consume more resources than they yield. The amount of oil, water, fertilizer and feed it takes to grow, process and ship cattle is massive. Some 40 percent of the of the world's grain output goes to feed livestock. By some estimates, half that grain would be enough to eliminate world hunger, Steve Shavin wrote in a review of "The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from the 1600s to Modern Times" in the New Yorker magazine in 2007. The information isn't new. Back in 1971, in "Diet for a Small Planet," Frances Moore Lappe argued hunger could be eliminated if resource-gobbling, livestock-growing cultures would switch to a plant-based, protein-rich diet.
--Livestock is responsible for 18-35 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, more than all forms of transportation combined, according to a groundbreaking 2006 United Nations report, " Livestock's Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options." Want to help the environment? You'll do more by eliminating meat from your diet than by giving up your car. The bad news is that as China continues to prosper, its appetite for meat grows, adding to livestock's huge carbon footprint.
-- The effects of livestock production on water pollution are even greater, Popkin writes. "In the United States, livestock production accounts for 55 percent of the erosion process, 37 percent of pesticides applied, 50 percent of antibiotics consumed, and a third of total discharge of nitrogen and phosphorous."
-- The more red meat and processed meat you eat, the more likely you are to die of cancer or heart disease. A 10-year National Cancer Institute study of more than half a million Americans showed that those who ate the most red meat boosted their overall risk of death 30 percent. From a March 23, 2009, story in the Los Angeles Times on the study: "Men who were big meat eaters had a 22% increased risk of death from cancer and a 27% higher risk of cardiovascular disease compared with men who ate the least. For women, high red meat consumption raised the risk of death from cancer by 20% and the risk of heart disease by 50%."
However, the American Meat Industry objected to NCI's methodology, saying the study was based on "notoriously unreliable self-reporting about what was eaten in the preceding five years. . . The U.S. Dietary Guidelines say to eat a balanced diet that includes lean meat. "
-- Factory farms – the source of the majority of our meat – inflict untold suffering on dumb beasts. Confined to pens, force-fed antibiotics so that they grow fast, separated early from their mothers and denied all socialization, the lives of industrial farm animals are short and horrific. All God's creatures die. But as Matthew Scully asked in his 2003 book, "Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy," isn't man morally obligated to see that their time on Earth is at least tolerable?
The last item – the inhumane way in which we raise most livestock – is a topic unto itself. And if the 2008 state elections are any gauge, the age of aquarius has definitely dawned for animal rights. In California, by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, voters passed legislation that bans unreasonable confinement of chickens, pigs and cattle. In a column in April, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof agues the ethical treatment of animals is a very mainstream value.
Vegetarianism, too, is increasing, and many predict it will only gain steam. Consider a statement by Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes back in 2006. "I often pass a farm with cows grazing in the field and think to myself how terrible it is that human beings grown other animals just to kill them and eat them. Most of us think as vegetarians as nuts, and I'm not a vegetarian, but I wouldn't be surprised if we came to a time in 50 or 100 years when civilized people everywhere refused to eat animals. I could be one of them. Of course, I'd be pretty old by then."
For now, many governments encourage the opposite of vegetarianism. Subsidies to livestock operators increase our consumption of meat, making it cheap relative to other foods. Today, we pay only 20-30 percent of what we did in the 1950s for meat, according to economist Popkin. Worldwide, an estimated 31 percent of farm income is from subsidies. "Elimination of the current system of subsidies and major investments in healthier legumes, fruits, vegetables and other selected crops are needed to undo these massive [market] distortions," Popkin writes.
The bigger concern today is global warming, to which industrialized meat is a major contributor. Global warming's impacts -- melting ice caps, rising oceans, drought and extreme weather events -- could topple the world order in coming generations.
Sweden is so concerned that among other steps, it has begun labeling foods with the amount of carbon dioxide that was produced to make the food. In many parts of the country, when a Swede orders a fast-food hamburger, for example, she will read on the label that 1.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere.
Will the in-your-face labels change eating habits? Sweden is hopeful, reports Elisabeth Rosenthal in an Oct. 23 New York Times article, "To Cut Global Warming, Swedes Study Their Plates." "If the new food guidelines were religiously heeded, some experts say, Sweden could cut its (carbon dioxide) emissions from food production by 20 to 50 percent. An estimated 25 percent of the emissions produced by people in industrialized nations can be traced to the food they eat, according to research here."
Curing the climate will take a sea change in attitudes and behavior. But sea changes often start as ripples. Sweden's decision to put carbon-footprint labels on food is a ripple. So is the groundswell of opinion in America that when it comes to meat, less is more.
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