STOP, LOOK, THINK: Eyes wide open on meat

Posted in News Last updated on: Sunday, 11 September 2016

STOP, LOOK, THINK: Eyes wide open on meat


You probably eat meat once or more a day without giving it a thought.  Socrates' response: "The unexamined life isn't worth living."  What about the unexamined diet?

Instead of mindlessly swallowing, many are looking closely at the meat on their plates.  High meat-eating levels, like high energy use, are woven into Western culture, a point of pride.  That diet is now spreading worldwide.  What could be the problem with something so widely eaten?  The issues fall into two main categories.



It takes a lot of feed--chiefly corn and soybeans--given to animals over a lot of time to produce meat.  That feed doesn't appear on your plate but it's real.  To get 1000 calories of chicken requires 9000 calories of feed.  With pork the ratio is 11:1.  For beef, it's 36:1.  (The more commonly seen ratios by weight are about half as large.)  Animal feeds are drenched in fossil fuels: coal-powered electricity for irrigation pumps, herbicides and fertilizers from natural gas, oil for gasoline to run tractors, harvesters, trains, and trucks.  When they're burned, those fossil fuels become climate-changing greenhouse gases.  Because of the high feed-to-meat ratio, each serving holds a hidden, densely concentrated dose of greenhouse gases.  Add to this the methane produced by cattle--a greenhouse gas that traps 20 times more heat than CO2.  Then top that with the loss of carbon-capturing forests when they're felled to make way for animals or the feed to fatten them.  The result: a supersized carbon footprint. 

How big is it?  A United Nations study put meat's contribution to global GHGs at 18%, more than that of cars and trucks.  But a 2009 Worldwatch study that accounted for factors ignored by previous research estimated the figure at a stunning 51%.  Either way or somewhere in between, TV news reports about climate change that show a crowded freeway behind the newscaster need to update their image to a packed McDonalds.  It's been said that the biggest impact a person can have on climate doesn't come from switching to a Prius, but from giving up meat.

Meat's resource footprint is giant-sized as well.  Because it needs so much feed, its land requirements are huge.  Three-fifths of all farmland is given to raising beef.  If our crops were feeding humans directly we could feed milions or even billions more people. Meat's water footprint is similarly large.  Because of all the feed contained in meat, each hamburger takes around 500 gallons of water.  After consuming resources, meat leaves pollution and a less resilient environment behind.  Animal wastes and antibiotics travel through our ecosystems.  Biodiversity takes a hit along with carbon sequestration when forests are cut to make way for meat. 

Beef's footprint dwarfs that of the other meats.  According to a National Academy of Sciences study, compared with chicken or pork, beef requires 28 times as much land, 11 times as much water, and releases 5 times as much greenhouse gases.  The proportion of feed to meat is always highest for beef since cattle are inefficient meat factories.  Only 3% of the plant matter consumed by cattle ends up as muscle, otherwise known as meat.



We've only recently realized the environmental downsides of meat.  The other main objection is much older and rests on ethics, not science: our treatment and killing of animals is immoral.  Slavery drew a line between groups of people and took away all the rights of one group.  With meat, the line runs between species.  Custom was the main justification for both: "There's always been slavery."  We've been eating meat even longer than keeping slaves.  But the appeal to custom offers no real justification.  Rape and murder have always been with us but that doesn't make them good.  But surely there are other reasons to support eating animals--right?  (Teachers: a great subject for debate and critical thinking.)

The modern movement questioning the treatment of food animals had its Silent Spring moment in 1975, when the philosopher Peter Singer published his book Animal Liberation.  Animals don't feel pain as we do?  Not so, he argued.  Human intelligence grants us rights that animals shouldn't have? If so, are we justified in torturing the mentally disabled?  Custom keeps people from examining their actions; Singer looked closely and could find no valid argument that would justify the suffering we impose on animals used for food and experiments.  Racism and sexism, meet speciesism.  As with the discovery of fossil fuels' effect on climate, this new view of animals threatens a major element of our lifestyle.

That element began produing vastly more suffering when industrial capitalism was applied to meat-raising.  Cramming more animals into less space increases efficiency and profit, but at the cost of animals' health and sanity.  Pigs go crazy and bite the tails of pigs in neighboring pens.  (The factory farming solution: cut off the pigs' tails.)  Chickens have to be debeaked.  So as to gain weight faster, beef cows are fed grain instead of the grasses they evolved to eat, speeding up the assembly line but causing the growth of e coli in their gut. Farmed fish are likewise confined in small spaces; I've seen salmon splashing constantly in their pens off the Atlantic coast.  Like factory farmed animals on land, they have to be dosed with antibiotics to control diseases that can spread quickly under unnaturally crowded conditions. 

Beyond the prison conditions animals endure, there's what we've done to their bodies.  Chickens and turkeys have been bred to gain breast weight so quickly that that their bones can't keep up, resulting in grotesquely heavy birds unable to stand or walk.  Out-of-sight research in Nebraska on how to make meat-raising even more profitable--attempting to create pigs that bear twice the normal number of young, for instance--recently caused a scandal for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was overseeing the program.


Industry.  Meat's connection to climate is hard for the average consumer to see, but the cruelty in factory farming isn't.  To protect its image, meat-raisers have worked hard to keep us blind to the lives of food animals.  At their behest several states have passed "ag-gag" laws that make it a crime to take photos of factory farms.  Journalists and documentary-makers are routinely denied access to those sites as if national security were at stake.  The food industry's certainly is.  It knows that a disturbing image once seen can't easily be erased.  In a sense it's the public who's living in the prison, deliberatly isolated from the world outside the walls where our food is made.  The green fields and cavorting animals that adorn milk and egg cartons help keep our minds from questioning these products.  Likewise advertising slogans like "Great milk comes from Happy Cows. Happy Cows come from Californiaā€¯--a line that brought a lawsuit from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Some factory farmers recognize the public's growing demand for transparency and humane standards.  Some have even turned to animal advocate Temple Grandin for help in reducing the suffering in their operations.   

Consumers.  You can opt out of the system by going vegetarian, as an estimated 2% of Americans have done; the figure for college students is 12% and growing.  Vegans go farther by dropping all animal products from their diets since milk, eggs, and cheese entail as much suffering as meat.  Some ease into the new diet by adopting chef/writer Mark Bittman's idea of eating vegan before 6 pm.  Tempted to try to track your own meat to its source and to think your way through the issues?  See a college student do just that in the documentary Speciesism.  For the sort of images that factory farmers don't want you to see, check out PETA's 12-minute documentary Glass Walls.

Voters.  We seem to be at a breakthrough moment with meat.  Vegetarian and vegan options aren't simply proliferating on menus, but in voting booths and state houses.  Here, too, the action is happening on the animal welfare front rather than climate. In 2008 Californians voted by a 63-37% margin to require egg-laying chickens to have room to extend their wings without touching another bird.  This also applies to all eggs entering the state, sending ripples throughout the country.  Confining veal calves and breeding sows in crates too small to allow them to turn around is also prohibited.  The law doesn't outlaw the "battery" cages routinely used for hens, but to use them farmers will have to reduce the number of birds inside.  Rather than preparing for the law's requirements, the egg industry spent the intervening years fighting it in court--and lost.  It took effect in January 2015.  Is this the beginning of the end for 20th-century style factory farming?

Food sellers. The public has little or no access to factory farms or the companies who own them, but we do walk through the doors of restaurants and grocers who sell their products.  These businesses are highly allergic to protests and bad press and therefore have been far more responsive to public pressure than meat and dairy producers. For more on the campaigns to get them to demand that their suppliers reform their ways see Peter Singer and Jim Mason's book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.

Scientists.  A novel way out of the problem is to create meat without animals.  See Andras Forgacs' TED talk about this.  For an in-depth review of a lab-created hamburger that's currently available, check out Rowan Jacobsen's article, "The Perfect Beast" in the January 2015 issue of Outside.

Resources.  See the links above and the Food and Water listings on the Recommended Resources page.



Idaho's ag-gag law is ruled unconstitutional, putting in doubt similar laws in North Carolina, Montana, Utah, North Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa.

Major U.S. poultry producer Perdue shakes up the meat world by announcing that it will adopt standards of animal welfare similar to those used in Europe.