Reading Mark Bittman’s piece, “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler,” in yesterday’s Times made me try to recall how long it had been since it became relatively common knowledge that the way we produce meat is an environmental disaster and scandal. Was it Orville Schell or Jonathan Schell who wrote about the over-use of antibiotics on beef feedlots 25 years ago? And then there was a terrific book called In the Rainforest by a mostly forgotten writer named Catherine Caufield, which came out in 1984, and all of Alex Shoumatoff’s rainforest reporting.
Still, after two-plus decades of reading about this stuff, I was blown away by “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler.” Here’s some of what Bittman says:
Growing meat (it’s hard to use the word “raising” when applied to animals in factory farms) uses so many resources that it’s a challenge to enumerate them all. But consider: an estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation.
To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days. …
Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens. This despite the inherent inefficiencies: about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, according to Rosamond Naylor, an associate professor of economics at Stanford University. It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States.
The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound. Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. …
… The argument that meat provides useful protein makes sense, if the quantities are small. But the “you gotta eat meat” claim collapses at American levels. Even if the amount of meat we eat weren’t harmful, it’s way more than enough. Americans are downing close to 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita per year (dairy and eggs are separate, and hardly insignificant), an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago. We each consume something like 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance; of that, about 75 grams come from animal protein. (The recommended level is itself considered by many dietary experts to be higher than it needs to be.) It’s likely that most of us would do just fine on around 30 grams of protein a day, virtually all of it from plant sources. …
Perhaps the best hope for change lies in consumers’ becoming aware of the true costs of industrial meat production. “When you look at environmental problems in the U.S.,” says Professor Eshel, “nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production. And factory farming is ‘optimal’ only as long as degrading waterways is free. If dumping this stuff becomes costly — even if it simply carries a non-zero price tag — the entire structure of food production will change dramatically.”
Bittman says, probably correctly, that it won’t be easy to get people to eat less meat – “the psychologically difficult and politically unpopular notion of eating less of it.” However there are examples of destructive behaviors that we’ve reduced dramatically largely by stigmatizing them socially: smoking cigarettes is one, drunken driving is another.
Eating as much meat as we do – and I say “we” because I’m no vegetarian – is bad for us. Let’s say so often, loudly, publicly, and cleverly, and meat consumption and the environmental degradation that goes with it will go down.