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The Case Against Meat
by Jim Motavalli • Norwalk, CT

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. The first discovery of Mad Cow Disease in a Tokyo suburb recently 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% 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. US 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!
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"– 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."

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. Because 90% 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 grain cereal.

Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimates that reducing meat production by just 10% in the U.S. would free enough grain to feed 60 million people. Authors Paul and Anne Erhlich 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. In his book, The Food Revolution, 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."

And in terms of pollution, 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.

Vegetarianism is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras was vegetarian, and until the mid-19th century, people who abstained from eating meat were known as "Pythagoreans." In the U.S., the 1971 publication of Diet For a Small Planet was a major catalyst for introducing people to a healthy vegetarian diet. Other stimuli included Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation, which gave vegetarianism a moral underpinning; Singer and Jim Mason’s book Animal Factories, the first exposé of confinement agriculture; and John Robbins’ 1987 Diet for a New America.

In the U.S., according to a 1998 Vegetarian Journal survey, 82% of vegetarians are motivated by health concerns, 75% by ethics, the environment and/or animal rights, 31% because of taste and 26% because of economics. Women are more likely to be vegetarian than men; and– surprisingly– Republicans are slightly more likely to abstain from meat than Democrats.

The American Dietetic Association says in a position statement, Appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Vegetarians now have excellent opportunities to put together well-planned meals. The sale of organic products in natural food stores is the highest growth niche in the food industry, growing 22% in 1999 to $4 billion, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

It’s never been easier to become a vegetarian, and there have never been more compelling reasons for environmentalists to make that choice. It’s not always easy to do– most environmentalists still eat meat. As Wayne Pacelle, a vice president of the Humane Society of the U.S. says, "Changing one’s dietary habits is a process, not an event. We may want people to change overnight, but it’s probably harder to change your diet than it is to change your religion." However, the tide is beginning to turn.

For more information about becoming vegetarian, contact: International Vegetarian Union, (202) 362-VEGY, www.ivu.org; North American Vegetarian Society, (518) 568-7970, www.navs-online.org; Vegetarian Resource Group, (410) 366-8343, www.vrg.org.

Reprinted with permission from: E/The Environmental Magazine, Subscription Department: (Subscriptions are $20/year) P.O. Box 2047, Marion, OH 43306 U.S.A. (815) 734-1242. On the World Wide Web: www.emagazine.com

Jim Motavalli is the Editor of E. Reach him via the E office at (203) 854-5559.