Consider Cutting the Meat Out

meatoutIn an act of precognition, Mark Seall wrote a post today on EcoWorldly raising a number of questions about vegetarianism. While it would be near impossible to address all of his questions in one post, I do want to get the conversation started. I call his post precognitive because it provides a perfect segue to promote an event happening tomorrow: The Great American Meatout.

Every Spring, thousands of activists and educators get together at events all over the world to raise awareness of vegetarian diets. Despite the event’s name, it has in fact grown into an international phenomenon. You can find a calendar of events here to see what’s going on near you. This is certainly a great place to start in terms of resources, and I plan to address that further in my next post.

For today I want to look at Mark’s question, “Should we be eating animals in the first place?” Here’s my take…

There are three basic issues when it comes to looking at vegetarianism and veganism: health, animal rights, and the environment. Given the nature of this blog, I’m going to focus on the latter. Livestock production contributes to a number of hot button environmental issues, including:

  • Climate Change: A 2006 study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that meat production contributes 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which is larger than the automobile industry. (Source: Vegan Outreach)
  • Desertification: While livestock itself contributes to this problem by overgrazing land, the larger problem is producing enough food to feed these animals. It takes approximately 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, and about 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat. Not only is the biological inefficiency staggering, but farmland all across the U.S. and other countries is going dry. (Source: VegSource.com)
  • Pollution from Factory Farms: The enormous amounts of animal waste produced in small areas by factory farms contributes to water contamination and air pollution. Studies have found these effects leading to death in local fish populations and disease in residents living near these farms, not to mention health effects on workers. (Source: Sierra Club)

There are a number of other environmental impacts caused by the meat industry, and I’ll provide some more resources at the end of this post. But many of you may say, “These issues apply to factory farms. I only eat grassfed, locally-raised, organic meat.”

Well, for one I’d question if that’s really true. Do you really know where all of your meat, eggs, and dairy products come from? If you do, more power to you! But unless you cook every meal at home, this seems near impossible. Secondly, this ignores health, and many animal rights concerns. And finally, I ask, how sustainable is this? If you truly believe that eschewing factory farms for small, local alternatives is the answer, then we as a society sure need to cut down on the amount of animal products in our diet. Learning more about ways to at least supplement your lifestyle with vegetarian or vegan meals is key.

The Great American Meatout encourages people to try going vegetarian for the day tomorrow. I say, try to challenge yourself further — try going vegan for the day, or for a week! And that’s why tomorrow I’ll be focusing on another of Mark’s questions, “Do you have any suggestions on managing the conversion to vegetarianism now that half the food on my plate is off limits?” Boy, do I.

For further reading on the environmental impacts of the animal industry, I recommend Vegan Outreach, Vegan Action, and former cattle rancher Howard Lyman’s first book, Mad Cowboy, available for preview on Google Books.

16 Comments

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  1. Your point about knowing where your meat comes from is a really good one — I know where my meat comes from when I cook, but every time I buy a cheap burrito, I think about the factory farm the meat probably came from.

    Certainly makes it harder to rationalize meat eating.

  2. Very well written piece, Sharon. You touch on all the right points. I have had my periods of vegetarianism, but now I am back to pretty much being an omnivore. Mind you, I only eat red meat 2-4 times per month, but I do my best to get locally raised grass-fed beef(fortunately that is relatively easy in Colorado).

    The structural issues underlying this meat problem are many. But for one, the over-use of land for cattle is partly a product of our corn-centric ag policy. subsidies for Big Ag and corporate farms do next to nothing for the small farms, urban farms and small ranchers.

  3. Just wanted to say that I’m vegan for ethical reasons, but I do care about the environment and am glad my eating habits help it.

    For those people who know where their meat comes from — the animals still have to be slaughtered. And health-wise, animal protein triggers cancer. Check out “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell for more information.

    —————-
    Like animals? http://www.chooseveg.com/vegetarians-save-lives.asp
    Wanna lose weight? http://www.chooseveg.com/obesity.asp
    Care about the environment? http://www.chooseveg.com/global-warming.asp

  4. The impact of our food choices on the environment is the invisible 800 pound gorilla in the room. Here is something that we can all do, three times a day, every day, to help the environment yet I have found that most people, even “environmentalists” don’t want to talk about it. Eating is so personal and has so much baggage with it – family, culture, peer pressure, ignorance – that people rather look the other way. Yes, it is great that you recycle and drive a Prius. Now get serious and really do something. As was pointed out, it just so happens that it is also good for your health and the health of the animals. “Humane slaughter” is an oxymoron.

    By the way, I would highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Informative and very well written, although not pro-vegetarian.

  5. Omnivore’s Dilemma, as it is mentioned here, does have a nice debate on whether or not to eat meat. That section is good reading. Here, I side with Pollan. These domesticated species were bred to be food animals, humans are omnivores. I respect vegetarian and vegan choices as well.

    However, let’s take a lesson from the American Indians here. They honored buffalo and understood the value of this animal in their lives. They took only what they needed and expressed gratitude to the animal in the greatest of sacrifices.

    All of the meat I buy is from local farmers; chicken, pork, beef, lamb, turkey and even our eggs and milk are from animals raised with care, on pasture and given the best of conditions for the animal’s welfare.

    We eat meat as part of a meal, not the main course, we have days where we don’t eat meat in each week, and we purchase direct from farmers who care about the animals.

    If everyone approached the situation like this, I think it would drastically cut the environmental impact without asking an omnivore populace (as most are) to adopt a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle. They won’t. It is a choice. Thus, the best to hope for is that the choice is ethical and sustainable.

  6. Beth, if we all hunted and killed our own animals in the way that American Indians did, I would have a much different stance on the subject. But there is nothing honorable about the way the vast majority of people approach the animals they consume.

    To comment on one of the last things you said: “If everyone approached the situation like this, I think it would drastically cut the environmental impact without asking an omnivore populace (as most are) to adopt a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle. They won’t.”

    We’re all born omnivores. Obviously asking people to adopt veg*n lifestyles does work, or there wouldn’t be any. Do I think every single person who reads this will be “converted?” Of course not. I’m putting these facts out here, along with other resources so that people can make an informed decision about their diet.

  7. beth, i don’t see how the fact that these animals were “bred to be food animals” justifies us eating them. that would be like saying if certain human beings were “raised for slavery” then that would make it morally justifiable to enslave them. it just doesn’t hold up.

    i commend your attempts to buy your meat from small farms, because i know that you must have good intentions. but i don’t see how exactly your situation is aligned with that of the native americans. the only thing in common is the consumption of meat, period. nothing about where the meat comes from, how the societies are structured, or what food choices are available– none of these things are really comparable. we live in a completely different world than native americans, so to maintain an attitude such as they-ate-animals-so-i-should-too is a gross oversimplification and is, i think, a weak and irrelevant argument.

    you also say “If everyone approached the situation like this, I think it would drastically cut the environmental impact without asking an omnivore populace (as most are) to adopt a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle.” do you think it would be viable and sustainable for all americans to eat only animals from local small farm operations without DRASTICALLY curbing their meat comsumption? i suspect that it would not be, but i’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

    basically, a big question i think we are all obligated to consider is, just because we *can* eat meat, does that mean we *should*? when we can thrive so well on a diet that excludes flesh?

  8. Millie–

    This is a complex topic, and the points you raise (as well as those raised by Beth) speak to that complexity.

    On your last point: I get very uneasy when we start arguing “shoulds,” as that’s the kind of debate that will likely fall on deaf ears, as Beth mentioned above. Food choices are a part of our identity: not just our personal identity, but our familial and cultural identities, also. Whether they should or not, most people will react with hostility to such arguments… If we can provide options that allow for a lighter impact, that’s a step forward.

    I like the tone of Sharon’s original post, as it asks people to consider an option, and provides some facts about that option. That’s empowering. It may end up leading to the question you ask. But even if it doesn’t, it encourages people to look at how their food choices align with there values, and to adjust accordingly. I think if we approach people from that perspective, we’re much more likely to see changes in how people eat (as well as how they act in other areas of their lives).

    Best,

    Jeff

  9. Wonderful and thought provoking comments from people who show they care. Kudos to all posters.

    We are in a brave new world with large and concentrated populations who spend a majority of their lives in environments extensively engineered by man. Do the best you can for the world you live in.

    I’m an athletic male who used to scauff at vegetarians and had never heard of a vegan. I now save both environmental resources and approx 90 lives a year by not eating meat.

    It’s amazing what conclusions came from the diverse and brilliant minds of Albert Einstein & Ghandi.

    Do it for your health. Do it for other species. Do it for our world.

  10. Thanks, Jeff. It’s hard to answer a “should we” question, without getting into dictating morals. That’s why I tried to focus on the environmental aspects, so that people can make their own informed decisions based on the variety of factors that go into it.

    For me, personally, the question of “should I eat this” does follow suit with Millie’s reasoning. Should I eat this? Not if there’s a better alternative. My goal is to make the alternatives more accessible, easy, and appealing.

    Thanks to everyone who’s contributed to a great discussion about a topic that can be at times very emotional.

  11. great discussion here, really! jeff, i think i see what you’re saying about shoulds and should-nots, and their potential to make people uneasy and to be off-putting. but if you’ll remember, i didn’t actually bring up the notion of “should”, i was only echoing the topic of the post on which we’re commenting, which directly asks us: “Should we be eating animals in the first place?” you are right that people take their food choices very personally, and beth is right that you can’t just “ask” the omnivorous populace to go vegan just by telling them why you think they should. still, we should be able to have a discussion about it, share with each other what we know and debate the parts about which we might disagree. i think it is important that our beliefs are challenged from time to time (in a respectful manner, of course) because it is a good idea to re-assess our choices as we live and learn, and as new information is brought to light. at least i think so.

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