The Case against Meat: Evidence Shows That Our Meat-Based Diet Is Bad for the Environment Aggravates Global Hunger, Brutalizes Animals and Compromises Our Health

By Motavalli, Jim | E Magazine, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

The Case against Meat: Evidence Shows That Our Meat-Based Diet Is Bad for the Environment Aggravates Global Hunger, Brutalizes Animals and Compromises Our Health


Motavalli, Jim, E Magazine


SO WHY AREN'T MORE ENVIRONMENTALISTS SWITCHING TO VEGETARIAN?

There has never been a better rime 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. At presstime, the first discovery of mad cow disease in a Tokyo suburb 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 percent 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. U.S. 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 fastfood 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"--is 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."

World Hunger and Resources

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 surfer 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. Britain--with 56 million people--could support a population of 250 million on an all-vegetable diet. Because 90 percent 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 Lappe 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 cereal grains."

Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimates that reducing meat production by just 10 percent in the U.S. would free enough grain to feed 60 million people. Authors Paul and Anne Ehrlich 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.

Environmental Costs

Energy-intensive U.S. factory farms generated 1.4 billion tons of animal waste in 1996, which, the Environmental Protection Agency reports, pollutes American waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. …

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