We Have a Meat Problem

March 17, 2010

I know I’m preaching to the choir.  Our nation has a meat problem.  Our world has a meat problem.  But most of our world’s meat problem is due to our nation’s meat problem.  This article highlights a report on global meat production and the social, economic, health, and environmental impacts of this industry.

Take this quote: “Livestock production accounts for approximately 40 percent of the global agricultural gross domestic product.”  There are starving people throughout the world, and as population continues to increase, the number of hungry people is only going to grow.  But we are using nearly half of our agricultural products (corn, soybeans) to feed cows.  No, not people but cows.

Or this: “The livestock sector, including feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.”  And many claim this is a conservative estimate.  If you don’t believe humans are contributing to global over-heating, you may not find this as disturbing, but it’s worth noting.  This starts with the agricultural process (running tractors and fertilizing with natural gas), moves on to cow waste (methane–if you’ve ever seen a fart lit, you know what I mean, but cow waste is also stored in big ol’ pools and sprayed on fields), and finishes with distribution (shipping uses fuel).  And indirectly, this doesn’t take into account the portions of the Amazon (remember from science class that trees use CO2) that are being leveled to keep up with the demand for cheap beef.

On top of these, small farmers in Poland and China are losing their farms because they can’t stay competitive.  Industrial meat manufacturers can buy 10 farms in these countries and turn that into 2 or 3 jobs.  More, we have no idea the impacts of this consumption on our health.  We are beginning to see, but we are still human lab rats.  What kind of effects does genetically modified corn (which our factory farm cows eat, along with chicken feathers, chicken waste, and antibiotics–these are necessary because cows, as ruminants, cannot digest corn, so they develop infections) have on our health?  I know GMOs are hotly debated, and I don’t have an answer, but should we test them before consuming them, or should we just take a “wait and see” approach?  Because of the overuse of our strongest antibiotics, are we sitting ducks waiting for an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant MRSA?

Our overconsumption of meat is an issue, and there is only one solution: eat less meat.  I realize this can all be overwhelming, and most of us can only focus our attention on one or two important issues.  For some of us those issues are politics or the passing of health care reform or fighting crime in our communities or attending to family crises.  I get that; we all have a lot going on.  But you can mostly ignore this issue and be an active participant in a very simple way.  We don’t need to do anything–we just need to stop doing something.  Or do it less.  Most of our readers aren’t big meat fiends, but we all know people who are.  We don’t have to berate people for eating meat, but there are those close to us who might benefit from hearing about our meat problem.

This is a social justice issue.  This is an environmental issue.  This is a health issue.  This is an economic issue.  Our meat problem is relevant in many areas of our lives, and it’s one we can’t ignore.


4 Responses to “We Have a Meat Problem”

  1. Colin said

    So, as I’ve ventured through this whole pescaterian thing, one of the hardest things I’ve come across is how to explain my decision to people who eat meat without sounding pompous, arrogant or holier than thou … but when you put it in this perspective, eating meat can be seen in the same perspective as not recycling or littering, both things worth gently correcting our friends and family about. How do you share this information without being the snooty one who is too good to eat what everyone else is eating?

  2. Yan said

    Thank you for this excellent article–an important objective summary of the destructive processes we have been taught to participate in with our fork, every day.

    I too have been struggling to find an approach to Colin’s dilemma–retaliation is a real challenge. But I’ve realized that a lot of my friends–some of the most caring people I’ve met–have the *right to know* what is not exactly advertised as a black-box warning on their meat and dairy packages. It’s the least I owe them. After all, knowledge is liberating and empowering and I am soo lucky that someone helped me see an effective way to divorce myself from the cycle of violence, world-hunger, and pollution. I sometimes prelude the discussion with “I wanted to share something with you because I know that you care about this issue a lot…I recently read a biological explanation for how meat actually contributes to world hunger and deforestation(please see below for an e.g.)… and I’ve been thinking about some ways to introducing more veg options to my lifestyle, thought you might be interested in giving it a try too.” It’s important to sound positive and not to monopolize their terms: I presume that most people do not want to cause harm to anyone and I act as if they will own this issue instantly.

    Example: Famine has to do with the “10% rule.” The average adult human burns about 2,000 calories per day, just living his or her life. We use almost all the calories that we consume to move around, breathe, and do everyday tasks. The same is true of farmed animals. For every pound of food that they are fed, less than 10% of the calories are returned in the form of flesh. This is why, it takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat. It’s also why livestock is fed half the world’s grain. According to the USDA and the United Nations, using an acre of land to raise cattle for slaughter yields 20 pounds of usable protein. That same acre would yield 356 pounds of protein if soybeans were grown for human consumption only and directly-—more than 17 times as much.

    This is why it’s hard not to imagine 50 hungry children with empty bowls around my table whenever I make steak for dinner.

    Interesting discussion in the UK Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/famine/story/0,12128,865087,00.htm

  3. mr.eggsandsoup said

    Yan, thanks for your thoughts. I do so easily forget that not so long ago I was on the other side of this discussion: I was detached from my food supply and had no idea how my hunger-based decisions affect so many people. I think your positive approach is an excellent way to handle this, and eye-opening, easy to digest (pun intended) statistics are a wonderful way to show how great an impact we can have by making such a small decision.

  4. […] that doesn’t have to slow us down. Let’s talk about food. I’ve blogged about food before. We’ve talked about voting with our food dollars, and that’s very important. I […]

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