Numerous questions have been raised in recent years about animal-based farming and the consequences for people, the environment, and the animals themselves. The news about pending recommendations to eat less meat for environmental reasons may now bring this issue to the front page.
Cattle and culture
Cattle and sheep originated in the Old World, but were taken to the Americas by the Spanish, where they spread rapidly to indigenous societies. William Dunmire’s recent book on the livestock heritage of New Mexico1 provides a good overview of how this process worked in the U.S. Southwest, and, among other things, the consequences for the land where these animals proliferated. Soil beaten down by cattle and sheep hooves turned to hardpan, and the chewing habits of these animals took a toll on the native grasses. Parts of the landscape, such as Patagonia, and the U.S. Southwest, are effectively man-made deserts. Native animals in South America such as guanacos and vicuñas did not affect the land in this way. Unfortunately, possession of sheep or cattle has become a mark of social status and source of income, and even when demonstration plots show how the land recovers if these animals are removed, nothing much changes. (I witnessed this in Argentina, where a test plot in the altiplano, the high Andean desert, across the road from a sheep-herding area clearly showed how the land recovered – but no sheepherder wanted to abandon his sheep. Curiously, there is extensive “vicuña-rustling” in the Andean countries where they live, as their wool is much more valuable than sheep wool. But the sheep are still more highly valued as indicators of social standing!)
Water, energy, pollution and climate change
The consequences for the planet go far beyond the changes in the landscape. First, the production of meat uses great amounts of water. There are some vegetable products (rice, and yes, chocolate!) that require substantial amounts of water. But a kilo of feedlot beef represents over 15,000 liters of water, part of which comes through the 7 kilos of grain that produce the one kilo of beef. Essentially one ton of grain represents 1,000 tons of water – and more than half of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. go into animal feed. The work of digging wells to get that water is one element of the substantial energy used in industrial production and distribution of meat. As consumption levels rise and new consumers are added (e.g., as the middle class expands in China and elsewhere) water usage will increase. As drought intensifies in many places, industrial meat production may not be able to demand the water supplies that it needs.
Traditional livestock methods (pigs eating acorns in the cork forests of Portugal, for example) are not part of this calculation; but that is not how the massive amounts of meat going to U.S. consumers, and the rising meat-eating population of the world, are being and will be produced. The U.S. currently has over 15,000 huge production units, referred to by the Environmental Protection Agency as CAFOs – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – and they dominate the protection of livestock and poultry, including eggs. Eating “mor chikin” as the billboards admonish us, is not the answer. Industrial chicken production shares many of the problems with red-meat production, and is also considered to be a major source of food-borne illnesses.
The methane produced by feedlot cattle is a major source of greenhouse gases, aggravating the climate change that is drying out the U.S. Southwest (ironically, one of the major sites of the beef industry). Nitrous oxide from the intensive use of fertilizer to grow the grain used in the feedlots is a major heat-trapping element in the soil. And the clearing of forested land to get more space for animals further aggravates the world’s carbon dioxide problem – each tree or bush lost represents a lost carbon dioxide absorber. But, unfortunately, “grass-fed beef” may not be the answer.
Industrial animal production has many other impacts on human and ecosystem health. The feces from an industrial pig farm may equal that of a city of 40,000 people – but the waste is not treated as human sewage would be. Repeated accidents involving fecal holding ponds have contaminated land and water supplies. And the heavy use of antibiotics to prevent major outbreaks of disease in the crowded facilities of industrial farms is leading to a crisis in public health, as antibiotic-resistant infections increase.
Human health and animal protein
Recent studies indicate that diets high in animal proteins in middle age may lead to worsening health in later years – for example, a high-protein diet is associated with a fourfold increase in the risk of cancer. Diets high in animal products are not necessary to combat osteoporosis, which can be prevented by a diet largely – or entirely – vegetable. Dairy is not a mainstay of the African diet, for example, and osteoporosis is relatively uncommon. Similarly, those over 65 should insure an adequate protein intake, but this too can be done with vegetable sources such as nuts and beans. Vegetable protein appears to work differently in the body. A diet such as the fabled Mediterranean diet, relatively low in animal protein, is far better suited for a long and healthy life than is the “meat and potatoes” (e.g., hamburger and fries) so common in American life today.
Animal welfare – the ethics of what we eat
Reducing industrial meat production would mean fewer animals crammed into inhuman cages, never able to stand up or fly or live any kind of normal life for their species. In the US, the response of the agricultural industries to videos made by employees of animals being tortured – even buried alive – has been to work with state and local governments to outlaw such activity, calling it “terrorism.”
If we consider the “real cost of a hamburger” (hint – it’s not what McDonald’s charges), the case is overwhelming – industrial livestock and production will have to be phased out. Soon. To the outrage of the meat industry, and surprised pleasure of animal rights activists and environmentalists, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), a panel of scientists that makes recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recommended in mid-February 2015 that “a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.” –Marshall Carter-Tripp
1New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage – four Centuries of Animals, Land, and People; UNM Press, 2013
This document was edited by Carol Feickert, CeeJay Publications, Denver, Colorado. Contact [email protected]