Here we go again: conflict in the Middle East and the discussion incessant bitching about gas prices. I can hardly wait until the summer travel season. With a barrel of oil topping $100 for the first time since 2008 (my muscles start to twitch as I remember this era of my finance career), it’s a great time to talk about why our industrial meat system burns my bacon. I still wonder out loud why the average person hasn’t made the broad connection between meat consumption, the environment and the world’s resources.
Mark Bittman got it right three years ago in his New York Times article Rethinking the Meat Guzzler:
Growing meat (it’s hard to use the word “raising” when applied to animals in factory farms) uses so many resources that it’s a challenge to enumerate them all. But consider: an estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation.
As 925 million people in the world suffer from malnutrition he points out the following:
…about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, according to Rosamond Naylor, an associate professor of economics at Stanford University.
This brings me to my question: will you go meat free for a day?
There are a swath of Meatless Monday participants around the country including Baltimore Public Schools, Sodexho, and University of California Davis. The effort, started in 2003, is in large part directed at public health (heart disease and high cholesterol), but I would argue that we should take a moment to examine our eating patterns.
It is evident that Americans eat what they want, when they want and how they want. But it is interesting to note that there have been recent tax rebate initiatives associated with purchasing hybrid cars, but at the same time the federal government falls silent when it comes to meat consumption as they keep subsidies for cheap food flowing. A University of Chicago study found that by reducing meat consumption by 20 percent, it would produce the same environmental impact as if we switched from a standard sedan to a hybrid:
We say that however close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet. It doesn’t have to be all the way to the extreme end of vegan. If you simply cut down from two burgers a week to one, you’ve already made a substantial difference.
It’s nice to poke fun at a semi-vegetarian: a traitor to strict vegetarians and a silly hippie to the meat lovers. It’s not that I don’t like the taste of meat. It’s not that I berate anyone for eating meat. I eat meat and fabricate pig’s heads and photograph bacon. I support local farmers raising animals non-factory style (and the meat is more delicious).
I ask myself why the American plate seems empty without a large protein component and why Americans eat twice the recommended amount every day?
I then begin to wonder how this massively energy-dependent meat system will be sustainable as food prices hit record highs like they did in February due to world demand, stockpiling and the oil situation. In his article Are Cows Worse Than Cars, Ben Adler hits the nail on the head:
Meat has become cheaper—and therefore more prevalent in American diets—in the last 30 years because it has been heavily subsidized, albeit indirectly. Ever since Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz declared in 1973 that “what we want out of agriculture is plenty of food,” American agricultural policy has encouraged overproduction and lower prices, primarily in the form of massive subsidies for corn. Livestock, in turn, consumes more than half the corn grown in the U.S. because it is cheaper to confine animals to a tight lot and funnel corn in than to allow them to graze freely on grass. With cheaper grain and denser, dirtier feedlots replacing free-range ranches, meat prices and meat quality have dropped, while meat’s environmental impact has increased.
Exactly. Is it the apathetic “I’m just one person” syndrome? If you don’t do it for your environment or the massive drain on our world’s finite resources, do a Meatless Monday for your arteries for goodness sakes. It’s okay to be semi-vegetarian (even in Omaha, Nebraska).
So, will you?