Final part of 'Meat of the Matter' - This report is a clear illustration of why meat industry is major cause of climate change.
Read more from Jim Motavalli:
So You're an Environmentalist; Why Are You Still Eating Meat?
A very big change
In the United States, Most people grow up eating meat and seeing others doing the same. The message that "meat is good and necessary for health" is routinely reinforced through advertising and the cultural signals we're sent at school, work and church. Vegetarianism is regularly depicted as a fringe choice for "health faddists." The government reinforces this message with meat featured prominently in its food pyramids.
Jim Mason, co-author of The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (Rodale Books), offers another possible reason we've kept vegetarianism off the mainstream agenda. "People who eat meat and animal products are in denial about anything and everything having to do with animal farming," he says. "They know that it must be bad, but they don't want to look at any part of it. So all of it stays hidden and abuses flourish — whether of animals, workers or the environment."
Even such an enlightened source as the 2005 Worldwatch report "Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry" is careful not to advocate for a vegetarian diet, including it in a range of options that also includes eating less meat, switching to pasture-raised "humane" meat, and opting for a few nonmeat entrées per week. Vegetarianism is the "elephant in the room," but even in a very food-conscious age it is not easily made the centerpiece of an activist agenda.
Danielle Nierenberg, author of the Worldwatch study, works for both that organization and for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). She's a vegan, and very aware of the climate impacts of meat-based diets. But, she says, "Food choices are a very personal decision for most people, and we are only now convincing them that this is a tool at their disposal if they care about the environment."
Nierenberg says that some of the Worldwatch report was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, and there was concern that it wouldn't see print if it overemphasized vegetarian diets. "People have a very visceral reaction when told they shouldn't be eating the core meats they grew up with," she says. "They get upset."
David Pimentel agrees that Americans are acculturated to eating meat. "The nutritionists say we're eating way too much meat for our health," he says. "The public knows this but it doesn't change their dietary habits. What will alter their behavior is higher prices for meat and milk, which are inevitable because of higher fuel prices and [with the diversion of corn crops to making ethanol] the rising cost of corn."
Although he admits it's an unpopular position, Pimentel says he'd like to see gas reach $10 a gallon, because it will encourage energy conservation and increase prices for environmentally destructive meat, milk and eggs. "Right now, we have some of the lowest food prices in the world," he says. "In the U.S. we pay 15 percent of our budgets for food, compared to 30 percent in Europe and 60 percent in Indonesia."
Jacobson agrees. "People are pretty wedded to what they eat," he says. "The government should be sponsoring major mass media campaigns to convince people to eat more fruit, vegetables and whole grains."
He argues that cutting meat consumption should be a public health priority. "From an environmental point of view, the less beef people eat the better," he says, citing not only the release of methane from livestock but also increased risk of colon cancer and heart disease. Jacobson adds that grass-fed, free-range beef (which has less overall fat) is a healthier alternative, but grazing takes longer to bring the animals to market weight "and they're emitting methane all that time."
He posits that the Centers for Disease Control or the Environmental Protection Agency should be convincing Americans to eat lower on the food chain. "There are the environmental and animal welfare problems caused by 'modern' agriculture," he says. "The animals' retribution is that we die of heart disease and cancer." Is there an environmental argument to be made for livestock? Gidon Eshel, co-author of the report "Diet, Energy and Global Warming" and a professor at Bard College, says that livestock "has an important role to play in nutrient recycling. Minerals are taken up by growing plants, and when those plants are eaten by grazers, some of it ends up in their tissues and some is returned to the soil in their waste products. But what's good in small quantities becomes toxic and devastating in large amounts. So it is only beneficial if we were raising livestock in much smaller numbers than we are today."
Eshel calls for enforcement of the frequently ignored federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, which contain provisions to protect against harmful discharges of both animal wastes and the fertilizers used to grow animal feed.
Eating more meat
A record 284 million tons of meat were produced worldwide in 2007. In most developing countries, meat consumption per capita is expected to double from the 1980s to 2020. Meat is an economically important product in most parts of the world in 2008, and it has powerful lobbies and enormous vested interests. There's just one problem: It's hurting the planet, and wasting huge resources that could easily feed a hungry world.
Offer these facts to many meat-eaters, and they'll respond that they can't be healthy without meat. "Where would I get my protein?" is a common concern. But the latest medical research shows that the human body does not need meat to be healthy. Indeed, meat is high in cholesterol and saturated fat, and a balanced vegetarian diet provides all the protein needed for glowing health. Were humans "meant" to eat meat, just because our ancestors did? Nonsense, says Dr. Milton Mills, a leading vegetarian voice: "The human gastrointestinal tract features the anatomical modifications consistent with an herbivorous diet."
With the recognition of meat's impact on the planet (and the realization that we don't need it to stay healthy), is it possible that the human diet will undergo a fundamental change? The fact that the cornerstone of the American diet aids and abets climate change is an "inconvenient truth" that many of us don't want to face, says Joseph Connelly, publisher the San Francisco-based VegNews Magazine. He takes a dig at Al Gore for not mentioning meat-based diets in his film and only dealing with them glancingly in his book, An Inconvenient Truth (Rodale Books).
A 2003 Harris Poll said that between 4 and 10 percent of the American people identify themselves as vegetarians. So far, Connelly says that number seems to be holding steady. "From a sustainability point of view, what's really needed is for people to understand the connections between factory farming, meat-eating and environmental impacts," he says. "That's the first step."
Lisa Mickleborough, an editor at VegNews, is probably right when she says that animal concerns are a powerful force for turning meat-eating into a moral issue. To be an animal rights leader is almost by definition to be a vegan. But few environmental leaders have gone that far. "As an environmental issue, it's pretty compelling," she says. "The figures on methane production speak for themselves. But when it comes to doing what's right for the environment, most people don't take big steps — they just do the best they can."