Continuing with the conversation about corporate agriculture from the last article, I’d like to talk about the meat in our diet. I don’t want to get into a discussion so much about the ethics of eating meat per se, but about the situational ethics and sustainability of the way that we produce our meat.
Practically all the meat you buy in the store, that is not specifically labeled “grass fed” or “organic”, has been raised in a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). According to the EPA, ”a CAFO a) confines an animal for more than 45 days of the growing season b) in an area that does not produce vegetation.” Most of these can be characterized as extremely crowded, creating conditions that allow diseases and neuroses to run rampant. The feed is grain, an unnaturally concentrated food source for ruminants like cattle which results in a perpetual state of sickness. The general state of disease requires large prophylactic doses of antibiotics, which in turn encourages new resistant strains of bacteria. The antibiotics, and sometimes the bacteria pass on to us through the meat. I should mention as well that the waste created at these operations has a major impact on global ecosystems.
The sustainability picture is not much better. According to the Cornell University Science News, over half the grain we grow in this country is fed to animals. That amount of grain is five times as much as humans in this country eat. The most efficient converters of grain to meat are chickens, which convert from grain to meat protein at a ratio of 4:1. The worst are cattle which convert at a ratio of 54:1. It also takes about 100,000 liters of water to produce a kilo of beef, only about 5400 liters for the protein equivalent of wheat (6 kilos). World grain production per capita has been shrinking for some time now, and it would be unwise for us to continue to produce meat protein in this way when we can get the protein equivalent from a small fraction of the grain needed for meat production.
We have been eating animals for a long time. There were and still are groups, such as the Masai in Africa, that eat exclusively animal products. Herders, like the Masai, tend to live in areas that are unsuitable for agriculture. Ruminants can convert cellulosic vegetation like grass, which humans can’t digest, into usable meat protein and rich manure. Animals are vital to agriculture as well; they forage for undesirable plants and pests, spread manure, and help maintain a healthy soil. It appears that animals play an important part in our food system whether we eat them or not.
Feeding CAFO animals grain that we can eat ourselves negates the only rationale for eating animals in the first place. However, pastured livestock require a great deal more land than CAFO’s. Of the 302 million hectares of land devoted to livestock, only 30 million are devoted to feed grain. Yet, that feed grain allows us to produce most of the meat we consume.
I think most will agree that, today, all of our protein needs could be supplied by plant sources. Unfortunately, plant production, as it is primarily done today, requires a severe alteration of the land and subsequent habitat loss for wild species. The harm of killing animals for food needs to be weighed against the indirect killing of wild species through pollution and habitat loss inherent in the production of today’s plant diet.
I think most of us would agree that CAFO’s are an ethical and ecological abomination. But, if we closed them down and pastured all of our livestock, we would only be able to produce about 40% as much meat. If we eliminated that quantity of meat, the remaining meat consumption plus current consumption of plant protein would still provide us with more that the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein. If we want to get rid of CAFO’s and regain local control over meat production, we will have to change our diets so that we eat 60% less meat, a radical change in our food habit but a marked improvement in our health and the sustainability of the planet. We owe a debt of gratitude to all of you that are vegetarians and, even more, are vegans. You have gone out of your way to consider the implications of your diet and have acted on it, and diet is very personal and difficult to change. Now, if we can grow those plants organically in a way that preserves habitat and builds soil health and species diversity, we can create a truly sustainable vegetarian diet.
Ultimately, we will eat whatever we have to to survive. All things being equal, the economics of plant consumption are far more efficient than animal consumption, but we can’t always guarantee that things will be equal, that we will have access to the foods we would prefer. However, it is clear that we need to end corporate agriculture, both toxic plant factories and CAFO’s, and we will have to do that partly by making deliberate and thoughtful changes in our diet. For most of us, that means checking out some of the really great vegetarian recipes out there, or at least recipes in which meat plays a much more subsidiary role.