Why I am not a vegetarian, Part 1: ethics and the environment

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write since I started this blog, but it’s such a huge topic I’ve never felt that I had the time to dive into it and pick through the many facets of the issue.


This story from the Times-Picayune reminded me of my intention to post on the subject:

Carnivore governor unswayed by PETA by Ed Anderson

Saturday, August 02, 2008

http://www.nola.com/timespic/stories/index.ssf?/base/news-6/1217655115295650.xml&coll=1

 

 

So I’ll try to approach it one small bit at a time with a series of posts dealing with ethical, environmental, and health issues as they pertain to diet.


I respect the intention behind adopting a vegetarian diet. I was a vegetarian for a time in my childhood, when my father adopted a vegetarian diet in the late 1970s. As a teen, I adhered to the then-popular no-red-meat diet (worried about cholesterol), and I ate a fried chicken sandwich at Burger King nearly every day for lunch (ack!). I returned to a vegetarian diet again for awhile in my early 20s. Here is an earlier post detailing the evolution of my dietary philosophy.


Vegetarianism in its various forms is the world’s most high-profile “alternative” or “health food” diet. Adopting a vegetarian diet is a sign that someone is able to step outside of conventional behavior, think critically and make a conscientious choice to achieve better health and live their lives according to ethical principles. If the tone of these posts occasionally seem harsh, it is not meant as disrespect to adherents of vegetarianism, but it is in order to make my point understood without clouding it with too much delicacy. It is not my intention to be judgemental, only to explain my perspective and my choices.


I’m going to start with the most basic element of the ethical argument made on behalf of vegetarianism: that killing is wrong, and if we can live without killing animals, we should.


How far does one have to take the argument that killing is wrong? I think that this argument is sometimes tainted with sentimentalism. It would seem that it is only wrong to kill something furry and cute, something that resembles us or that we are accustomed to seeing on a regular basis. Most vegetarians have no problem with raising a plant (say, a carrot), then killing it for food.


Some adherents of the Jain religion will only eat fruit that has fallen from the tree because they do not want to injure the plant by plucking the fruit from its branch. In a way, I’m glad those folks exist as laboratories at the extreme edge of ethical inquiry. It is possible that in the grand scheme of things they serve as karmic counterbalances to bloody dictators.


Some Jains will also walk with a broom in front of them, sweeping away any insects in their path so that they don’t kill anything unintentionally. Perhaps if they could, they would direct their immune systems to refrain from killing any pathogens that managed to infiltrate their bodies. The germ-hosts would soon die, and their bodies would become food for scavengers, insects, and a multitude of micro-organisms. Is this the ultimate act of compassion? I’m not ridiculing anyone’s religion, I’m merely taking the argument against killing to its logical extreme.


I can’t agree that killing is wrong. I think that that is a very naive view of the cycle of life and death. At every level, life is a never-ending process of creation and destruction. From the chemical level, the cellular level, from micro-organisms to tissues to ecosystems to galaxies, things are torn apart so that new things can be created and established systems can be sustained. No one entity lives forever, but all are linked in the give-and-take cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  Author Charles Eisenstein has a far more nuanced discussion of these themes here.


 

Does eating plant food mean you’re not killing animals?

When I was a member of a collective organic farm, we would tend to the rows of cabbage, broccoli, and greens to pick out the caterpillars who were eating our crops, and crush them in our fingers. We also used BT, an organically-derived insecticide, when the caterpillars really got out of control. I don’t know if these caterpillars are toxic, but if they aren’t, I do think it would be more ethical to eat them (or, more appealingly, feed them to chickens and eat the eggs) than to crush them and throw them on the ground or to poison them with BT. In any case, these caterpillars were eating the food we worked so hard to grow. If we didn’t kill some of them (and we wouldn’t, indeed couldn’t, kill ALL of them), there wouldn’t be enough food left for us.


That was an organic farm. Conventional agriculture kills insects, birds, rodents and other pests on a massive scale through chemical poisons. These chemicals run off into the environment and poison many unintended victims.


If insects aren’t cute or anthropomorphic enough for their lives to have significance, let’s use the example of bunny rabbits. If you’ve worked for months to prepare a plot and grow vegetables, and a family of rabbits threatens to eat the fruits of your labor, are you averse to killing them to save your crops? Even if you are, I guarantee the farmer, organic or not, who grows the veggies you buy in the store or eat at a restaurant, is not going to let the bank foreclose on him out of sentimental feelings for cute, furry creatures. Again I’d say, if you’re going to have to kill rabbits to save your crops, then you should eat them so the cycle of life continues through you.


 

You do not stand above the cycle of life and death. You are a part of it and for you to continue to live, other things must be destroyed. The closer you can live to the things you eat, the more power you have to see that nothing is wasted or destroyed unnecessarily.


Now let’s look at the issue of unnecessary killing from a more global perspective.


Killer Vegetarians

Someone who is a vegetarian and does not eat sustainably-grown plant foods (not the same as “organic”) is complicit in death and destruction on a massive scale. Conventionally grown crops, particularly soybeans, corn, and sugar, represent the greatest threat to all life on Earth today.


Monocultures, Famine, GMOs

The first issue to face up to is the many problems of monoculture (growing only one crop across a large area of land). Natural ecosystems derive stability through complex, multilayered interactions among diverse elements. In conventional agriculture, massive energy inputs (petroleum and chemicals as well as labor) are necessary to hold nature at bay and grow only one crop over a large area of land. Because they are inherently imbalanced systems, monocultures scream out for plagues of pests and disease, which means they require heavy doses of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to maintain an unnatural stability. A farm or garden that appears “ordered” to the limited human way of seeing, with straight rows of single crops, is in reality a heavily enforced disorder. The seeming chaos of the forest, wetland, or jungle is, in fact, a complex and self-correcting, balanced system.


Monoculture devastates biodiversity. Across the globe, human beings used to sustain themselves on millions of species of plants, each with a unique niche specific to the ecosystem of the region. With commercially-driven modern agriculture, mass-production thrives on simplicity. Industrial food producers would love to be able to make all food out of corn, soybeans, and sugar. Agribusiness would like to hold the patents on the genetically modified strains of these crops to guarantee their profit stream. Chemical and petroleum companies benefit when these GM crops are engineered to be immune to their herbicides. So a handful of patented organisms spread across the globe and displace the complex matrix of indigenous species that used to form the web of life for each bioregion. Not only does human health suffer as a diversity of local food crops with a rich array of phytonutrients is replaced with a small number of highly processed plant foods, but the stability of the environment is gone when the web of life is replaced by energy-intensive monoculture. Food security is compromised, and the world becomes very vulnerable to famine when everyone depends on the same narrow range of foods.


Genetically modified crops pose a particular threat to biodiversity because they can cross-pollinate with natural species with potentially devastating (and due to the nature of complex systems, entirely unpredictable) results. For example, plants may become toxic or mutagenic to important pollinators or other complementary species within their web of interaction.


Petroleum Wars

What about organics? Organic agriculture is a step in the right direction. You don’t have as many petroleum (fertilizer) and chemical inputs for growing the crops, but you still probably have heavy farm equipment and long-distance shipping and trucking. In fact, most organic crops are shipped further to reach your dinner table than conventional varieties.


Petroleum is ancient solar energy converted into plant matter then condensed for hundreds of thousands of years under intense heat and pressure, making it the most available, powerful and efficient form of energy yet discovered. The problem is, there is a limited supply of it, and we’ve gotten the easy stuff out of the ground already and burned it up by building suburbs, getting back and forth between the house, work, and the shopping center, and by dumping it on farm land. We burn far more calories of petroleum than we derive by eating the food we grow and ship with it. We need to be using the petroleum that’s left to prepare ourselves for the day, coming soon, when we’ve used up all the stuff that’s worth pumping. But that’s a subject for another blog.


Much blood has been spilled for oil. A large share of the dysfunction and political repression throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia is due to greed and the desire to control the flow of oil. When you buy crops that have been grown and transported by burning petroleum (nearly all of us do), then you are complicit in the murder and oppression of human beings, as well as the destruction of animal, plant, and microbial life through the environmental damage caused by oil drilling and consumption.


Erosion, The Dead Zone, Global Warming

Even with organic agriculture, you still have the problem of monocultures and erosion. In fact, erosion can be worse with large-scale organic farming than with conventional “no-till” methods. Erosion is possibly the biggest environmental problem in the world, though you never hear about it. Soil is not the same thing as “dirt,” it is a complex assortment of living things, like a coral reef. If you don’t believe in killing unnecessarily in order to live, you should be very concerned about soil erosion.


Erosion is not a new problem brought on by industrial agriculture. For as long as there has been agriculture, there has been erosion. The Middle East, particularly Iraq, used to be known as the “Fertile Crescent.” This was Eden: rich, verdant forests before human beings turned to agriculture. Cutting trees for timber and using slash and burn farming techniques, the life of the soil was exploited to feed cities and build empires. Without forests and the complex web of organisms (mostly unseen) that constitute them, the soil died. The most barren deserts of the world were man-made by “Great Empires” in the Middle East, Africa, and the New World, thousands of years ago.


Today in America’s bread basket, massive erosion is occurring due to monocultures. The heavily chemically-treated soil washes through the Mississippi watersheds and gets dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, where every summer the high levels of nitrogen ignite an algal bloom, starving an immense area of the Gulf of oxygen and killing ocean life of all kinds.


Sugar is probably the worst crop of all when it comes to erosion. Don’t believe that your tofu ice cream is free from the taint of wasteful killing.


In the coming posts, I will develop the themes that the ethics of nature is efficiency: nothing is wasted. The ultimate cruelty and injustice is waste. It is possible, and I would argue, it is necessary to eat meat to fulfill Nature’s ethical requirement for efficiency.

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~ by nolashaolin on August 12, 2008.

12 Responses to “Why I am not a vegetarian, Part 1: ethics and the environment”

  1. (This is offered up for the sake of discussion, and from an occasionally-meat-eating ecologist…not a militant carrot-eater or anything). You develope many good and scientifically based arguements about how growing plants has many problems, but you fail to appreciate that one of the reasons that we need large scale plant growing operations is to FEED the animals that we eat. Very roughly, there is about 10% efficiency of mammals in processing their food. So eating a pound of animal is the rough equivalent of eating ten pounds of grains/vegetables/etc. If everyone ate only plants we could significantly reduce the need for all this degradation due to large-scale agricultural practices. Add to this the problem of animal waste on the eutrophication of our coastal waters, and all these environmental problems are WORSENED by our use of animals for food.

  2. Gaj,
    Thanks for the comment.
    I was going to address this in a later installment, but here’s a quick reply.
    You are absolutely right when it comes to factory farming. However, in sustainable, permaculture-style farming, animals will eat food such as grass, insects, spoiled vegetables and fruits and table scraps that are either inedible or undesirable for humans. This is part of what I mean with “the ethics of nature is efficiency–nothing is wasted.”

  3. On the subject of animal “waste”: in an ecologically-designed farm there is little to no waste. Animal outputs (including feces, but also considering warmth, noise, scratching or compacting the ground, etc.) are evaluated to see how they might become constuctive inputs into another system. “Chicken tractors” are mobile pens that can be placed in a just-harvested portion of the garden. The chickens will eat spoiled remnants of vegetables, seeds, weeds, and insects. They will scratch up the ground and add their feces to fertilize the soil. Then the pen can be moved on to the next section of garden, and this section can be replanted, cleared of weeds and pests and enriched with nutrients with a minimum of wasted human effort or energy input.

  4. What you said is total rubbish.There is problems with certain people(?) when they have more free time and read little more they become insane and start thinking illogically in one direction. You are comparing plant with animals. What a great idea? Whether someone staring at your wife is equally guilty as the one who raps her? Your servant who steals a few cents from your wardrobe is equally guilty as the one who robs you of yr whole life saving?

    You have become god feeling concened about whole worlds food problems.Worlds major problem is person like you who thinks that this universe only for them and for their eating.

    A group in Taiwan enjoys human flesh.Please give your address.Atleast you can do a good cause by satiating their hunger.

    Be cool.Dont jump to reply.

  5. Your writing and thinking is irrational and biased.

    Reg yr comments about food shortage world ever,by the time this counter message is posted,no one might have died somewhere of starvation in last 24 hours .
    But definitely
    360000000 Cows,Buffallows,Goats,Sheeps,Hens,Ducks and Rabbits would definitely have been butchered by employing cruelest of the methods in last 24 hours, not to talk about millions of fishes and billions
    of childrens of hens.Men,of whatever age or creed or colour or cast
    or region or religion or wealth or health can cry for help, can
    garner support, can steal things,can run away to safer places, can
    draw attention of better off fellow humans thru media,can dodge
    enemies, can befool even god,can think alternatives or at the worst
    can cry out their grievances. There are many to take care of man and
    many more are in ”Q” to shower their compassions world over.But the
    worst suffrer of human apathy and cruelty are these silent ,
    helpless, innocent, voiceless and defenceless animals. They serve the
    huminity beyond their ability and get worst possible food or
    treatment. In the end, they are done to death for no crime of them.
    Who listens to their silent cry? Who has time to see their tears?
    Who feals the tremer of their fear? Who raises his/her eyebrows on
    spotting a suffering animals? We turn deaf ears, blind eyes,closed
    hands and beatless hearts to suffering of animals.We dont even
    blinker our eyelids on painful treatment being meted out to innocent
    animals. Rather we contribute knowingly or unknowingly to the
    miseries of the animals by our habits, careless acts and unsatiate
    appetite for animal flesh.WE have turned ourselves into moving and
    living graves of murdered beast. We call ourselves human but are more than demons and are real monsters.Nothing can be more shameful than the feeling that this earth belong to creatures with two legs only.
    Thus, my dear friends, any amount of compassion for animals will be too little for them.

    The day is not far off when in the name of eating anything for food, people will start eating their own children having soft meat.And as per your line of argument, what wrong or unethical it would be?
    I just want you,
    my live hearted friend, to think over it,to think over it and behave like a sensitive person rather than a selfish monster.

  6. Zenopel,
    Thanks for the comment. I think I understand what you are saying with the first part: eating a plant is a small ethical transgression, and eating an animal is a large one. Maybe there is an element of truth to that.

    The point that I am trying to get to with these posts is not to discredit vegetarianism, but to encourage people who want to change their lives and their diets out of ethical concerns to take a more global view of the effects their dietary choices have on the web of life as a whole.

    I think, for example, that a hunter/gatherer who lives as part of the web of natural interaction does far less killing than a vegetarian in an industrial society who does not eat sustainably-produced food grown in his own bioregion.

    I don’t understand the second half of your post. If I felt that the world were only for me and my eating, would I be concerned about the impact my choices make on the web of living systems?

    Perhaps you can take your own advice in the future: be cool, don’t jump to reply. Maybe then you won’t suggest that people need to die for expressing their thoughts.

  7. SONG OF PEACE

    We are the living graves of murdered beasts,
    slaughtered to satisfy our appetites,

    We never pause to wonder at our feasts,
    If animals, like men, can possibly have rights,

    We pray on Sundays that we may have light,
    To guide our foot steps on the paths we tread.

    We’re sick of war, we do not want to fight,
    The thought of now fills our hearts with dread

    And yet we gorge ourselves upon the dead.
    Like carrion crows, we live and feed on meat,

    Regardless of the suffering and pain
    We cause by doing so. If thus we treat

    Defenceless animals for sport or gain,
    How can we hope in this world to attain

    The PEACE we say we are so anxious for?
    We pray for it, o’er hecatombs of slain,

    To God, while outraging the moral law,
    Thus cruelty begets its offspring–war.

    –George Bernard Shaw

  8. Dear Friend,
    You said ” eating a plant is a small ethical transgression, and eating an animal is a large one. Maybe there is an element of truth to that.”
    You have rightly understood. Not may be,this is truth.Just search your heart honestly and you may find answer.

    You said” The point that I am trying to get to with these posts is not to discredit vegetarianism, but to encourage people who want to change their lives and their diets out of ethical concerns to take a more global view of the effects their dietary choices have on the web of life as a whole.”
    Nothing can be more unethical than to advocating ruthless torture for whole life and merciless killing of innocent and helpless animals and to talk about ethics.FRIEND, IT IS UNETHICAL.Do whatever you want but dont give blood colour of ethics.FRIEND, IT IS UNETHICAL.

    You said “I think, for example, that a hunter/gatherer who lives as part of the web of natural interaction does far less killing than a vegetarian in an industrial society who does not eat sustainably-produced food grown in his own bioregion.”
    Friend, you yourselve have been vegetarian for some time.Just recall your thinking and feeling of that time and of present.
    And if still you stick to your said rubbish argument,consulting a psychologist would not be a bad idea at all, my Friend.

    You said” If I felt that the world were only for me and my eating, would I be concerned about the impact my choices make on the web of living systems?”
    Friend,you are only a two leg animal that is far far superior in every aspect with other four leg animals and you are (mis)concerned about them only whereas this universe belong to all creatures.Dont act like a goon.If your neighbour is more powerful, rich and a goon, does he get right to confine and assault … your doughter or to harrass your wife or to torture you? This is what two leg goons do with their 4 legs innocent neighbours.
    My Friend, Just Imagine The Situation and express hOW yOU wILL yOU fEEL.mY fRIEND,yOU aRE aN aUTHOR aNd yOU cAN wELL iMAGINE iT.

    YOU SAID” Perhaps you can take your own advice in the future: be cool, don’t jump to reply. Maybe then you won’t suggest that people need to die for expressing their thoughts.”
    You just see, you did’nt wait for a moment and jumped to reply.I did’nt. I waited for whole 24 hours for givng reply.When I dont advocate killing even an ant, how can I think you dieing?
    Yes My Friend,I argued for the same so that atleast you can imagine youself in a slaghterhoue in place of a cow.Just imagine, a two leg demon,fond of human flesh, is approaching towards you with a sharp knife and you, with tied hands and legs and gauged mouth but open eyed, are helpless , frightened and seeing your death cant do anything. Just imagine that pain my friend, just imagine and then talk of ethics.

    Without cosidering all aspects of an issue, taking side with one aspect is unethical,my Friend,unethical.

    Be Cool, My Friend,Be Cool.
    Dont jump to reply,My Friend,before reading it again.

  9. PLEASE TEACH THEM ETHICS?
    =================================================
    Sir,
    You are non-veg and raising issues concerning ethics.It is good.After reading the report below,pl do something to teach ethics to these Turkey Killers. This will help you to get ethical turkey meat.Reg environment, I’ll be back soon.
    BTW what is it what you blogg is signing and what people comments is blackened? Look at it ethically.
    =================================================

    A COK Report:
    Animal Suffering in the Turkey Industry

    Transport and Slaughter

    At the slaughter plant, the turkeys are moved out of the trucks, dumped onto conveyors, and hung upside down on shackles around their ankles
    Although a wild turkey lives from two to ten years, today’s farmed turkeys are transported to slaughter at 14 to 20 weeks. Because there are no U.S. laws regulating poultry transport from farms to the slaughterhouse, turkeys are often badly injured in the process.

    Farm employees carry birds out of the growing shed by holding a wing in each hand. This handling can dislocate the turkey’s humerus from the shoulder joint. The turkeys are thrown into crates, which are then stacked on the back of trucks. The crates have open sides and do not protect the birds from extreme temperatures or weather. According to one scientist, “Unless crates are properly covered, exposure to wind and cold will rapidly cause freezing of unfeathered parts. The frosted appendage first becomes red and swollen, followed by gangrene, necrosis, and sloughing.” Turkeys may die during the trip from hypothermia or heart failure associated with the stresses of catching and transport.

    At the slaughter plant, the turkeys are moved out of the trucks, dumped onto conveyors, and hung upside down on shackles around their ankles. Shackling is painful for turkeys, especially since so many suffer from skeletal problems. In the United States, poultry are not included under the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, thus there are no legal requirements that turkeys be rendered unconscious before they are slaughtered. Electric stunning in a current-filled water bath is often used to immobilize turkeys before slaughter, making them easier to handle. However, the voltage used may be insufficient to induce unconsciousness and stunning itself may be painful— because their wings hang lower than their heads, turkeys can suffer pre-stun shocks.

    After stunning, turkeys have their throats cut. As slaughter lines run at speeds of many thousand birds per hour, workers may miss both carotid arteries, adding up to two minutes to the time taken for birds to bleed to death.One researcher concluded, the “problems associated with inefficient neck cutting [are] only too common in poultry processing plants.” As a result, turkeys may be conscious as they enter tanks of scalding water intended to loosen the birds’ feathers.

  10. Biggest pollutent of ENVIRONMENT?
    ===============================================
    Sir,
    You raised issue concerning environment and food habits of people.Very Good.

    Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler
    ( Gary Kazanjian for The New York Times)

    A SEA change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store — something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn’t oil.

    It’s meat.

    The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally — like oil — meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

    Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

    Just this week, the president of Brazil announced emergency measures to halt the burning and cutting of the country’s rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the government says, 1,250 square miles were lost.

    The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050, which one expert, Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations, says is resulting in a “relentless growth in livestock production.”

    Americans eat about eight ounces a day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we “process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.

    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.

    To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

    Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.

    This will be inconvenient for citizens of wealthier nations, but it could have tragic consequences for those of poorer ones, especially if higher prices for feed divert production away from food crops. The demand for ethanol is already pushing up prices, and explains, in part, the 40 percent rise last year in the food price index calculated by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization.

    Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens. This despite the inherent inefficiencies: 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. It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States.

    The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound. Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Because the stomachs of cattle are meant to digest grass, not grain, cattle raised industrially thrive only in the sense that they gain weight quickly. This diet made it possible to remove cattle from their natural environment and encourage the efficiency of mass confinement and slaughter. But it causes enough health problems that administration of antibiotics is routine, so much so that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten the usefulness of medicines that treat people.

    Those grain-fed animals, in turn, are contributing to health problems among the world’s wealthier citizens — heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes. The argument that meat provides useful protein makes sense, if the quantities are small. But the “you gotta eat meat” claim collapses at American levels. Even if the amount of meat we eat weren’t harmful, it’s way more than enough.

    Americans are downing close to 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita per year (dairy and eggs are separate, and hardly insignificant), an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago. We each consume something like 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance; of that, about 75 grams come from animal protein. (The recommended level is itself considered by many dietary experts to be higher than it needs to be.) It’s likely that most of us would do just fine on around 30 grams of protein a day, virtually all of it from plant sources.

    What can be done? There’s no simple answer. Better waste management, for one. Eliminating subsidies would also help; the United Nations estimates that they account for 31 percent of global farm income. Improved farming practices would help, too. Mark W. Rosegrant, director of environment and production technology at the nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute, says, “There should be investment in livestock breeding and management, to reduce the footprint needed to produce any given level of meat.”

    Then there’s technology. Israel and Korea are among the countries experimenting with using animal waste to generate electricity. Some of the biggest hog operations in the United States are working, with some success, to turn manure into fuel.

    Longer term, it no longer seems lunacy to believe in the possibility of “meat without feet” — meat produced in vitro, by growing animal cells in a super-rich nutrient environment before being further manipulated into burgers and steaks.

    Another suggestion is a return to grazing beef, a very real alternative as long as you accept the psychologically difficult and politically unpopular notion of eating less of it. That’s because grazing could never produce as many cattle as feedlots do. Still, said Michael Pollan, author of the recent book “In Defense of Food,” “In places where you can’t grow grain, fattening cows on grass is always going to make more sense.”

    But pigs and chickens, which convert grain to meat far more efficiently than beef, are increasingly the meats of choice for producers, accounting for 70 percent of total meat production, with industrialized systems producing half that pork and three-quarters of the chicken.

    Once, these animals were raised locally (even many New Yorkers remember the pigs of Secaucus), reducing transportation costs and allowing their manure to be spread on nearby fields. Now hog production facilities that resemble prisons more than farms are hundreds of miles from major population centers, and their manure “lagoons” pollute streams and groundwater. (In Iowa alone, hog factories and farms produce more than 50 million tons of excrement annually.)

    These problems originated here, but are no longer limited to the United States. While the domestic demand for meat has leveled off, the industrial production of livestock is growing more than twice as fast as land-based methods, according to the United Nations.

    Perhaps the best hope for change lies in consumers’ becoming aware of the true costs of industrial meat production. “When you look at environmental problems in the U.S.,” says Professor Eshel, “nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production. And factory farming is ‘optimal’ only as long as degrading waterways is free. If dumping this stuff becomes costly — even if it simply carries a non-zero price tag — the entire structure of food production will change dramatically.”

    Animal welfare may not yet be a major concern, but as the horrors of raising meat in confinement become known, more animal lovers may start to react. And would the world not be a better place were some of the grain we use to grow meat directed instead to feed our fellow human beings?

    Real prices of beef, pork and poultry have held steady, perhaps even decreased, for 40 years or more (in part because of grain subsidies), though we’re beginning to see them increase now. But many experts, including Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, say they don’t believe meat prices will rise high enough to affect demand in the United States.

    “I just don’t think we can count on market prices to reduce our meat consumption,” he said. “There may be a temporary spike in food prices, but it will almost certainly be reversed and then some. But if all the burden is put on eaters, that’s not a tragic state of affairs.”

    If price spikes don’t change eating habits, perhaps the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals.

    Mr. Rosegrant of the food policy research institute says he foresees “a stronger public relations campaign in the reduction of meat consumption — one like that around cigarettes — emphasizing personal health, compassion for animals, and doing good for the poor and the planet.”

    It wouldn’t surprise Professor Eshel if all of this had a real impact. “The good of people’s bodies and the good of the planet are more or less perfectly aligned,” he said.

    The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, in its detailed 2006 study of the impact of meat consumption on the planet, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” made a similar point: “There are reasons for optimism that the conflicting demands for animal products and environmental services can be reconciled. Both demands are exerted by the same group of people … the relatively affluent, middle- to high-income class, which is no longer confined to industrialized countries. … This group of consumers is probably ready to use its growing voice to exert pressure for change and may be willing to absorb the inevitable price increases.”

    In fact, Americans are already buying more environmentally friendly products, choosing more sustainably produced meat, eggs and dairy. The number of farmers’ markets has more than doubled in the last 10 years or so, and it has escaped no one’s notice that the organic food market is growing fast. These all represent products that are more expensive but of higher quality.

    If those trends continue, meat may become a treat rather than a routine. It won’t be uncommon, but just as surely as the S.U.V. will yield to the hybrid, the half-pound-a-day meat era will end.

    Maybe that’s not such a big deal. “Who said people had to eat meat three times a day?” asked Mr. Pollan.

  11. “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”
    William Blake

    There is a natural order to the universe, and it is possible to live in balance with our nature and practice compassion.

    It is an error, I think, to believe that we can stand above our nature and repress and banish essential truths about the universe that we find frightening or distasteful (the fact that we must kill to live implies our inevitable death).

  12. […] to the cyle of life, death, and rebirth. I have posted before about why I am not a vegetarian (part 1, part 2) Here’s my view in a […]

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