J500 Media and the Environment

A Meaty Debate by jkongs
January 21, 2008, 4:07 pm
Filed under: Food + Health

Let me begin with a quick note to the vegetarians reading this blog: I do not mean to offend, but it is highly possible. Next, let me say I found the ecological footprint quiz’s assumption that real environmentalists are also vegetarians incredibly frustrating. (True environmentalists must also attend music camping festivals and have a wardrobe containing a minimum of five well-worn tie-dyed shirts, right?) The first time I took the quiz, I answered the first question about my habits of meat consumption honestly – often, a few times a week – and then took the quiz a second time, leaving all my answers the same except for my first response – never, vegan. My results included a significantly smaller shoe size, and my lifestyle would require half a world less for everyone to live like me than before.

The truth is eating meat can actually be better for the environment than a diet that eliminates animal products. Commercial crops, such as corn, wheat, and soybeans, are typically grown in vast monocultures, requiring the use of petroleum-based fertilizers, irrigation, and farm equipment that run on oil. This style of conventional agriculture has caused phenomenal topsoil erosion, and has helped to create unhealthy waterways – including a large Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico from farm waste runoff carried by the Mississippi River.

The typical arguments against meat assume we are talking about factory-raised meats, fed antibiotic- and hormone-laced corn, stuffed into a three by three foot space, and slaughtered inhumanely at a premature age. Free-range and grass fed meats, however, allow for areas of land unsuitable for agriculture to be productive. Also, properly rotated animals can actually graze land into more optimal conditions, allowing for an increased biodiversity of species in the area.

I am definitely not arguing that people should all adopt the Atkins’ Diet and eliminate grains and vegetables from their palette. Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are devastating to the environment, resulting in toxic runoff and air pollution on astronomical levels, not to mention fatty, unhealthy meat. I am also not passing judgment on the vegetarian lifestyle, just on the presumption that doing so is the only environmentally-friendly choice.

Jennifer Kongs


5 Comments so far
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Interesting argument. You say “corn, wheat, and soybeans, are typically grown in vast monocultures” which is true – just as most meat is not raised under the most sustainable of conditions.
I wouldn’t take the quiz as an indictment (if I follow that argument I can’t get on a plane ever again) but, rather, an interesting way to see exactly what grows or shrink our footprint. I appreciate the fact you tested that theory. I am not meat-free but I am aware of the methane gas and other environmental challenges livestock pose – unfortunately, organic vegetable protein does use a fraction of the resources as comparable animal protein.

Simran Sethi

Comment by j500

I am a newly “converted” vegetarian, and that was a choice of mine mostly based on environmental reasons.

I read a bit of the first article that you linked to, and I wanted to pull out a bit of the land-use information from both there and from a book I just picked up (Student’s Vegetarian Cookbook).

One acre of prime land can produce:
30,000 pounds of apples
40,000 pounds of potatoes
50,000 pounds of tomatoes
250 pounds of beef

I think meat production can be done more efficiently, organically and ethically than it is now, but I don’t know if there is enough room in this country for everyone to get their meat from organic, free-range farms. Eighty percent of meat is still not organically produced, and this passes chemicals onto the consumer.

Also, I don’t know if you’ve seen or read Fast Food Nation, but that’s also a pretty scary wake-up call for meat-eaters (but less so for free-range meat).

I’ve also tried telling people that I am a vegetarian because it’s more efficient (plants being lower on the food chain, less heat lost when moving up the chain). Imagine all the weird looks I get from that.

Lauren Keith

Comment by laurenkeith

I am definitely in agreement that plants will produce more per acre in calories than meat, however, my main point was that, like many other comments on the quiz, I feel it is too general. These generalizations can lead people to make incorrect assumptions about their relationship with the environment, leading to Top Ten Ways to Be Green fads that give the masses quick, seemingly conclusive, answers. The truth of the matter stands that, depending on each individual’s choice, the footprint will vary. If, like me, someone has ten chickens, feeds them spent grain from a brewery and kitchen compost, uses their eggs, slaughters them in the backyard when they stop laying, and saves the bones for chicken stock after the main meal, I feel that is completely different than the type of meat the quiz was assuming I was eating. At any rate, I feel my personal meat mantra is best represented by the opening of Michael Pollan’s most recent book, In Defense of Food, “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Jennifer Kongs

Comment by jkongs

As another vegetarian, I feel the need to chime in…

First, I took no offense with your argument, although I did see some apples and oranges comparisons (comparing standard vegetable farming with organic beef, instead of organic v. organic).

Secondly, I’d say that vegetarianism is another example of making a personal decision that happens to have positive enviornmental consequences. Personally, I gave up eating meat some 13 years ago, when I was working as a cook in kitchens around town. Cooking 60 lbs of chicken and 120 lbs of ground beef on a daily basis really turned me off…add to that a cultural upbringing that showed how a vegetarian diet can be executed properly (and tastily), and the decision was pretty easy for me.

I can’t expect everyone to follow the same path, but I will add one final argument in favor of vegetarianism: the 10 percent rule for transferring energy.

Basically, it says that as you climb the food chain, you loose the energy inherent in the food by a degree of 10. In other words, plants soak up 100% of the energy from the sun, but we only get 10% of that energy when we consume plants; so if you’re eating a cow that ate plants, it got 10% of that energy, and you get 1% from the cow. So, in terms of farming, both may cause the same amount of environmental damage, but eating the meat is clearly less efficient (far more wasteful) in transferring energy onto you.

Anyway, I know that vegetarians–and environmentalists in general–can come across as preachy, and that’s not my intent. Instead, it’s simply to pass on some additional information that might help sway people to see that along with an environmental benefit, there’s also a personal benefit to be gained by cutting out the middle man (or middle cow, middle pig, middle chicken, as it were…)

Ranjit Arab

Comment by rarab

I would add that while you lose energy as you move up the food chain, you actually gain toxins. Many chemicals bind to fats and so as we eat animals higher up the chain, we are eating concentrated versions of those toxins. That said, I love meat. I just try to eat the animals that were treated the best before their untimely deaths.
As for environmentalists coming off as preachy, you are right. How should environmental journalists come across? How do we keep from suffering the same preachy fate?

Simran Sethi

Comment by j500

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