Pyres of diseased animals. Thousands of acres of grazing that were once Amazonian forest. Cardiology wards tending fat-clogged hearts. And lorries crammed with bleating lambs on their way to slaughter. The costs of meat eating are immense. The arguments against it are persuasive and compelling.
There is an economic argument. This points to the inefficiencies of livestock farming. There is a health argument, which points out that meat is full of fat and bacteria. And if non-organic then full also of growth hormones, antibiotics and vaccines. And strongest of all there is a moral argument. Against killing sentient creatures for our pleasure, when we do not need to do so to live well.
Start with the first. Animals are less efficient than plants at converting nutrients and water into calories. Meat accounts for a sixth of humanity’s calorific intake but uses roughly a third of its crop land, water and grain. Producing a kilogram of grain takes 1,500 litres of water; a kilo of beef takes 15,000 litres.
Domestic animals also belch and excrete amazing quantities of greenhouse gases. Carbon emissions rise when cutting down jungle for pasture. In all, livestock farming produces 8-18% of greenhouse-gas emissions. It is the main contributor to the build-up of nitrogen and phosphorus in the world’s soils, producing too much ammonia (which is caustic), nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) and dead zones in oceans (the result of excess phosphorus).
A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing. If the livestock business repeats the growth of the past 40 years during the next 40 the results could be disastrous. With more jungle and savannah turned into pasture, and more rivers and watering holes drunk dry. If all that were not enough, domesticated animals form a reservoir of diseases that afflict humans.
It may be prudent also to take the health argument seriously. We do not eat ‘fresh’ meat, we eat carrion. The former would be stiff with rigor mortis, and meat only becomes soft enough to cook and eat once it has begun to rot. We like our game especially rotten, which is why we leave it hanging for days so that the microbes swarming in it can do their work. Microbe’s are the meat eaters friend; without them we could not eat it. Bacteria finishes everything off, multiplying in ten hours from 100 to 100 million.
The health argument is a prudential one; the moral argument is one of principle. A frank look at what the raising, transporting and killing of the animals we eat daily involves should fill any normal person with revulsion.
How many meat eaters would cut the throat of a cow themselves, and hack open its belly with a knife to empty its intestines? But the thousands of daily deaths of animals are hidden away, and on the butcher’s shelf the meat looks innocuous. Nothing like the living creature it once was. We prosecute anyone who is cruel to a cow – by beating it or giving it electric shocks, say – yet the connection between that fact and the dinner table is rarely made.
“Eat less meat,” said Rajendra Pachauri of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN gathering of scientists who track global warming. “You’ll be healthier and so will the planet.” If the transition from a meat filled diet to a vegetarianism one is too much, we can still start by reducing our meat intake.
Among the lessons of recent research is that white meat wins out over red for environmental reasons as well as health ones. Too much red meat, particularly the processed sort, can increase the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. And it takes 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of chicken, whereas for beef it is between 5-20kg. This is another step a conscious consumer can take.
A recent study also published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculated the benefits of low-meat and no-meat diets using computer models through to 2050. The former daily regime included eating five portions of fruits and vegetables, less than 50g of sugar, up to 43g of red meat and a total energy content of between 2,200-2,300 calories. A vegetarian diet and a vegan diet were also analysed.
Following a modest meat diet, global greenhouse gas emissions increased by only 7% by 2050. This compares with an expected increase of 51%. A widespread switch to vegetarianism could curb emissions by two thirds and veganism by 70%.
More careful diets would also offer more direct health benefits. The study found that more than the aversion of 5m deaths over the next three decades if meat consumption decreased a little around the world. Over 7m could saved if veggie-eating caught on more.
Food for thought.