Vegetarians May Preach – But We’re Not All Members of the Choir

Less meatThe  suggestion that we should eat less meat in order to save the planet pops up with monotonous regularity in my twitter feed. Interestingly, those who make this claim are almost always vegetarian, vegan or profess to eat very little meat. This is rather like me asserting that we could mitigate climate change and save resources by eating fewer bananas and curbing our windsurfing habits. I loathe bananas, and if you ever see me windsurfing you’d better be sure that there’s a nearby hospital bed and neck brace with my name on it. As you can imagine, giving up either activity would have little impact on my life.

This is why I find it interesting and rather facile that those who do not eat meat proclaim fleshy abstinence as the way forwards. It’s easy to preach a solution that has no impact on your life – far harder to make a dietary or lifestyle change that actually impacts you.

The “eat less meat” movement would have far more credibility if it was promoted by a hunting, fishing, grilling, hamburger-lover who publicly declared his/her love for meat in all it’s many forms, and bemoaned the fact that they felt they should forgo the steak in favor of the tofu stir-fry. Yet this doesn’t happen. Why? Because the vast majority of us simply don’t feel that an intangible threat (we can’t see or feel climate change, or conceptualize the quantity of oil reserves remaining) is sufficient to make us give up our carnitas burrito. In reality, meat eating is only likely to decline if it becomes too expensive or subject to regulatory sanctions (e.g. rationing similar to that in Britain during WWII). The influx of papers suggesting that we should reduce consumption therefore fall on deaf ears.

So let’s face the facts. Neither the national or global population is likely to reduce meat consumption in the near future, and the rising income per capita in India and China will increase demand for meat still further. Instead of making recommendations based on notional utopias, let’s focus on areas where we can really improve.

Amazing gains in productivity have allowed the beef, dairy, pork and egg industry to considerably reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions over the last century. With a culture of continuous improvement and access to technologies that improve productivity, we can feed the future population using even fewer resources.

Let’s make better use of the multifarious by-products from the human food and fiber industry. Ruminants are blessed with the ability to digest fibers and plant materials that we either can’t or won’t eat – using by-product feeds to replace corn and soy refutes the claim that livestock compete with humans for food.

Finally, take a look at your own plate. Globally, 33% of food is wasted. Just think of the reductions in resource use we could achieve (and people we could feed) if all the crops planted, fruit picked, and milk, meat and eggs produced were consumed, rather than just 2/3 of them.

We evoke change by leading by example – I’m off to enjoy a steak, conventionally-raised using 12% less water, 19% less feed and 33% less land than its equivalent in 1977. You’d better believe that if there’s any left, it’s going in a sandwich tomorrow. As my Grandma used to say: Waste not, want not.

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17 thoughts on “Vegetarians May Preach – But We’re Not All Members of the Choir

  1. Lol! Too funny! Only veggie people advocate for eating less meat :). My family went meatless BECAUSE of the impact on the environment. And I advocate for this all the time. With animal farming currently responsible for 51% of global warming, it’s going to come down to your steak vs our survival…

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  2. Thoughts on the UN report detailing 51% of harmful greenhouse gases are caused by animal agriculture? Thoughts on the fact that 2,000 gallons of water go into producing one lb of beef (incredibly wasteful and unsustainable, in case you need that spelled out for you)?

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    • Thoughts: Incorrect on both counts. The 51% figure was from activist group The WorldWatch Institute. The UN report initially quoted 18% and has now revised that to 11-14%. If you’d care to read peer-reviewed papers rather than activist propaganda, you’d know that beef uses 441 gallons per lb (Beckett & Oltjen, Journal of Animal Science) and that much of that is reused, e.g. irrigation water running back into the creek. I have no problems debating actual facts, but these inflated nonsense figures just make debate pointless.

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  3. On the one hand, well written. On the other, hand blatantly ignorant to the fact that many thousands of people go vegan for various reasons, just one of which is the detrimental effect of animal farming on the environment. For MANY of those people the transition was not necessarily easy. So saying it is easy for those that don’t eat meat to say don’t eat meat is ignoring the fact that many were once meat eaters & had a hard time giving it up.

    The “Amazing gains in productivity” that you cite that “have allowed the beef, dairy, pork and egg industry to considerably reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions over the last century” are simple not in accordance with the burgeoning population of food animals. I highly question that “With a culture of continuous improvement and access to technologies that improve productivity, we can feed the future population using even fewer resources.” I personally see just the poop disposal problem alone overtaking the planet before any of these ‘improved technologies’ you speak of can hope to take effect.

    I also think you are not considering that many food animals are still fed grains that could feed starving children that will die before even attaining adulthood. You say “Let’s make better use of the multifarious by-products from the human food and fiber industry. Ruminants are blessed with the ability to digest fibers and plant materials that we either can’t or won’t eat.” – Using by-product feeds to replace corn and soy DOES NOT YET refute the claim that livestock compete with humans for food.

    Just “Because the vast majority of us simply don’t feel that an intangible threat (we can’t see or feel climate change, or conceptualize the quantity of oil reserves remaining) is sufficient to make us give up our carnitas burrito” does not mean that the problems are not there. Just because YOU can’t see or feel it does not mean that it does not exist.

    You have also ignored the facts about the rate at which the rainforests are being destroyed to accommodate food animals or the growing of their feed. The trees are the ‘lungs’ of the planet. They filter and clean the air we need to breath in order to live. What are we going to do when we have cut more trees down than can clean and return the air to us? We are cutting down MANY football fields per day if not per minute. Just what is it that we think we are doing to the planet and to ourselves?

    And you have completely left out the problem of animal waste disposal. How many tons are excreted per minute? What about the horrible ‘poop lagoons’ that can be seen from the air (via google) for miles and miles, mucking up the planet and fouling the air and the water supply. Try talking to the people that live in proximity to CAFOs and see how they feel about the stench and the health problems they are experiencing. There are PLENTY of YouTube videos of interviews with such people.

    As for taking a look at my own plate, I was raised on “Waste not want not” and none of my food goes to waste. I eat it for days until it is gone and sometimes my dog helps to finish it.

    Yes, we evoke change by leading by example, and that is why I am vegan.

    If you can console yourself with the facts that you have cited here, that barely scratch the surface of all the data available, then so be it. Your rationalization simply is not enough for me.

    I believe that the human body has 2 brains. The mind and the heart. The heart is the more evolved of the 2. I will follow my heart and not eat animals for the good of the animals, my health, and the good of the planet,

    I send you Peace, Love & Light. ❤

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    • Thank you re: well-written. I appreciate the “peace, love and light” at the end of your comment, however, those sentiments don’t appear to resonate through the comment itself. Oh and please, do stop WRITING IN CAPITALS – nobody likes being virtually shouted at. Just because it’s in capitals DOESN’T MAKE IT MORE MEANINGFUL, OR EVEN TRUE!

      I used to be a vegan, I am therefore extremely aware of how hard it was to give up meat and dairy products. However, having done so, I could easily tell other people that they should give up. Just as the most sanctimonious are often those who have given up a “bad” habit, I have not yet come across anybody telling me to give up meat on either Twitter or Facebook (note that my post did not say “anybody in the world in any forum”) who wasn’t already vegan, vegetarian or eating little meat.

      I suggest that you read the peer-reviewed papers that I linked to citing productivity gains. For example, in the USA in 2007 we produced 186 billion lbs of milk from a dairy herd containing 9.2 million cows, compared to the US dairy industry in 1944 which produced 118 billion lbs from a herd of 26.2 million cows. That’s 57% more milk from 65% fewer cows. Your statement regarding the “burgeoning population of food animals” is in direct contrast to USDA data on actual animal numbers.

      You seem to be missing the point. If we replaced all the corn and soy with by-product feeds we would indeed refute the suggestion that livestock compete with humans for feed. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to bring up a child in the developing world, but your comment seems to imply that world hunger can simply be solved by taking some corn (note that feed corn is not the same as sweet corn) away from a cow and mailing it to a starving child. If only it was that easy. It’s a nice emotional argument to bring up starving children vs. livestock, but political unrest and lack of infrastructure also play a huge role in world hunger.

      Again, you are missing the point re: environmental threats. “Intangible” means that we cannot feel it. Regardless of our dietary choices, we cannot see or feel climate change (at present, at least) and I defy you to find an average person who can comprehend the quantities of oil reserves that remain. I am not saying that these issues do not exist, I am saying that because the majority of people cannot evaluate the level of threat, they are unlikely to change their behavior.

      I can only imagine the livestock that haunt your dreams if you think that they excrete tons of feces per minute. Obviously there are a considerable number of environmental issues that I could have touched on in this post – but it’s a blog post, not an encyclopedia. I also “completely left out” the improvements in biodiversity (both plant and animal) gained by grazing cattle, and the socio-economic gains conferred by livestock ownership by citizens of developing countries also, but that’s because this was simply a blog post discussing environmental impact at the macro level. Again, if you read the papers linked to, you will see that, contrary to your philosophy, there is less waste produced per lb of beef or gallon of milk nowadays than in previous years.

      I can absolutely console myself with the scientific facts that I have cited here. Having worked with dairy and beef producers over the past 8 years and modeled environmental impact on the micro and macro scale, I am confident in the science. By contrast, emotional arguments without scientific fact do not appeal to me.

      You are, of course, absolutely free to believe whatever you like. I will continue to believe in improved productivity being key to continuing to reduce environmental impact as we move forwards. I would send love, love and light but anybody who knows me would know that I was being facetious – I reserve love for those whom I know and care for.

      Best wishes.

      Jude

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  4. Also: Can you tell me more about this reuse of water that you claim is 441 gallons per pound of beef and that much of that is reused, e.g. irrigation water running back into the creek. Cattle drink a lot of that water so I’m not sure how that can be reused. I have read much about this run-off water being polluted by animal feces and disease. Just how clean is this so-called run-off water? Lettuce, spinach, etc. that are infected by E. coli bacteria are not caused by a few workers that don’t wash their hands. The cause is the dirty feces-infested run-off water from factory farms. This also brings to mind another matter you have not addressed. The rampant rate of the spread of super bacteria that has been increased by the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. Would you care to comment on this matter? I won’t even bother to go into the myriad of health problems and diseases that are caused by the consumption of animal products.

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    • Wow. We really are pulling out all the anti-animal agriculture arguments today. What’s next? A foray into GMO crops and the dangers of vaccinating children? As I stated in the comment above, this was a blog post, not a literature review on the environmental impact of the livestock industry. Having recently completed such a review, I can tell you that this would be a 200-page document instead of a half-page post.

      441 gallons per lb beef is not my “claim” but the result of a peer-reviewed scientific paper – I provided the citation previously if you’d care to read it. In terms of water use up to the farm gate (i.e. not including water used during slaughter and processing) drinking water for cattle actually only comprises 5% of total usage – the majority is for production of grass hay (42%), alfalfa hay (26%) and pasture (14%). You seem to have the impression that cattle drink water and that it never comes out of the other end? Let me put this is very simple terms for you. A cow drinks some water, metabolizes it and then excretes it through breath and panting (into the air) or urine and feces (onto the pasture). The nutrients in that waste are used by the pasture, the water in it returns to water courses. Ultimate recycling.

      Irrigation water put onto crops is clean water (or as clean as water ever is in streams, creek and rivers) that is sprayed or run onto the crops. That water then runs off back into the water course. That is not the same as manure running off a field into a water course as could happen if, for example, manure was applied onto frozen ground or immediately before heavy rainfall.

      Ah yes, the ultimate activist argument – the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. You are presumably aware that most of the antibiotics used in livestock production for growth promotion (i.e. ionophores) have no equivalent in human medicine, thus cannot give rise to resistance that has implications for humans?

      Please research outside your “animal agriculture is bad” comfort zone and find out more about both livestock and crop production. Have you ever actually visited a cattle ranch or feedlot? Repeating the activist propaganda ad libitum does not persuade anybody that a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is the answer.

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  5. Once I was a big meat eater that was one year ago is not easy to give up meat but I did I good choice for my self , the planet , and the poor life’s that I’m eating and I’m proud of that but never say that it’s easy to us to talk about not eating meat we grow up as meat eater so it was a complete life change

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    • Thanks for your comment. I didn’t state that it was easy to give up meat – given that I used to be vegan I know exactly how difficult it is. On the contrary, I was referring to the fact that once somebody has given up meat, it is easy for them to say that others should so so. Giving it up is hard, saying somebody else should do so is easy.

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  6. typical rationalization for carnivory by a carnivore ~ get a heart & do the right thing ~ quit eating your fellow living organisms ~ what gives you the right to take life in order to satisfy your lust for flesh? what makes you think that your life is more important than the lives you consume?

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    • Lust for flesh – how very graphic. Yes, at the first sign of a butcher’s counter I drool like a Labrador and start baying at the moon in my quest for raw, bloody, flesh!! Or…I’m just an omnivore like most of the population. We are all entitled to make dietary choices – I’m absolutely happy for you to refuse meat and choose plant-based foods instead, why can’t you extend the same courtesy? Are you going to suggest next that lions feel that their lives are superior to those of antelopes? Bad lions, bad bad lions. Shame on them.

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  7. I have to think about what this world would be like if we stopped eating meat and simply left all the animals free! Wow, wouldn’t the insurance companies love all the claims that would be made for, in addition to all the deer, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, etc., in the roadways that would cause collision, injury and death?? Humans would have to fight for the veggies and plants we’d be eating because all the roaming animals would be competing with us for this food. What about all that poop? Animals roaming free would also be able to poop freely, in our yards, on our vegetables, in the roadways. Lastly, I don’t think I’d want to meet up with the random bull I might find when I opened my front door. I don’t think he’d be too happy sharing this new, free world. While we in agriculture are blamed for keeping our animals pregnant against their own free will, more than likely all these free-roaming animals would be pregnant for even more of their lives, minus the help from humans they get during the birth process.

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