Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler - New York Times

A very thoughtful and economical article on why we need to eat less meat, by Mark Bittman, the Times' food writer.

I'm not a doctrinaire vegetarian (I willingly eat meat at restaurants or when no other alternative is available), but I have to say the idea that the average American consumers eight ounces of meat per day is, well, frankly disgusting. I assume that is uncooked, but it would still equal two large hamburgers per day, or half a chicken. How in the world did we get to the point where that is the average?

That level of consumption makes no sense: It's expensive, it's categorically unnecessary and even harmful for good health, has horrific consequences for the environment... and, gosh darn it, the real kicker here, most meat that I see sold in restaurants and grocery stores is of low quality and is usually poorly prepared... So, it does not even TASTE good. I remember vaguely the last hamburger I had at McDonalds. It was salty, warm, greasy, and it tasted fine, but not particularly beefy, and it surely did not excite me to eat more...

Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler - New York Times:
"Americans eat about the same amount of meat as we have for some time, 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."


Anonymous said...

I'm hardly leaping to the defense of carnivores, but (1) that's average per capita so includes children, and (2) a quarter pounder at McDonald's is most definitely not a "big" hamburger. As memorialized by the slogan, the Big Mac is "two all beef patties" which according to McDonald's website totals 8oz of sad old milk cow (the primary source of McD's ground beef). Also, a 4 1/2 lb chicken probably yields 12-14oz of readily accessible meat when roasted (a breast is 4oz), so it's more like 6-7oz from a chicken.

As a committed carnivore, I certainly eat 8oz of meat a day.

Michael said...

Right. Surely children eat LESS than 8oz a day. Add into the equation a fairly substantial number of vegetarians of various stripes (2.5% in 2000, according to Zogby). Those two populations would therefore suggest that the average adult eats considerably more than 8oz.

And it speaks volumes that you would write that the Quarter Pounder is not a big burger. That's 400 calories! And I was mistaken in the post above -- a Quarter Pounder is a quarter pound of cooked meet, or 6oz of raw.

Finally, the average fryer in my market is 3 lbs. At best, the yield on that chicken is going to be a pound of meat, unless you eat the back, liver, bones, fat and skin... So, one chicken might yield a bit over a pound.

And to clarify a point: I like meat. I eat it on occasion. (And I eat eggs and cheese, which are only somewhat less troubling than meat.)

I do not think everyone should become a vegetarian: My choice has a lot to do with my unwillingness to participate in something that I consider very wasteful and stupid, namely the industrial meat production in the US. I also really love vegetables -- growing, cooking, and eating them.

I think that many people would come to a similar conclusion if they really knew the waste and harm that comes from eating TOO MUCH meat.

Those who DO understand the true costs and CONTINUE to eat an excessive amount of meat... Well, those people have to live with the karma of that decision.

Raydancer said...

I find it interesting that the article you quoted from compares limiting meat consumption with driving a more efficient vehicle. Both eating massive quantities of meat and driving a large vehicle have a certain Tim Allen man-grunt stigma attached to them. I think the only way to fix the situation would be to make people smarter, government interaction, or a food shortage. My bet is on the food shortage.

JimV said...

“Rethinking the meat-guzzler”was one of the most prominent, extensive and widely circulated explorations of animal products impact on the environment.
As a vegan and an environmentalist, I can appreciate the excitement over this level of exposure to these issues. However, upon considering the full content and impact of the piece, I am equally inspired and appalled.
While the problems of meat were explained in considerable, accurate detail, the solutions posited revealed a startling logical and ethical disconnection
Writer, Mark Bittman and others such as Michael Pollen who was also cited in the story, do, as slightly-more attentive carcass chompers, like to raise some portions of the environmental, anti-meat arguments. Sadly, they lack an ethical center, and so miss the larger picture. There is no humane meat, nor environmental solution for the meat-kills-planet dynamic.
False hope for Green Eggs and Ham was laid thickly in this article as Bittman seeks to cling to his steak dinner while the planet crumbles around him. For instance: “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.’”
Perdue, Cargill, and Smithfield have already capitalized on hundreds of years of selective breeding, coupled with new, intensive production methods, feed refinements, and genetic shenanigans to arrive at our current factory animals. While not exactly intended to “reduce the footprint” industry priorities have included minimizing feed and water inputs while maximizing animal products. Further "improvements" in this field will yield tiny advancements at best.
Bittman went on to offer false hope of energy abatement:
"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."
This overlooks the fundamental problem that the most efficient factory animals (chickens) only return at best one ninth of the energy used to produce them (one twelfth to as little as one fortieth efficiency may be expected elsewhere in animal production systems). To reclaim a fraction of the waste material, by investing more labor and energy, to then eek out a bit of energy in return is a fools’ journey. Think ethanol, but worse.
The article failed to cite any meat industry insiders defending their products and also failed to cite any vegan or vegetarian sources with demonstrated environmental concerns. Instead, Bittman turned to fellow New York Times veteran and like-minded carcass-knosher Michael Pollan to recite the illogical defense of green meat:
“In places where you can’t grow grain, fattening cows on grass is always going to make more sense.”
That's just grass-fed bullshit. As I drive around my region, upstate NY, I note that most "grass-fed" beef cattle are grazing principally on arable land. Through winter (half the year in pasturing terms), they must be fed hay (and/or other feed) that is almost entirely grown on cropland that could feed actual humans. Hay’s majority cost input is fossil fuels. Hay may come from land in our region, but also often comes from Canada and the Midwest. Given the bails per day requirements of beef cattle and distances from fields to farms, the hay-miles aspect of local beef means the product is always food-mile intensive. Grass-fed beef is a mere boutique product sold at premium prices to assuage the environmental guilt of carcass-munching would-be greenies.
When compared to industrial meat production methods, grass-fed or free-range animal products may reduce the risk of catastrophic localized environmental disasters. However, small, local meat production systems are likely to require greater per-animal inputs of feed, water, labor and fuel. I would love to see an objective head to head comparison of industrial meat vs Green Eggs and Ham.
Bittman does make important concessions toward more plant-based diets. It's great that he suggests that, "meat may become a treat rather than a routine" and argues in favor of real cost pricing and some limited consumer awareness, but what makes flesh slices a “treat” anyway? How is it ever appropriate to spend the environmental or humanitarian currency to purchase this "treat"?
In his 2,000 word treatise, Bittman gives exceedingly short-shrift to animal welfare concerns, dismissively offering just a single sentence: “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.”
Aside from being dead wrong about Green Eggs and Ham, Bittman, Pollan and other daily overlook the key ethical issue that their dinners were thinking, feeling beings who never deserved the horrific fate of a trip to the slaughterhouse.
While “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler” may be remembered as a sea change moment in environmental reporting, I can only give him a “D” for environmental understanding and an “F” in ethics.