My last article, on the pros and cons of eating meat, got quite a lot of comments. Clearly, it’s an issue the members of our community have given a lot of thought, and one we often struggle to reconcile within ourselves. On the pros side, many people feel healthiest when meat is part of their diet. Some have numerous sensitivities to plant foods, eggs, and dairy products, and meat is one of the few things that sits well in their body. Indeed, one could argue that the human race would have ended millennia ago if we hadn’t eaten meat.
On the cons side, large scale meat production has many destructive impacts on the environment. Farm animals are often raised in a way that lacks a reverence for life, and sometimes is downright cruel. And numerous studies claim that a high meat diet increases one’s risk of certain cancers and ischemic heart disease. (It should be noted, however, that some large studies have found no significant difference in all-cause mortality rates between vegetarians/vegans and meat-eaters.)
So, where do we go from here? First, I feel I should tell you my qualifications to lead such a discussion. In addition to being a nutritionally-oriented medical provider, I have a degree in plant and soil sciences from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I focused on sustainable and organic agriculture. I’ve been studying ecology for over 25 years, and although I still wouldn’t call myself an expert, I know more about this stuff, and have more clinical experience with the human health elements of it, than the average zealous blogger.
I specifically try not to be a zealot because zealotry makes us intolerant to opposing viewpoints and therefore keeps us from seeing the whole truth. You can trust that I have looked at this from many angles and I am passionate about saving the planet and finding long-term solutions that are in the best interests of the greatest number of people.
Now, let’s look closer at these pros and cons.
Some people feel better and have better objective measures of health when meat is part of their diet. In my opinion, there’s really no arguing with this. Bodies are different and some bodies thrive on meat. Does this mean everyone thrives on meat? No.
Does this mean we need meat to thrive? No, but for some, it may take work (and sacrifice) to thrive as a vegetarian or vegan.
Does this mean those who do well with meat should have lots of it? Probably not. One of the things the longest lived cultures of the world have in common is that they all consume little meat.
Meat production has many destructive impacts on the environment and public health. If we care about the planet and the future of our species, this point needs our attention. With just a few exceptions, production of animal-based foods is much more resource-intensive than plant-based foods. Animal food production (especially red meat) uses much more land than plant crop production does. It also uses much more water, and simultaneously contributes to water pollution. Meat production (again, especially red) has a massive carbon footprint – both through greenhouse gases and deforestation (we need trees to sequester carbon like giant sponges).
Farm animals contribute in a big way to antibiotic resistance. 70 to 80 percent of the world’s antibiotics are administered to animals, and this is often done in a “preventive” way that’s totally unnecessary. (It’s worth noting that part of the reason this percentage is so high is because farm animals greatly outnumber humans, and doses for large animals are much larger than those for people.)
In short, the world can’t all consume animal products in the quantities that Americans and Europeans do. There isn’t enough Earth to support it. We can’t expect the rest of the world to bear this burden. We must eat less meat and also change the way we produce animal products to make them more sustainable.
Aren’t there sustainable ways to raise animals? Yes, animal husbandry can even restore poor land. But such practices represent a tiny minority of total agriculture and simply couldn’t be scaled to meet current demand.
Can plant farming be destructive too? Absolutely, though not as destructive in as many ways as meat production. We need to make all agriculture more sustainable.
Does the world need to go vegan? No, I have seen models that allow for some meat, egg, and dairy consumption – especially if they’re produced intelligently – but we do need to shift to a primarily plant-based diet if we endeavor to feed everyone and maintain a healthy planet.
Eating meat usually entails the mistreatment of animals. Chances are, if you eat meat at restaurants and you buy meat at the store, you are supporting agricultural practices that are unkind to animals. Animal welfare regulations have gotten a little better in the past few decades, but in the “factory farms” where about 95% of our food supply originates – humanity is generally not a core value. Are there exceptions? Definitely. Look for products from humanely-raised animals and get to know local farms. Because raising animals with compassion requires more space, expect the price to be higher – but isn’t it worth compensating farmers for giving animals a more natural and dignified existence?
If you care about these issues – health, animal welfare, the environment, hunger, etc. – I encourage you to read more and challenge your assumptions. As I said last time, we tolerate the negative impacts of meat consumption through a collective practice of willful ignorance. The food industry depends on it. As I see it, the global solution depends on a large-scale willingness to be uncomfortable – to recognize the cost of our choices, to seek out more conscientious sources even if they’re less convenient or more expensive, to reduce our consumption of factory-grade animal products, and so on.
What’s your story? What are your solutions? What changes are you willing to make? Share below!
Dr. Peter Borten