Veggie or Carnivore? – Red Meat for Debate

May 16, 2012


Five years ago, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization published a report called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which maintained that 18 percent of greenhouse gases were attributable to the raising of animals for food. The number was startling.

A couple of years later, however, it was suggested that the number was too small. Two environmental specialists for the World Bank, Robert Goodland (the bank’s former lead environmental adviser) and Jeff Anhang, claimed, in an article in World Watch, that the number was more like 51 percent. It’s been suggested that that number is extreme, but the men stand by it, as Mr. Goodland wrote to me this week: “All that greenhouse gas isn’t emitted directly by animals.  ”But according to the most widely-used rules of counting greenhouse gases, indirect emissions should be counted when they are large and when something can be done to mitigate or reduce them.”

The exact number doesn’t matter. What does is that few people take the role of livestock in producing greenhouse gases seriously enough. Even most climate change experts focus on new forms of energy — which cannot possibly be effective quickly enough or produced on a broad enough scale to avert what may be the coming catastrophe — and often ignore the much easier fix of adjusting our eating habits.

It’s good that we’re eating somewhat less meat, but it still amounts to something just shy of  a staggering 200 pounds per person per year. And no matter how that number changes domestically, on the world scale there’s troubling movement in the wrong direction. Meat consumption in China is now twice what it is in the United States (in 1978 it was only one-third). We still eat twice as much per capita as the Chinese, but when they catch up they’ll consume more than four times as much as we do.

But the Chinese don’t need to eat like us; we need to eat like them. Or, rather, like they did until recently.

Mother Jones: 

…an acquaintance recently told me she’s joined a meat CSA (wherein you get a butcher box direct from the farm) for “environmental reasons.” No doubt the bucolic pasture where her burgers grow up is a far cry from a Food, Inc.-style feedlot, but aren’t my salads, cage-free egg sandwiches, and veggie burgers always better for the planet than any kind of meat—no matter how responsibly it’s raised?

Not necessarily, says Gidon Eshel, a Bard College geophysicist who analyzes the energy payoff and environmental impacts of food production. In general, Eshel says, it’s true that raw veggies are an excellent nutritional bargain: For every 100 calories of energy put into producing conventional beef, from farm to supermarket shelf, you get only six calories back to eat. Compare that with apples, which yield 110 calories, or raw soy: an amazing 415. In terms of greenhouse gases, switching from a diet that includes red meat to a plants-only one is roughly equivalent to trading in your SUV for a Camry.

But a girl can only eat so much roasted kale before she starts craving protein: tofu, veggie burgers, and the (okay, creepy) occasional piece of fakin’ bacon. But coaxing soy into a red-and-white rectangular strip takes work—which is why Eshel believes most veggie burgers are the caloric equivalent of “shooting yourself in the foot.” A 2009 study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology found that while producing a plate of peas requires a fraction of the energy needed to produce the same number of calories of pork, the energy costs of a pea-burger and a pork chop are about equal.

That’s not the only issue with fake meat. Consider the process that keeps your veggie burgers low in fat: The cheapest way to remove fatty soybean oil is with hexane, an EPA-registered air pollutant and suspected neurotoxin. A 2009 study by the Cornucopia Institute, a sustainable-farming nonprofit, found that Boca, Morningstar Farms, and Gardenburger (among others) market products made with hexane. The finding was enough to turn Cornucopia researcher Charlotte Vallaeys off of fake meat. “I can’t think of a single meat-alternative product where I could explain how every ingredient is made,” she says. “With a grass-fed burger, well, there’s one ingredient. And with grass-fed burgers I actually might be doing something good for the environment.”

So plant protein is usually the greener choice, as long as it’s not overprocessed. But for the meat we do eat, the best approach is to return to our traditions, says Jim Howell, a senior partner at the Savory Institute, a think tank that promotes ecologically sound grazing practices. Howell points out that the world’s prairies coevolved with herds of herbivores, meaning that cows (and other grazers, like bison) are great grass farmers. While conventional farms rely on oil-based synthetic fertilizers, grazers make their own organic version—their excrement nurtures grasses that grow year-round. Well-managed pastureland also retains topsoil remarkably well—switching from cornfields to pastureland, according to Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, cuts soil erosion by 93 percent.

Yet 71 percent of America’s prairies have been converted to cropland. And more than half of all corn and 98 percent of all soy grown in the United States goes to raise livestock, even though feeding this diet to cows promotes virulent strains (PDF) of E. coli and liver abscesses—which farmers treat with high doses of antibiotics. “So there’s all this land going to feed livestock that aren’t even really evolved to handle that kind of food,” says Howell. “If you made all that land into tall-grass prairie, you’d still have land to grow grains for humans.” You’d also sequester more carbon: A USDA study found that Great Plains pastureland stores 54 percent more CO2 per acre than cropland.

Opposing Views: 

The Las Vegas restaurant famous for its absurdly caloric meals and waitresses in skimpy, nurse outfits felled another patron this week.

Jon Basso, the owner of the Heart Attack Grill told local TV station KVVU that a woman collapsed in his restaurant Saturday night after eating, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. (See a photo of the woman being carted out below.)

It is not yet known whether the fatty food on the Heart Attack menu contributed to the woman’s episode. She is the second person to suffer actual heart problems in the grill this year. In February, a man had to be hospitalized after downing a “Triple Bypass Burger.”

Even before this recent health scare, the Heart Attack Grill has been criticized by numerous outside observers for glorifying the unhealthy eating habits at the center of the American obesity epidemic. Basso’s food items include the aforementioned “Triple Bypass Burger” and the “Flatliner” fries. People who weigh in at over 350 pounds eat free.

58 Responses to “Veggie or Carnivore? – Red Meat for Debate”

  1. daveburton Says:

    Five stars!

  2. climatehawk1 Says:

    Agreed, good info, thanks. I must admit to having a soft spot in my heart (ironically) for Heart Attack Grill. It’s so much like something out of a dystopian SF novel, only it’s *real.* As if GM had brought out, hmm, maybe a gold-plated Hummer?

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I must admit, that having pounded on a lot of lifeless, myocardial infarcted chests, the humor leaves me somewhat cold.

  3. Mike Says:

    I’m a meateater and I find pictures of those massive burgers obscene. Purely because of what they represent… overindulgence with little care for anything other than boasting the ability to be overindulgent. We are starting to see similar things in Australia. I guess there’s a part of our society that wants to be as overindulgent as we perceive Americans to be.

  4. Peter,

    Great post! I was shocked to read that abstract on that Davis et al article which measured the calorie cost of the four protein meals. Keep this great stuff coming!


  5. Tyson Adams Says:

    It is interesting to read the Livestock Long Shadow report because it is often quoted by those pushing a conversion to vegetarianism. The report actually makes recommendations on how to reduce emissions whilst increasing animal protein production.

    Emissions of gases for crop production are usually not fully understood. Plus accounting for calories has to take into account not just caloric value but digestible. For example, animal proteins are far more bioavailable than plant proteins and tend to have all essential amino acids. Thus it is a more complete and more available, something that is not accounted for in calculations.

  6. coming soon : huge burgers are good for you, and vegetarians are part of some satan worshipping new world order

  7. also coming soon: eating burgers is patriotic and veggies are un american communists..

  8. My in laws find vegetarianism offensive, anti-patriotic, and anti-Bible help!?
    Can someone help me with some polite arguments?
    I am going to spend 1 week with my in laws because my husband and son haven’t seen them in 2 years but they are very offended by my diet!

    They are very “church people”, very conservative and find vegetarianism offensive because they say it’s biblical and it’s part of what America is. They sent me articles about it and keep bugging my husband to “change” my habits.

    So far I have been ignoring but I know eventually I will have this conversation (I was hoping before I get there so things are not awkward in their house).

    How would you argue with them?
    Remember, key words: Bible and Patriotism

  9. glorkspangle Says:

    Bob: it rather depends on why you are a vegetarian. If it’s on animal welfare grounds, there’s plenty of support in the Bible for avoiding animal suffering (the story in Numbers of Balaam’s ass leaps to mind, although there’s much more). The meat-eating in the Bible which is seen as righteous is mostly from animal sacrifice: a man would kill an animal as an act of worship, and would then eat it himself with his family. Do your in-laws practice animal sacrifice? Or do they let the meat industry do the killing for them, in conditions of unknown cruelty, “out of sight, out of mind”?

    The antediluvian diet – before the Flood – was vegetarian (Gen. 1:29-31), “and it was very good”. Then after the Flood meat-eating was permitted (Gen. 9:3).

    In the New Testament, there are no descriptions of Jesus eating meat (although some translations have made the Greek word for ‘food’ into ‘meat’). But your key ammunition is chapter 14 of Romans: study it well. Paul explicitly condemns, at length, a meat-eater who judges or has contempt for his vegetarian fellow Christian.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: