Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Meat the enemy

Posted by metaphorical on 3 February 2008

The United States produces “nearly 10 billion farm animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.”

“An estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production”

“livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation”

Now imagine if global meat production doubles between now and 2050. That’s the scary scenario posed by an article in last Sunday’s NY Times, “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler,” by Mark Bittman.

The title comes from the idea that “Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.”

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.

Environmental, political, health, and moral concerns have all been the main reasons I gave up meat 18 years ago. Bittman hits all cylinders:

Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens.

About two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption

Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams

Administration of antibiotics [in farm animals] is routine, so much so that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten the usefulness of medicines that treat people.

Those grain-fed animals, in turn, are contributing to health problems among the world’s wealthier citizens — heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes

There’s some faint — and in my opinion false — hope at the article’s end (One academic is quoted as saying, “The good of people’s bodies and the good of the planet are more or less perfectly aligned”). More convincing are these depressing comments. One expert is quoted,

“I just don’t think we can count on market prices to reduce our meat consumption. There may be a temporary spike in food prices, but it will almost certainly be reversed and then some.”

Bittman says, if price spikes don’t change eating habits, perhaps the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals.

Perhaps, but it’s been going one for a long time with few people caring at all. John Robbins’s Diet For A New America, the foundational book to which Fast Food Nation, Supersize Me, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma all owe an acknowledged debt, was published 21 years ago. In that same time, meat consumption in the developing world has doubled. What will the planet look like when it doubles again?

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