19 November 2009

The True Costs of Eating Meat

In this Washington Post column, James E. McWilliams highlights the true environmental costs of eating meat:

  • The livestock industry as a result of its reliance on corn and soy-based feed accounts for over half the synthetic fertilizer used in the United States, contributing more than any other sector to marine dead zones.
  • Livestock production consumes 70 percent of the water in the American West—water so heavily subsidized that if irrigation supports were removed, ground beef would cost $35 a pound.
  • Livestock accounts for at least 21 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions globally—more than all forms of transportation combined.
  • Nearly 70 percent of all the antibiotics produced are fed to farmed animals to prevent (not treat) disease. Undigested antibiotics leach from manure into freshwater systems and impair the sex organs of fish.
McWilliams’s column reminds us of the scientific findings documented in Livestock’s Long Shadow, the Food and Agricultural Organization’s 390-page report on the environmental impact of meat production. According to the Executive Summary of that FAO report:
The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.
Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale.

To put the point in perspective, McWilliams ask us to consider how we would react if someone told us "that a particular corporation was trashing the air, water and soil; causing more global warming than the transportation industry; consuming massive amounts of fossil fuel; unleashing the cruelest sort of suffering on innocent and sentient beings; failing to recycle its waste; and clogging our arteries in the process." He thinks we would rightly "frame the matter as a dire political issue."

Such a dire political issue requires a political response. McWilliams insists that vegetarianism is "the most powerful political response we can make to industrialized food. It's a necessary prerequisite to reforming it. To quit eating meat is to dismantle the global food apparatus at its foundation."

The Bottom Line: One cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist. If you care about the planet, follow McWilliams's advice, and switch to a plant-based diet. Do it for the Earth, do it for the animals, and do it for your health. Menu suggestions and recipes for a cruelty-free, planet-friendly Thanksgiving feast are available here.

About the Washington Post columnist: James E. McWilliams is Associate Professor of History at Texas State University at San Marcos and a recent fellow in the agrarian studies program at Yale University. He is the author of Just Food.