Will We Still Eat Meat?

Maybe not, if we wake up to what the mass production of animal flesh is doing to our health--and the planet's

When Julius Caesar made his triumphal entrance into Rome in 45 B.C., he celebrated by giving a feast at which thousands of guests gorged on poultry, seafood and game. Similar celebrations featuring exorbitant consumption of animal flesh have marked human victories--in war, sport, politics and commerce--since our species learned to control fire. Throughout the developing world today, one of the first things people do as they climb out of poverty is to shift from their peasant diet of mainly grains and beans to one that is rich in pork or beef. Since 1950, per capita consumption of meat around the globe has more than doubled.

Meat, it seems, is not just food but reward as well. But in the coming century, that will change. Much as we have awakened to the full economic and social costs of cigarettes, we will find we can no longer subsidize or ignore the costs of mass-producing cattle, poultry, pigs, sheep and fish to feed our growing population. These costs include hugely inefficient use of freshwater and land, heavy pollution from livestock feces, rising rates of heart disease and other degenerative illnesses, and spreading destruction of the forests on which much of our planet's life depends.

First, consider the impact on supplies of freshwater. To produce 1 lb. of feedlot beef requires 7 lbs. of feed grain, which takes 7,000 lbs. of water to grow. Pass up one hamburger, and you'll save as much water as you save by taking 40 showers with a low-flow nozzle. Yet in the U.S., 70% of all the wheat, corn and other grain produced goes to feeding herds of livestock. Around the world, as more water is diverted to raising pigs and chickens instead of producing crops for direct consumption, millions of wells are going dry. India, China, North Africa and the U.S. are all running freshwater deficits, pumping more from their aquifers than rain can replenish. As populations in water-scarce regions continue to expand, governments will inevitably act to cut these deficits by shifting water to grow food, not feed. The new policies will raise the price of meat to levels unaffordable for any but the rich.

That prospect will doubtless provoke protests that direct consumption of grain can't provide the same protein that meat provides. Indeed, it can't. But nutritionists will attest that most people in the richest countries don't need nearly as much protein as we're currently getting from meat, and there are plenty of vegetable sources--including the grains now squandered on feed--that can provide the protein we need.

Unfortunately, this isn't just a matter of productive capacity. Mass production of meat has also become a staggering source of pollution. Maybe cow pies were once just a pastoral joke, but in recent years livestock waste has been implicated in massive fish kills and outbreaks of such diseases as pfiesteria, which causes memory loss, confusion and acute skin burning in people exposed to contaminated water. In the U.S., livestock now produce 130 times as much waste as people do. Just one hog farm in Utah, for example, produces more sewage than the city of Los Angeles. These megafarms are proliferating, and in populous areas their waste is tainting drinking water. In more pristine regions, from Indonesia to the Amazon, tropical rain forest is being burned down to make room for more and more cattle. Agriculture is the world's biggest cause of deforestation, and increasing demand for meat is the biggest force in the expansion of agriculture.

What has proved an unsustainable burden to the life of the planet is also proving unsustainable for the planet's dominant species. In China a recent shift to meat-heavy diets has been linked to increases in obesity, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and colorectal cancer. U.S. and World Health Organization researchers have announced similar findings for other parts of the world. And then there are the growing concerns about what happens to people who eat the flesh of animals that have been pumped full of genetically modified organisms, hormones and antibiotics.

These concerns may seem counterintuitive. We evolved as hunter-gatherers and ate meat for a hundred millenniums before modern times. It's natural for us to eat meat, one might say. But today's factory-raised, transgenic, chemical-laden livestock are a far cry from the wild animals our ancestors hunted. When we cleverly shifted from wildland hunting and gathering to systematic herding and farming, we changed the natural balances irrevocably. The shift enabled us to produce food surpluses, but the surpluses also allowed us to reproduce prodigiously. When we did, it became only a matter of time before we could no longer have the large area of wildland, per individual, that is necessary to sustain a top-predator species.

By covering more and more of the planet with our cities, farms and waste, we have jeopardized other top predators that need space as well. Tigers and panthers are being squeezed out and may not last the coming century. We, at least, have the flexibility--the omnivorous stomach and creative brain--to adapt. We can do it by moving down the food chain: eating foods that use less water and land, and that pollute far less, than cows and pigs do. In the long run, we can lose our memory of eating animals, and we will discover the intrinsic satisfactions of a diverse plant-based diet, as millions of people already have.

I'm not predicting the end of all meat eating. Decades from now, cattle will still be raised, perhaps in patches of natural rangeland, for people inclined to eat and able to afford a porterhouse, while others will make exceptions in ceremonial meals on special days like Thanksgiving, which link us ritually to our evolutionary and cultural past. But the era of mass-produced animal flesh, and its unsustainable costs to human and environmental health, should be over before the next century is out.

Written by Ed Ayres, editorial director of the Worldwatch Institute and author of God's Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future.
First published in Time Magazine, 1999/12/6


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