Let’s Talk About the Cow, Pig, Chicken, Sheep in the Room deals with the threat that farm animals pose to the environment and to humanity. The fierce competition between species for finite resources such as water and food is highlighted by Ellen Moyer in her article. (Rolly Montpellier, Editor for BoomerWarrior).
Image credit: Nate Kitch
The global population of farm animals is growing twice as fast as the human population, creating “the other population crisis.” How big is this problem? About 10 times as many animals as there are people in the world are now raised for food each year.
Cow, Pig, Chicken, Sheep in the Room
Controversy swirls around the subject of eating meat, with huge implications for human health, our environment, and animal welfare. We each make decisions about what we eat, day after day, for our entire lifetime. The cumulative consequences of our decisions are significant. The production of meat impacts the environment and animal welfare far more than the production of any other type of food does. Meat-eating habits also impact human health.
Meat includes “white meat” from poultry (and not seafood, in this discussion) and “red meat” from beef, veal, pork, lamb, and other four-legged animals. “Processed meat” is white or red meat that has been salted, cured, fermented, or smoked.
Globally, most meat is produced by factory farming. This involves confining large numbers of animals in cramped, often indoor, facilities. Farmers typically feed the animals grains and genetically modified corn and soy, which are grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers routinely dose their animals with artificial hormones and antibiotics to promote growth. The antibiotics additionally protect the animals from diseases that tend to thrive in the overcrowded and filthy conditions. The treatments with antibiotics also allow farmers to give the animals foods that their bodies were never adapted to eat — a practice that often makes them sick.
There is a more-humane alternative to meat production, one that has been used since humans began raising livestock: Animals can be grass-fed, pasture-raised, and organically grown, without being exposed to genetically modified food, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics.
Factory Farming Degrades the Environment
Most people are oblivious to the devastating environmental impacts of meat production on the global environment. Raising farm animals uses vast amounts of resources, including energy, three-quarters of the world’s agricultural land, and one-third of our fresh water consumption. Forests are clear-cut for grazing and for growing food for the farm animals. Habitat loss driven by demand for meat is likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions. Farm animal production generates about 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental impacts of red meat are worse than those of white meat (and environmental impacts of any meat are worse than those of plants foods). For example, it takes 3.5 times as much water to produce a serving of beef as a serving of chicken. And 4 times the greenhouse gases are emitted to produce a serving of beef as for a serving of chicken.
Industrial-style production of feed for farm animals uses more water and energy, generates more greenhouse gases, causes more water pollution, and kills more wildlife than organic production does. In addition, the cultivation of industrial feed erodes and degrades soil and results in dead zones at the mouths of rivers. To be fair, though, grass-fed and pasture-raised animals can degrade and erode soil.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, wildlife lose when their needs conflict with those of grazing cattle. Some populations of grizzly bears and wolves, for example, have been driven extinct by the livestock industry. Ecologists fear that an additional 175 threatened or endangered species, such as the prairie dog, could be next.
The effects of manure are wiping out freshwater life throughout the world. This is less of a problem with grass-fed and pasture-raised animals, which roam over large areas of the land rather than being confined in small areas. Their manure is dispersed over the fields and becomes incorporated into the soil.
Photo credit: John Gress/Corbis /APImages
Industrial-style production torments farm animals, and some people consider it a crime. Instead, it is a crime in many states to take photographs of the tormented animals. Seven states have passed “ag-gag” laws. The other side is fighting back with state laws to end the most egregious factory-farming practices. Last year, it became illegal in California to sell eggs from hens kept in small “battery cages.” A proposed Massachusetts ballot initiative has garnered the necessary citizen signatures to put a question on the November ballot that would ban the production and sale of eggs from hens and meat from pigs and calves kept in tight enclosures. Most of us close our eyes and ears to the maltreatment.
Before Will Harris (1), a beef producer in Georgia, switched from industrial to grass-fed methods, his 800 cows had been confined, fed corn and soy, and given antibiotics and hormones. “Here I was fighting nature every step of the way,” he said. When he learned of consumers who wanted grass-fed beef, he ditched the drugs, hormones, corn, soy, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers and switched to pasture feed. He says he has only one metric for humane livestock production: “Can you pour yourself a glass of wine, sit back, and enjoy watching your animals?”
Bad for Human Health?
According to Andrew Weil, M.D., who “has arguably become America’s best-known doctor,” no one needs to eat meat to be healthy (2). But for those of us who do eat meat, whether or not it is a healthy habit depends on its quantity and type, the way the animal was raised, and how the meat is prepared.
Some studies link red meat consumption to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer; poultry consumption has not been linked to these diseases. However, the science is murky because the studies involve confounding factors. The subjects in the studies were eating factory-farmed red meat. The reported adverse health effects might have been due to the genetically modified feed, pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics administered to the factory-farmed animals and carried over onto the dinner plates of the human subjects. Pesticides have been implicated in increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer; so the animals’ feed might be linked to these reported adverse effects. In that case, the study results are only applicable to factory-farmed meat. Similarly, the diseases reported in the studies might have been caused by other foods or lifestyle factors. Mark Hyman, M.D., international leader in the field of functional medicine and nine-time New York Times bestselling author, along with Weil, says that consumption of small amounts of quality organic meat is unlikely to be harmful. Amy Myers, M.D., a functional medicine physician specializing in autoimmune disease, states that choosing organic is particularly important for people with autoimmune disease or inflammatory conditions.
Some of the science linking meat to harmful health effects isn’t murky at all. About 70 percent of antibiotics in the United States are fed to farm animals, and those drugs are clearly causing problems. Antibiotics use leads to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which each year kill at least 23,000 people in the United State alone.
Some processed meats have well-documented health consequences, and they may be among the least healthy foods a person could possibly eat. Nitrites in some processed meats can convert to carcinogenic nitrosamines. Similarly, meats cooked at high temperatures can form polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines, which have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
On a macro level, consumption of meat harms the health of poor people, who go hungry because diverting grains to animals results in higher grain prices. And increased climate change caused by meat production comes with its own array of human health impacts.
What to Do?
Some people consider it unethical to eat meat altogether. For them, the answer is easy: Be a vegetarian. For the rest of us, the best approach for ourselves, our environment, and our fellow creatures may be to minimize meat consumption, especially red meat. Dr. Weil advises us to limit meat consumption to once or twice a week. Consider meat a condiment, not a main dish, suggests Dr. Hyman. He adds that meat should be cooked via slower, lower-temperature cooking methods such as baking, roasting, poaching, and stewing to avoid the formation of harmful chemicals.
Meat eaters should choose organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed and grass-finished, or wild meats. Food labels can be misleading, so it may be necessary to ask questions at the store. For example, some labels say “grass-fed” when in fact the animal was initially grass-fed but later “grain-finished.”
“We have a bizarre food system that’s off the tracks in terms of both human health and sustainability,” writes Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. We must navigate carefully to make healthy and environmentally and ethically sound food choices.
(1) Whole Living Magazine. 2012. “The Food Visionaries.” November 2012.
(2) Weil, Andrew. 2016. “What’s the Beef with Meat?” Self Healing. February 2016.
Yes, indeed, we farm animals in a unnecessarily cruel manner & many of us eat too much meat but the real problem is still TOO MANY HUMANS!!!!!!!!!!!
I am also sick and tired of hearing radio commentators talk about “sustainable GROWTH”! No amount of growth is sustainable.
Reducing the numbers of animals we raise to free up more food for humans will only result in EVEN MORE HUMANS!!
We must raise animals more humanly, raise fewer of them but we must also STOP FEEDING HUMAN OVERBREEDING!
Cut down no more forests, plow no more grasslands, develop no more land for more humans, WE MUST END ALL OUR DAM GROWTH NOW! We are a CANCER, we are destroying what we claim to hold near & dear by simply having too dam many children!
But we won’t will we, we will keep overbreeding, cutting down, mining, plowing, burning & killing until we collapse & take our living planet down with us. We will leave our ruins, our bones & the bones of the billions of living things that tried to share this planet with us but we don’t share, WE TAKE, WE DESTROY, WE CRUSH, WE BURN, WE KILL.
Our stupid religions & wrong beliefs about our nature & the reality of our planet have doomed us all to a horrible, bloody, painful collapse.
We are NOT “wise”, we are STUPID, SHORT SIGHTED & GREEDY!
Quite an indictment on the human species Sheila. I wish I could say that you’re wrong but you are not. Greed will get us in the end. We have institutionalized greed. I did a piece awhile back on the Call of More – sorta of a biblical evolution of our greed. It’s worth republishing some time soon. This is the link if you wish to revisit.
Some great info here, though I doubt that the writer is vegetarian or vegan. She seems to regard a switch from beef to chicken as a major piece of the solution, without consideration for the fact that chickens typically face far greater abuses, and miserable living conditions, than do cows, and that far more animals suffer and die when chickens are the preferred “food animal”. I look forward to the day that animal agriculture, in all it’s forms, is virtually eliminated. It is ugly, brutal business at best. And it’s entirely unnecessary.
I’m optimistic though, because I’ve seen many indications that a mainstream acceptance of healthy plant-based diets has grown exponentially. One of those most encouraging developments I’ve seen: The world’s largest managed health care provider/insurer has advised their 17,000 physicians to recommend a shift to a whole foods, plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those who are dealing with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, or obesity.
Don – thank you for your response to Ellen’s article and welcome to BoomerWarrior.
I have considerably reduced my meat intake, especially beef, but still have a ways to go before I am free of meat. Still wondering if I’ll ever get there. I’m inspired by people like you Don who are fighting to change our culture and dietary habits. Thank you.
Not all human societies are wracked with greed as we are. Many people in other times and places do not have this problem. Change is possible!
Don – Don’t put words in my mouth. I said the environmental impacts of producing red meat are greater than those of producing white meat, which are greater than those of producing plant foods. I never said switching beef to chicken is “a major part of the solution.” And I never said chickens are subjected to less cruelty. In fact, I deliberately chose an animal abuse photo of turkeys, which after all is worth a thousand words. I’m careful about what I write. BTW, knowledgeable doctors say eating beef is more unhealthy than eating chicken. FYI, I was a vegetarian for many years. I now occasionally eat meat, but only organic or grass-fed. I don’t eat eggs or dairy. Bottom line: I’m trying to encourage everyone to eat as little meat as they can and never eat factory-farmed meat.
yup. time for another GD Green Dude segment . . .
Meg – As I recall we were going to do a piece about how overpopulation affects climate change. I think it would be helpful before we do this for me to listen to our last interview. Any chance you can forward that to me and we can go from there.
Rolly and Meg – If you’re doing a piece on overpopulation and climate change, you probably will like the Newsweek article I summarized in another post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ellen-moyer-phd/costeffective-solutions-t_b_6414052.html. Here is the link directly to Newsweek in case you want to get right to it: http://www.newsweek.com/2014/12/26/fixing-crowded-earth-293024.html.
The solution is easy: get religious fanatics out of women’s bedrooms and bodies and let women make their own decisions about child-bearing. Good grief, why are we not there yet?
Ellen – thank you for those leads. I had not seen the piece in HuffPost. I’ll take a much closer look at it. Maybe it can be re-posted.
No argument from me on getting religion out of the way of the solutions that we already have. I’ll make sure Meg sees this.
Just a quick note to remind people that climate change has many causes and many solutions. Population is a big factor, among a number of big factors. Meg – I don’t understand your cryptic comment.
I read your Huffington post article & fully agree with everything but “economic GROWTH” & the “renewable” energy recommendation because their NOT “renewable” & nether are they “green” since their being manufactured in dirty, polluting communist China!
Growth is NOT sustainable & must END!
Haven’t we destroyed enough of our planet with our dam GROWTH?
These so called “green renewables” are made with raw material produced from OIL, their made using the intense, concentrated, portable energy in OIL that no weak, intermittent “renewable” can match & their transported across the pacific using DIRTY bunker OIL!
YES, stop all agricultural subsidies so that organic can compete, end all subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, they don’t need our tax moneys, end factory farming of our food animals AND eat less meat, don’t use palm oil, avoid foods & other products that use palm oil, buy organic when possible, stop overbreeding & get RELIGION out of our bodies, our laws & out of our government!!!!!!
Religion like politics is all about CONTROL, WEALTH & POWER.
Religion is a BUSINESS & should be treated just like any other business, regulated & TAXED, the religion business is telling IGNORANT DUPES LIES about reality, they lie about “life after death”, that’s impossible!!! Dead is forever dead!
TAX & regulate RELIGION!
Keep fighting the good fight Boomer warrior! I may not agree with everything but you have your mind in the right place.
Amazing business article. Practical.
Awesome blog! I so enjoy reading articles like this one. Thank you so much for sharing and posting!
Thank you for the feedback and welcome to Below2C.