The Case Against Meat
From the 'E' Magazine website
Vol. XIII, no. 1
The Case Against Meat
Evidence Shows that Our Meat-Based Diet is Bad for the
Environment, Aggravates Global Hunger, Brutalizes Animals and Compromises
Our Health by Jim Motavalli
There has never been a better time for
environmentalists to become vegetarians. Evidence of the environmental
impacts of a meat-based diet is piling up at the same time its health
effects are becoming better known. Meanwhile, full-scale industrialized
factory farming— which allows diseases to spread quickly as animals are
raised in close confinement—has given rise to recent, highly publicized
epidemics of meat-borne illnesses. At presstime, the first discovery of mad
cow disease in a Tokyo suburb caused beef prices to plummet in Japan and
many people to stop eating meat.
The content on this page is brought to you as a free
public service by E/The Environmental Magazine, which is published by Earth
Action Network, inc., a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization.
Please consider supporting our efforts by doing one of
Subscribe to E Magazine, Print Edition ($19.95 per year
- includes all online content)
Order a Free Trial Issue
Make a Tax-Deductible Donation
All this comes at a time when meat consumption is
reaching an all-time high around the world, quadrupling in the last 50
years. There are 20 billion head of livestock taking up space on the Earth,
more than triple the number of people. According to the Worldwatch
Institute, global livestock population has increased 60 percent since 1961,
and the number of fowl being raised for human dinner tables has nearly
quadrupled in the same time period, from 4.2 billion to 15.7 billion. U.S.
beef and pork consumption has tripled since 1970, during which time it has
more than doubled in Asia.
Americans spend $110 billion a year on meat-intensive
fast food, and its growing popularity around the world may be a factor in
dramatic increases in global meat consumption.
© Jason Kremkau
One reason for the increase in meat consumption is the
rise of fast-food restaurants as an American dietary staple. As Eric
Schlosser noted in his best-selling book Fast Food Nation, “Americans now
spend more money on fast food—$110 billion a year—than they do on higher
education. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines,
newspapers, videos and recorded music—combined.”
Strong growth in meat production and consumption
continues despite mounting evidence that meat-based diets are unhealthy, and
that just about every aspect of meat production—from grazing-related loss of
cropland and open space, to the inefficiencies of feeding vast quantities of
water and grain to cattle in a hungry world, to pollution from “factory
farms”—is an environmental disaster with wide and sometimes catastrophic
consequences. Oregon State University agriculture professor Peter Cheeke
calls factory farming “a frontal assault on the environment, with massive
groundwater and air pollution problems.”
World Hunger and Resources
The 4.8 pounds of grain fed to cattle to produce one
pound of beef for human beings represents a colossal waste of resources in a
world still teeming with people who suffer from profound hunger and
According to the British group Vegfam, a 10-acre farm
can support 60 people growing soybeans, 24 people growing wheat, 10 people
growing corn and only two producing cattle. Britain—with 56 million people—
could support a population of 250 million on an all-vegetable diet.
Because 90 percent of U.S. and European meat eaters’
grain consumption is indirect (first being fed to animals), westerners each
consume 2,000 pounds of grain a year. Most grain in underdeveloped countries
is consumed directly.
Somalian famine victims line up for food handouts.
Producing a pound of beef requires 4.8 pounds of grain, and critics of our
modern agricultural system say that the spread of meat-based diets
aggravates world hunger.
© David & Peter Turnley / Corbis
While it is true that many animals graze on land that
would be unsuitable for cultivation, the demand for meat has taken millions
of productive acres away from farm inventories. The cost of that is
incalculable. As Diet For a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappé writes,
imagine sitting down to an eight-ounce steak. “Then imagine the room filled
with 45 to 50 people with empty bowls in front of them. For the ‘feed cost’
of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full cup of cooked
cereal grains.” Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimates that reducing meat
production by just 10 percent in the U.S. would free enough grain to feed 60
million people. Authors Paul and Anne Ehrlich note that a pound of wheat can
be grown with 60 pounds of water, whereas a pound of meat requires 2,500 to
Energy-intensive U.S. factory farms generated 1.4
billion tons of animal waste in 1996, which, the Environmental Protection
Agency reports, pollutes American waterways more than all other industrial
sources combined. Meat production has also been linked to severe erosion of
billions of acres of once-productive farmland and to the destruction of
McDonald’s took a group of British animal rights
activists to court in the 1990s because they had linked the fast food giant
to an unhealthy diet and rainforest destruction. The defendants, who fought
the company to a standstill, made a convincing case. In court documents, the
activists asserted, “From 1970 onwards, beef from cattle reared on
ex-rainforest land was supplied to McDonald’s.” In a policy statement,
McDonald’s claims that it “does not purchase beef which threatens tropical
rainforests anywhere in the world,” but it does not deny past purchases.
Circle Four Farms, a Utah-based pork producer, hosts a
three-million gallon waste lagoon. When lagoons like this spill into rivers
and lakes as happened in North Carolina in 1995, the result can be
© AP Photo / Douglas C. Pizac
According to People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals (PETA), livestock raised for food produce 130 times the excrement of
the human population, some 87,000 pounds per second. The Union of Concerned
Scientists points out that 20 tons of livestock manure is produced annually
for every U.S. household. The much-publicized 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in
Alaska dumped 12 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, but the
relatively unknown 1995 New River hog waste spill in North Carolina poured
25 million gallons of excrement and urine into the water, killing an
estimated 10 to 14 million fish and closing 364,000 acres of coastal
Hog waste spills have caused the rapid spread of a
virulent microbe called Pfiesteria piscicida, which has killed a billion
fish in North Carolina alone.
More than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels
consumed in the U.S. are used in animal production. Beef production alone
uses more water than is consumed in growing the nation’s entire fruit and
vegetable crop. Producing a single hamburger patty uses enough fuel to drive
20 miles and causes the loss of five times its weight in topsoil. In his
book The Food Revolution, author John Robbins estimates that “you’d save
more water by not eating a pound of California beef than you would by not
showering for an entire year.”
Because of deforestation to create grazing land, each
vegetarian saves an acre of trees per year.
“We definitely take up more environmental space when we
eat meat,” says Barbara Bramble of the National Wildlife Federation. “I
think it’s consistent with environmental values to eat lower on the food
The Human Health Toll
There is some evidence to suggest that the human
digestive system was not designed for meat consumption and processing (see
sidebar), which could help explain why there is such high incidence of heart
disease, hypertension, and colon and other cancers. Add to this the plethora
of drugs and antibiotics applied as a salve to unnatural factory farming
conditions and growing occurrences of meat-based diseases like E. coli and
Salmonella, and there’s a compelling health-based case for vegetarianism.
The factory-farmed chicken, cow or pig of today is
among the most medicated creatures on Earth. “For sheer overprescription, no
doctor can touch the American farmer,” reported Newsweek. According to a
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, the use of
antimicrobial drugs for nontherapeutic purposes—mainly to increase factory
farm growth rates—has risen 50 percent since 1985.
Ninety percent of commercially available eggs come from
chickens raised on factory farms, and six billion “broiler” chickens emerge
from the same conditions. Ninety percent of U.S.-raised pigs are closely
confined at some point during their lives. According to the book Animal
Factories by Jim Mason and Peter Singer, pork producers lose $187 million
annually to chronic diseases such as dysentery, cholera, trichinosis and
other ailments fostered by factory farming.
Drugs are used to reduce stress levels in animals
crowded together unnaturally, although 20 percent of the chickens die of
stress or disease anyway.
One result of these conditions is a high rate of meat
Up to 60 percent of chickens sold in supermarkets are
infected with Salmonella entenidis, which can pass to humans if the meat is
not heated to a high enough temperature. Another pathogen, Campylobacter,
can also spread from chickens to human beings with deadly results.
In 1997, more than 25 million pounds of hamburger were
found to be contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7, which is spread by fecal
The bacteria are a particular problem in hamburger,
because the grinding process spreads it throughout the meat. E. coli, the
leading cause of kidney failure in young children, was the culprit when
three children died of food poisoning after eating at a Seattle Jack in the
Box restaurant in 1993.
Business as usual at the animal farm: From left:
chicken debeaking, cow confinement, poultry transport and hog crowding.
The British epidemic of bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, which began in 1986 and has
affected nearly 200,000 cattle, jumps to beef-eating humans in the form of
the always-fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). The CDC reports that an
average of 10 to 15 people have contracted CJD from meat in Britain each
year since it was first detected in 1994. In 1998, the British Medical
Association warned in a report to Members of
Parliament, “The current state of food safety in Britain is such that all
raw meat should be assumed to be contaminated with pathogenic organisms.” In
1997, it added, Salmonella or E. coli infected a million people in Britain.
BSE spreads through cattle that are fed contaminated
central nervous- system tissue from other animals. “Its future magnitude and
geographic distribution…cannot yet be predicted,” the CDC reported.
In the U.S., deer have been affected with chronic
wasting disease, which has many similarities to British BSE, though a
definitive link to humans has not been established.
In the book Eating With Conscience, Dr. Michael W. Fox
reports that what is known as “animal tankage”—the non-fat animal residue
from slaughterhouses—is used in a wide variety of products, from animal feed
and fertilizer to pet food. Dr. Fox adds that hundreds of cats in Europe
(and several zoo animals) that ate tankage-laced food have contracted forms
of BSE. The Japanese outbreak is believed to have originated in BSE-contaminated
feed imported from Europe.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),
more than 10 million animals that were dying or diseased when slaughtered
were “rendered” (processed into a protein-rich meal) in 1995 for addition to
pig, poultry and pet food. Animals that collapse at the slaughterhouse door
or during transportation are called “downers,” and their corpses are
routinely processed for human consumption. A 2001 Zogby America poll
conducted for the group Farm Sanctuary found that 79 percent of Americans
oppose this practice, which could be an entry point for BSE into the U.S.
meat supply. Farm Sanctuary petitioned the USDA in 1998 to end processing of
downer meat for human consumption, but its petition was denied.
Europe will spend billions of dollars bringing a
virulent epidemic of yet another animal-borne disease—foot-and-mouth—under
control. In the last two years, 60 countries have had outbreaks of
foot-and-mouth, which kills animals but does not spread to people.
One of the major western exports is a taste for meat,
though it brings with it increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
Clearly, there is something seriously wrong with a diet and food production
system resulting in such waste, endemic disease and human health threats.
Caring About Animals
The average meat eater is responsible for the deaths of
some 2,400 animals during his or her lifetime. Animals raised for food
endure great suffering in their housing, transport, feeding and slaughter,
which is something not clearly evident in the neatly wrapped packages of
meat offered for sale at grocery counters. Given the information, many
Americans—especially those with an environmental background— recoil at
knowing they participate in a meat production system so oppressive to the
animals caught up in it.
The family farm of the nineteenth century, with its
“free-range” animals running around the farmyard or grazing in a pasture, is
largely a thing of the past. Brutality to animals has become routine in
today’s factory farm. A recent article in the pig industry journal National
Hog Farmer recommends reducing the average space per animal from eight to
six square feet, concluding “Crowding pigs pays.”
Morley Safer reported on the television program 60
Minutes that today’s factory pig is no “Babe”: “[They] see no sun in their
limited lives, with no hay to lie on, no mud to roll in. The sows live in
tiny cages, so narrow they cannot even turn around. They live over metal
grates, and their waste is pushed through slats beneath them and flushed
into huge pits.”
Beef cattle are luckier than factory pigs in that they
have an average of 14 square feet in the overcrowded feedlots where they
live out their lives. Common procedures for beef calves include branding,
castration and dehorning. Veal calves, taken away from their mothers shortly
after birth, live their entire lives in near darkness, chained by their
necks and unable to move in any direction. They commonly suffer from anemia,
diarrhea, pneumonia and lameness.
Virtually all chickens today are factory raised, with
as many as six egg-laying hens living in a wire-floored “battery” cage the
size of an album cover. As many as 100,000 birds can live in each
Conditions are so psychologically taxing on the birds
that they must be debeaked to prevent pecking injuries. Male chicks born on
factory farms—as many as 280 million per year—are simply thrown into garbage
bags to die because they’re of no economic value as meat or eggs.
Some 95 percent of factory-raised animals are moved by
truck, where they are typically subjected to overcrowding, severe weather,
hunger and thirst. Many animals die of heat exhaustion or freezing during
Some of the worst abuse occurs at the end of the
animals’ lives, as documented by Gail Eisnitz’ book Slaughterhouse, which
includes interviews with slaughterhouse workers. “On the farm where I work,”
reports one employee, “they drag the live ones who can’t stand up anymore
out of the crate. They put a metal snare around her ear or foot and drag her
the full length of the building. These animals are just screaming in pain.”
He adds, “The slaughtering part doesn’t bother me. It’s the way they’re
treated when they’re alive.” Dying animals unable to walk are tossed into
the “downer pile,” and many suffer agonies until, after one or two days,
they are finally killed.
The threat to slaughterhouse workers’ safety is largely
underreported or ignored in the media. For example, Mother Jones magazine,
in an otherwise admirable story on slaughterhouse workers, barely mentions
the frequent injuries caused by pain-wracked animals lashing out inside the
slaughterhouses. Despite the existence of the Humane Slaughter Act and
regular USDA inspection, animals are often skinned alive or—in a major
threat to worker safety—regain consciousness during slaughtering.
The Vegetarian Solution
Vegetarianism is not a new phenomenon. The ancient
Greek philosopher Pythagoras was vegetarian, and until the mid-19th century,
people who abstained from meat were known as “Pythagoreans.” Famous
followers of Pythagoras’ diet included Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin,
George Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein. The word “vegetarian” was coined in
1847 to give a name to what was then a tiny movement in England.
In the U.S., the 1971 publication of Diet For a Small
Planet was a major catalyst for introducing people to a healthy vegetarian
Other stimuli included Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal
Liberation, which gave vegetarianism a moral underpinning; Singer and Jim
Mason’s book Animal Factories, the first expose´ of confinement agriculture;
and John Robbins’ 1987 Diet for a New America. In the U.S., according to a
1998 Vegetarian Journal survey, 82 percent of vegetarians are motivated by
health concerns, 75 percent by ethics, the environment and/or animal rights,
31 percent because of taste and 26 percent because of economics.
Is the vegetarian diet healthy? The common perception
persists that removing meat from the menu is dangerous because of protein
Lappé says there is danger of protein deficiency if
vegetarian diets are heavily dependent upon 1) fruit; 2) sweet potatoes or
cassava (a staple root crop for more than 500 million people in the
tropics); or 3) the particular western problem, junk food.
But Reed Mangels, nutrition advisor to the Vegetarian
Resource Group (VRG), says vegetarians can meet their protein needs “easily”
if they “eat a varied diet and consume enough calories to maintain their
weight. It is not necessary to plan combinations of foods. A mixture of
proteins throughout the day will provide enough ‘essential amino acids.’”
Although meat is rich in protein, Vegetarian and Vegan
FAQ reports that other good sources are potatoes, whole wheat bread, rice,
broccoli, spinach, almonds, peas, chickpeas, peanut butter, tofu (soybean
curd), soymilk, lentils and kale.
Supermarket shelves overflow with soy- or seitan-based
meat substitutes. The soybean contains all eight essential amino acids and
exceeds even meat in the amount of usable protein it can deliver to the
human body. (It should be noted, however, that some people are allergic to
soy, and the “hyper-processing” of some soy-based foods reduces the useful
protein content.) Animal rights advocates also claim that, contrary to the
urging of the meat and dairy industries, humans need to consume only two to
10 percent of their total calories as protein.
How many vegetarians are there in the U.S.? It depends
on whom you ask. A PETA fact sheet asserts that 12 million Americans are
vegetarians, and 19,000 make the switch every week. Pamela Rice, author of
101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian, puts the number at 4.5 million, or 2.5
percent of the population, based on recent surveys.
Older counts, from 1992, put the number of people who
“consider themselves” to be vegetarians at seven percent of the U.S.
population, or an impressive 18 million. A 1991 Gallup Poll indicated that
20 percent of the population look for vegetarian menu items when they eat
Actual vegetarian numbers may be lower. VRG got
virtually the same results in two separate Roper Polls it sponsored in 1994
One percent of the public, or between two and three
million, is vegetarian (eats no meat or fish, but may eat dairy and/or
eggs), with a third to half of them living on a vegan diet (eschewing all
animal products). Roughly five percent in both studies “never eat red meat.”
A 2000 poll was slightly more optimistic, putting the number of vegetarians
at 2.5 percent of the population. Women are more likely to be vegetarians
than men; and—surprisingly—Republicans are slightly more likely to abstain
from meat than Democrats.
The American Dietetic Association says in a position
statement, “Appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are
nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and
treatment of certain diseases.” Vegetarians now have excellent opportunities
to put together well-planned meals. The sale of organic products in natural
food stores is the highest growth niche in the food industry, according to
Nutrition Business Journal, and it grew 22 percent in 1999 to $4 billion.
The natural food markets of today are not the tiny storefronts of
yesteryear, but full-service supermarkets, with vigorous competition among
giant national chains.
Diverse veggie entrees are now available in most
supermarkets and on a growing list of restaurant menus.
It’s never been easier to become a vegetarian, and
there have never been more compelling reasons for environmentalists to make
that choice. It’s not always easy to do—most environmentalists still eat
meat—but the tide is beginning to turn.
Fair Use Notice: This document may contain
copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the
copyright owners. We believe that this not-for-profit, educational use on
the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as provided for
in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). If you wish to use this copyrighted
material for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain
permission from the copyright owner.