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Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc.
38 East Market Street, Rhinebeck, New York 12572 USA -  845-876-2626
Vegetarian - Vegan - Animal Rights - Health - Nutrition - Environment

The mission of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc. is to promote the vegetarian ethic in the Mid-Hudson (New York) region, educate the community and aid anyone in the pursuit of a totally vegetarian (vegan) cruelty-free and healthful lifestyle.

Newsletters - Winter 2008 Issue

Rethinking the meat-guzzler ... sort of
by Jim Van Alstine

Last month the New York Times ran a large feature story headlined “Rethinking the meat-guzzler”. The article was one of the most prominent, extensive and widely circulated explorations of animal products impact on the environment.
 
As a vegan and an environmentalist, I can appreciate the excitement over this level of exposure to these issues. However, upon considering the full content and impact of the piece, I am equally inspired and appalled. While the problems of meat were explained in considerable, accurate detail, the solutions posited revealed a startling logical and ethical disconnection.

Writer, Mark Bittman and other slightly-more attentive flesh eaters do raise some portions of the environmental, anti-meat arguments. Sadly, they lack an ethical center, and so miss the larger picture. There is no humane meat, nor market solution for the meat-kills-planet dynamic.
 
False hope for Green Eggs and Ham was laid thickly in this article as Bittman seeks to cling to his steak dinner while the planet crumbles around him. For instance: “Mark W. Rosegrant, director of environment and production technology at the nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute, says, ‘There should be investment in livestock breeding and management, to reduce the footprint needed to produce any given level of meat.’”

Perdue and Cargill have already capitalized on hundreds of years of selective breeding, coupled with new, intensive production methods, feed refinements, and genetic shenanigans to arrive at our current factory animals. While not exactly intended to “reduce the footprint” industry priorities have included minimizing feed and water inputs while maximizing animal products. Further “improvements” in this field will yield tiny advancements at best.
 
Bittman went on to offer false hope of energy abatement: “Then there’s technology. Israel and Korea are among the countries experimenting with using animal waste to generate electricity. Some of the biggest hog operations in the United States are working, with some success, to turn manure into fuel.”

This overlooks the fundamental problem that the most efficient factory animals (chickens) only return at best one ninth of the energy used to produce them (far tinier returns may be expected elsewhere in animal production systems). To reclaim a fraction of the waste material, by investing more labor and energy in return is a fools’ journey. Think ethanol, but worse.
 
The article failed to cite any meat industry insiders defending their products and also failed to cite any vegan or vegetarian sources with demonstrated environmental concerns. Instead, Bittman turned to fellow New York Times veteran and like-minded meat muncher Michael Pollan to recite the illogical defense of
green meat:
 
“In places where you can’t grow grain, fattening cows on grass is always going to make more sense.”

That’s just grass-fed bulls. Drive around our region and note that many “grass-fed” beef cattle are grazing principally on arable land. Through winter (half the year in pasturing terms), they must be fed hay that is almost entirely grown on cropland that could feed actual humans. Hay’s majority cost input is fossil fuels. Hay may come from our region, but often comes from Canada or the Midwest. Given the bails per day requirements of beef cattle and distances from fields to farms, the hay-miles aspect of local beef means the product is always food-mile intensive. Grass-fed beef is a mere boutique product sold at premium prices to assuage the environmental guilt of would-be greenies.
 
When compared to industrial meat production methods, grass-fed or free-range animal products may reduce the risk of catastrophic localized environmental disasters. However, small, local meat production systems are likely to require greater per-animal inputs of feed, water, labor and fuel. I would love to see an objective head to head comparison of industrial meat vs. Green Eggs and Ham.
 
Bittman does make important concessions toward more plant-based diets. It’s great that he suggests, “Meat may become a treat rather than a routine” and argues in favor of real cost pricing and some consumer awareness, but what makes flesh slices a “treat” anyway? How is it ever appropriate to spend the environmental or humanitarian currency to purchase this “treat”?
 
In his 2,000 word treatise, Bittman gives short-shrift to animal welfare concerns, offering just a single sentence: “Animal welfare may not yet be a major concern, but as the horrors of raising meat in confinement become known, more animal lovers may start to react.”

Reacting to the article, Jenny Brown, director of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary said, “As usual, the discussion of suffering of the animals involved in modern-agriculture was marginalized and encapsulated in just one comment.”

She would have preferred Bittman to expand on this thought, “by pointing out that there are many organizations trying to raise awareness about the suffering of farmed animals and that a movement for change has been in place for decades. Also, it would have been good to comment on the many who do see animal welfare as a major concern and because of that, are eating less meat or cutting out animal products entirely. Change is happening but unfortunately, mainstream media remains quiet about it. That’s why our voices are so important.”

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