Skipping a Step

The environmental case for passing the meat

By Marieka Sax

June/July 2006

Instead of eating the animals that eat the plants, why not just eat the plants?

OUR FOOD CHOICES have a big impact�not just on our bodies, but also on the environment and our local economies. Choosing to eat lower on the food chain by eating less meat is a significant way to lower your impact on the environment. Strict vegetarianism may not be for everyone, but questioning how much meat you eat, considering other protein sources, and eating at least one vegetarian supper a week will have a positive impact on the environment.

Over the past half century, global demand for meat has increased five-fold, following population increases and a doubling of meat consumption per capita. This population growth, which adds the equivalent of the population of North America to world population every six years, has put increasing strain on the world�s cropland area, which has largely remained static. According to Stewart Wells, President of the National Farmers Union, �the UN�s Food and Agriculture Statistical Database shows only a one percent total increase in the area of arable and permanent crops over the past ten years. Further, that data shows that that area has been declining since 2001. With population increasing and the cropland area static or declining, per capita cropland area is fast declining.�

Consequently, Wells notes that according to the UN�s own data, �in five of the last six years our global population ate significantly more grains than farmers produced.� These alarming findings suggest that we need to look very closely at how efficiently our grain is used�particularly the amount of grain that is currently invested in feeding livestock instead of directly feeding people.

Of course, annual meat consumption is much higher among people in developed countries with higher incomes than those in underdeveloped countries, so the onus is on us in the global North to drastically cut back our meat consumption. In India for instance, where the average grain production is less than 200 kilograms per person per year, relatively little meat is eaten. In contrast, average grain consumption in the United States is 800 kilograms per person per year�of which at least eighty percent is indirectly consumed in the form of meat, milk, eggs, and farmed fish.

Simply put, it is very inefficient for the energy in grains to move through animals before it can be used by people.”

The hidden costs of eating meat

IN TERMS OF RESOURCES invested and usable calories produced, animals are highly inefficient sources of sustenance. For instance, it requires seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of weight gain in feedlot cattle. Other livestock animals fare a little better, with pork requiring 3.5 kilograms of grain, and poultry just over two kilograms, to produce one kilogram of weight gain. However, these amounts of grain could feed many more people than the meat they currently produce.

For example, if 20,000 kilocalories of corn is fed to a cow, the cow will produce about 2,000 kilocalories of usable energy, which is enough to support one person for one day. But that same corn could have fed roughly ten people if they had eaten it directly.

Simply put, it is very inefficient for the energy in grains to move through animals before it can be used by people. By skipping a step and consuming grains directly, many more people can be fed with the same amount of grain�and a great deal less energy and resources are required.

Furthermore, modern livestock production is intimately connected to key environmental issues such as deforestation, loss of grasslands, soil erosion, depletion and pollution of fresh water, production of excess waste, fossil fuel consumption, global warming (in terms of methane produced by livestock), the food productivity of farmland, communicable diseases, lifestyle diseases (such as heart disease), and biodiversity loss and threat of extinction (destruction and loss of habitat, overhunting of primates).

Some alternative sources of protein

PROTEIN IS AN ESSENTIAL BUILDING-BLOCK of life. As Lester Brown has noted, in a world with ever-increasing demand for finite natural resources, our challenge is to obtain this nutrient as efficiently as possible. Kilogram for kilogram, livestock requires more water, land, fossil fuel, and human investment than grains and vegetables.

So far, we humans have managed to meet increasing demand for sources of protein by expanding and intensifying the use of rangeland, and by harvesting fish from the seas. Today, however, oceanic fisheries are being over-fished and rangelands are being over-grazed, thereby exhausting the capacity of these systems to produce more food for human consumption.

The addition of soybean meal (which boosts the efficiency of converting feed into animal protein) and a return to feeding animals roughage in some places (such as wheat, rice, and corn stalks in India and China) has taken off some of the pressure on the earth�s resources in animal protein production. But the fact remains that, short of cutting down more valuable and ecologically vital forests, there is no more land on which to grow grain to raise livestock. The only remaining�and sustainable�option is to cut back on meat consumption and free that land to grow food for human consumption.

Non-meat sources of protein include beans, peas, lentils, whole grains and cereals, nuts and seeds, and many vegetables and fruits including avocados, potatoes, mushrooms, corn, and cantaloupe. Over the course of a day, the one to ten grams of protein contained in a typical serving of these and many more common foods easily add up to meet the recommended daily intake of protein.

As long as you�re eating a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of whole grains and fruit and vegetables, you will most probably be getting all the protein you need. The Dieticians of Canada recommend that we obtain about fifteen percent of our daily calories from protein. More than that is not necessary�in fact it can be unhealthy, as excess protein interferes with calcium absorption in your body.

Today, we have many healthy and tasty non-meat options to choose from to meet our daily protein needs. These foods are readily available in conventional as well as specialized grocery stores, and are increasingly available at many restaurants. With the growing popularity of vegetarian cuisine, there are also many cookbooks available to help you prepare dishes that appeal to you. By deliberately consuming less meat, you will save money, eat healthier, and take a small�but quantitative and significant�step towards decreasing the impact of North American food systems on food security and the environment.

Marieka Sax is pursuing a Master�s degree in Anthropology, studying food production and consumption systems, food security, and food sovereignty.

Readers like you keep Briarpatch alive and thriving. Subscribe today to support fiercely independent journalism.