Meat guzzling

cow2.jpgCoincidental to my dairy musings yesterday is today’s NYT feature on the impending “sea change” in the economics of meat consumption. It’s a very good piece; I hope you’ll look at the whole thing, but here’s a “meaty” excerpt:

The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050, which one expert, Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations, says is resulting in a “relentless growth in livestock production.”

Americans eat about the same amount of meat as we have for some time, about eight ounces a day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we “process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.


Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.

This will be inconvenient for citizens of wealthier nations, but it could have tragic consequences for those of poorer ones, especially if higher prices for feed divert production away from food crops. The demand for ethanol is already pushing up prices, and explains, in part, the 40 percent rise last year in the food price index calculated by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization.

Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens. This despite the inherent inefficiencies: about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, according to Rosamond Naylor, an associate professor of economics at Stanford University. It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States.

The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound. Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Because the stomachs of cattle are meant to digest grass, not grain, cattle raised industrially thrive only in the sense that they gain weight quickly. This diet made it possible to remove cattle from their natural environment and encourage the efficiency of mass confinement and slaughter. But it causes enough health problems that administration of antibiotics is routine, so much so that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten the usefulness of medicines that treat people.

Those grain-fed animals, in turn, are contributing to health problems among the world’s wealthier citizens — heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes. The argument that meat provides useful protein makes sense, if the quantities are small. But the “you gotta eat meat” claim collapses at American levels. Even if the amount of meat we eat weren’t harmful, it’s way more than enough.

Americans are downing close to 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita per year (dairy and eggs are separate, and hardly insignificant), an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago. We each consume something like 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance; of that, about 75 grams come from animal protein. (The recommended level is itself considered by many dietary experts to be higher than it needs to be.) It’s likely that most of us would do just fine on around 30 grams of protein a day, virtually all of it from plant sources.

Then the author asks, “What can be done? There’s no simple answer.”

Well, actually, there’s a very simple answer. It’s rather amazing to read the next 15 or so (short) paragraphs and see that he doesn’t come close to even hinting at the very simple answer until he finally quotes Michael Pollan: “Who said people had to eat meat three times a day?” (We’ll give Pollan the benefit of the doubt and assume that by “people” he means “Americans.”) The simple answer is: EAT LESS MEAT!!! Almost 75 percent of all grain produced in the United States is fed to livestock. (It takes approximately 5 pounds of feed -some estimates are even higher- to produce one pound of beef). If Americans reduced meat consumption by just 10 percent, we would save enough grain to feed 60 million people.

Shall I say that again? If Americans reduced meat consumption by just 10 percent, we would save enough grain to feed 60 million people. If you eat meat 3 times a day, 7 days a week – that’s just TWO MEATLESS MEALS PER WEEK! If you eat it twice a day, that’s just over one meatless meal per week. That’s a PB&J for one lunch. Or you could really step up to the plate and introduce Meatless Monday to your household.

Need some ideas? Start here.

Additional sources:

Fabulous photo by Jordan McClement, who gave me permission to use it. (Update: I shortened the length of my NYT extract, so now I really hope you go to the original!) (2nd Update: Oops!  Sorry – I didn’t realize those “additional sources” weren’t clickable.  They are now.)

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