Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The other great polluter

I have been a vegetarian since my junior year of high school. The decision and the change was actually pretty easy for me to make, which is just one reason why I don't really go out of my way to brag or proselytize about it. See, I never really liked most meat. Growing up, I was that oddball child who loved her strained carrots and peas, but when it came to meat--say, the perfectly delicious to the rest of the world steak that my dad cooked up--I would more often than not take a few bites before wadding it up in a napkin and discreetly discarding the thing. We didn't get dessert if we didn't clean our plates.

I did like turkey and chicken, so it took me a couple of years after my initial decision before I was able to fully cut them out of my diet. That and the omnipresence of chicken stock in pretty much everything. Seriously, vegetable soup? Chicken stock.

Anyway, I've been meat free for many years, and my reasons for it have evolved over that time. At first, it was because I didn't like the stuff and because, y'know, cows were treated pretty badly and stuff. Now, it's because of those things and because the way in which we get our meat has become one of the biggest sources of pollution in the world.

My good friend Mari recently pointed out a really well-written and very informative piece about this very subject in the New York Times. You can read the whole thing here, but I'd like to bring up some of its finer points:

The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons.

...the president of Brazil announced emergency measures to halt the burning and cutting of the country’s rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the government says, 1,250 square miles were lost.

...if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

...about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption...

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.

In Iowa alone, hog factories and farms produce more than 50 million tons of excrement annually.
If the cruelty exhibited toward animals by most major production facilities isn't enough to deter us from over consumption, perhaps the sheer waste and destruction resulting from these practices would be. It's an intriguing argument, especially as more and more people are taking the threats of environmental degradation more seriously.

I have never been an "all meat is murder" advocate, though I certainly understand why some people might be pushed to such a place. Modern techniques for growing meat are atrocious and unhealthy. Ultimately, however, I do believe that some consumption of animal products is good and necessary. Hunting certain species keeps their populations in check, and meat in general, when raised and prepared in a more natural manner, is perfectly healthy. Plus, a lot of people really seem to enjoy the stuff.

The real issue at hand should be just how much meat we consume (if we so choose to consume it) and then, stemming from that, how and where we get it from. Massive feed lots, where the animals are stuffed in by the thousands and pretty much expected to be sick, where the enormous amounts of waste are drained into the local water supplies, should be disgusting and unacceptable to everyone.

Plus, by improving the way we treat and raise feed animals and also the way we treat and use their waste, we tackle an important and oft-overlooked facet of the pollution problem. By growing more crops for human consumption instead of animal feed, we can decrease the amount of forest land that's cleared and help to decrease the number of people who go hungry in the world.

It seems like a no-brainer, but the dominant culture, at least in the United States, still holds that we should eat large quantities of meat. And so long as we don't have to see where it comes from, what toll it's taking on the land and air, and so long as the prices don't spike, too many folks will go on not caring. That's why it takes education and legislation, and we should be pushing for both tactics by cutting back and speaking out.

I've been heartened to see a small but steadily growing movement toward free-grazing, free-range animal husbandry in this country. When, recently, I attended a cheese class at Fromagination (highly recommended, by the way), I learned that the makers of Wisconsin's famed Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, the fine folks at Uplands Farm, use what's called "intensive rotational grazing" with their cattle:

The pasture is subdivided into separate paddocks that the cows are moved through in a rotational manner. They get fresh pasture at the optimum stage of growth each day. The pasture, along with a small amount of grain, makes up their summer diet.
The cows are also allowed to stay with their calves for the first six months, which is nearly unheard of in major factory farming operations.

You can find an extensive list of other Wisconsin farms that raise grass fed, pastured and free-range animals at EatWild.com, too. It's mighty encouraging to see that the list is so long.

Still, the main producers of beef, pork and poultry are huge corporations that will be hard to convince to make fundamental changes to the way they do things. It needs to be done, though, and it's high time we all started to take the problem seriously.


The CDP. said...

This is a great, down-to-earth essay that displays the mindset of the 'Logical Vegetarian,' a camp that I happen to be a part of. You won't find me throwing paint on anyone, but the facts are astounding and should be seen and scrutinized by any meat-eating human.

You probably read my 'Guide To Vegetarianism' from years back, and it was pretty similar (if not as eloquently worded). It ain't all about saving the cows and chickens, it's about using the land to grow enough food to feed everyone, and greatly reduce pollution.

There are so many reasons to go meatless, but the main reason most people don't change is laziness. They know it's wrong, but a lifestyle change is simply out of the question at this point in their lives. Can't win 'em all, but with arguments like this, you can open their eyes to a side of the situation that they might not have noticed before.


Emily said...

Thanks very much, I'm glad I was able to make a good point. Sometimes I worry that I ramble and get lost in a tangent, and oh look at the kitty....

You probably read my 'Guide To Vegetarianism'

Err, yes, of course I did! *scrambles away for a minute, then returns breathing heavily* and I thought it was MARVELOUS!

I liked this bit especially: "For me, avoiding corporations like ConAgra foods is the same as me avoiding a Wal-Mart. If you're against what someone does, you disassociate with them, and that's what I do to protest."

I've been trying to convince people of that for years, but it's hard not to sound so preachy that you just piss them off. Still, though, stop shopping at Wal-Mart, people!

Anyway, I am now going to link your essay on the subject, because I think it's quite good and want others to read it: The CDP's Guide to Vegetarianism.

The CDP. said...

Thanks for the link; people still e-mail me asking about that one.

I remember getting an e-mail from a 16 year old kid that was trying to go meatless, but he lived with parents that more or less forbade it, and he didn't know what to do. We exchanged e-mails for a couple of weeks, and he eventually worked out a compromise with his folks, along with a step-by-step plan to give up meat without falling off the wagon.

I remember that because I was sort of touched that I may have had a hand in helping a confused teenager go meatless. He was like the 'one person' that you write this kind of stuff for; the one person that you actually change the mind of.

Emily said...

And that, that's wonderful. :)

ellie said...

I was a vegetarian for eight years. Mostly because I helped some pals butcher some hogs and it really made me wonder if I should eat what I wasn't going to kill.
So I stopped, never even craved meat for years.
Then I hit forty and my body started craving it, big time.
I also had a bad couple of years where I felt like killing and eating everything that pissed me off.
I split the difference, and try to make sure whatever meat I eat at least died happy, and cut back to a few times a week.
The week after I ate my first cheeseburger in almost a decade convinced me that I need to keep a little meat in my diet if I'm not going all veggie. It was unrewardingly unpleasant to have to stay that close to a bathroom.

Emily said...

I split the difference, and try to make sure whatever meat I eat at least died happy, and cut back to a few times a week.

Which is great, and absolutely what I advocate for people to do if they don't want to completely give up meat.

The Lost Albatross