As new regulations are proposed for what we should eat, it is essential that certain critical facts are well understood.
Vegetarian thinking pervades every aspect of public discourse to the point that alternative views have become invisible. Few voices are raised in public forums in defense of meat. There are constant assertions that “scientists agree” with various anti- meat statements, and these “agreed facts” go unchallenged. Most insidious of these is the statement that meat eating leads to cancer, supposedly according to “hundreds of studies”but such studies all lump fresh meat together with cured. The latter contains nitrates and other recognised carcinogens. No fresh meat studies have ever shown a cancer connection.
One questionable claim which is repeated endlessly is that Americans eat about a pound of meat a day. Where does this statement come from? It’s called the ‘disappearance figure’. The government collects growers’ best estimates of yearly production, and this is entered along with other information (such as imports and exports) on meat that is sold into the market and assumed to be eaten. This gives a fairly accurate figure for such animals as pigs and chickens reared in confinement (CAFOs). In the case of beef it is much more difficult as all dairy animals also eventually enter the stream but at a highly unpredictable rate. Other assumptions include recall numbers gleaned by interviewing consumers. The final numbers come from a committee and become agreed upon truth. There is no provision for the half of all food which is said to be wasted.
A pound of meat a day per US citizen is a lot of meat. I have been feeding a large family for most of my life, and other than teenage boys or nursing mothers I have rarely seen anyone eat this amount of meat on a daily basis. I say this despite the fact that I live on a farm and keep the freezer full of a wide selection of chicken, lamb, pork, beef and fish and serve them generously.
Are you keeping up with your quota?
For a long time now we have been chided endlessly for consuming meat which is said to be a menace threatening us on a variety of existential grounds, and this supposed threat now permeates every food discussion. Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and George Monbiot, three popular and charming food writers unburdened by practical experience, are frequently at pains to spread the word that meat causes cancer. Not just any meat. It is beef that bears the blame, and indeed this is not surprising. Years of epidemiologic studies have been on beef, not lamb or chicken. Again, these studies have made no distinction between cured and fresh meat. More recent studies making this distinction have shown no elevated cancer risk for beef. Feedlot beef should be considered separately from grassfed.
Feedlot beef is safer than CAFO pork or chicken because calves nurse on their mothers and live outdoors on grass for most of their first year before they begin the artificial diet of GMO corn and soy. But basically the entire CAFO system is an abomination which truly qualifies as an existential threat to the planet. This is not a condemnation of meat eating itself; it’s a condemnation of an arrangement based on corporate greed to the exclusion of all other considerations.
Another major argument against meat has to do with efficiency of land use. I singled out the three named writers and mentioned their lack of practical experience because this is a pervading weakness in their environmental agenda and that of a generation of people arguing for a vegetarian diet. When you have never actually produced your own food it can seem self evident that feeding plants directly to people makes more efficient use of resources than could feeding plants to animals and then eating the animals or drinking the milk. I urge everyone to try it some summer. Here’s what you do: prepare the ground, plant the seed, tend and supervise it daily, keep it watered and protected from predacious crows and deer. Then harvest and process it, and if it’s a grain you will also have to thresh, winnow and grind it. By this time most people are pretty tired out and are looking around for slave labor. Slaves are getting harder to find so we have discovered the fossil fuel option which is itself now open to question. We have also discovered the no free lunch mandate.
How can we get this much food without exhausting the soil and ourselves? How about a cow? A stocker steer on grass will put on #150 in a season with little effort on your part while improving his pasture for next year. Better still, get a milk cow and get the benefits of animal protein and fat as compared with wheat, and get it all again next year as she replicates herself.
The great flaw in popular thinking on food production is failure to recognise the inescapable high cost of plant food production. Vegetarian thinking has it backwards. It is plant production that requires the high energy inputs. Grazing animals do their own work in producing food. As fossil fuels become more scarce and expensive this issue will become far more critical.