It’s Vital That We Change the Way We Produce Meat

It's Vital That We Change the Way We Produce Meat

A lot of work goes into the meat we eat. Sadly, most of us are aware by now that a lot of animal suffering and environmental damage go into it, as well. In addition, excessive consumption of red meat has been linked to high risks of heart disease and cancer.

We find ourselves on the brink of environmental disaster, and we also face a serious health crisis. Will changing the way we produce meat solve both these problems in their entirety? No, but such measures could go far in reducing these risks. The time to take a serious look at improving the meat production process is now.

Health Risks of Our Current Meat-Focused Diet

The health benefits of switching to a plant-based diet cannot be understated. One of the immediate effects many who switch to a vegetarian diet enjoy is weight loss. While meat is a complete protein source, it is also high in calories, and some types of meat are also high in saturated fat.

Many people report a near immediate feeling of having more energy after eliminating meat from their diets because it takes so much of the body’s energy to digest. Plant-based foods digest more easily and quickly, allowing the remaining energy that would have gone to digestion to spread to other parts of the body.

In addition, consuming red meat more often than once or twice per week increases one’s risk of heart attack and heart disease significantly. Red meat is high in saturated fat, which the body often converts to cholesterol. Consumption of red meat has also been linked to certain cancers, and the WHO has outright labeled processed meat as a carcinogen.

The Environmental Impact of Meat Production

Meat production puts tremendous pressure on the environment due to four major factors:

  • Deforestation: Millions of acres of trees have already fallen to make way for cattle production worldwide. This doesn’t just destroy trees — it harms the air, as well. For example, rainforests provide nearly 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen. Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro has vowed to open up more of one of the world’s last rainforests, the Amazon, to cattle production.
  • Land Use: Land use refers to how much land it takes to feed a human versus to feed cattle. Cows take up a tremendous amount of grazing land.
  • Water Use: When Hurricane Florence decimated the coasts of the Carolinas, few who saw a certain satellite image can ever forget it. The image showed an enormous river of agricultural waste — primarily from pig farms — pouring into the ocean and spreading farther and farther into the ocean, turning it pink. While pink sounds pretty, swimming in a stew of pig poop hardly draws many tourists as an attraction.

Animals Deserve Better, Too

Being a factory-farmed animal is no joke. Many scientists consider pigs, for example, to be far more intelligent than dogs. Yet in factory farms, pigs are forced into tiny gestation crates so small they can not even stand up or turn around.

They eat, eliminate and suckle their young all without ever being permitted to walk and play or even stand. Many people think nothing of eating a hot dog with one hand and petting their wiener dog with the other. But if you couldn’t imagine doing this to man’s best friend, how can you stomach eating a brat knowing that it came from a suffering, highly intelligent animal?

Change Needs to Come from the Top

We can educate others on the environmental consequences of meat consumption all day, but like most great changes in society, it is those with influence at the top who must do most of the changing.

For one, the wealthy consume much more meat than the average human being. And in capitalistic societies, it is the owners of factory farms who must embrace humane animal treatment standards, as well as take the initiative to develop new ways of disposing of agricultural waste that does not threaten the environment.

To prevent environmental catastrophe, the government may even need to intervene to set rules as to how much land can be used for meat production — versus what is used for vegetable products — to establish stricter animal cruelty prohibitions. The government could also offer incentives to farmers who choose to devote a larger portion of their arable land to growing vegetable foods, not cattle.

Solutions for Improvement

The good news is, several solutions in the works may be able to minimize the environmental and animal cruelty-related aspects of meat production. One exciting area of development lies in the struggle to create lab-grown meats using animal stem cells.

While expensive to produce now, researchers remain confident that they can master the process to create lab meat quickly and inexpensively. This could eliminate the need for live animals, as well as cruelty concerns, and also could eventually eliminate the need for arable land to be used for cattle care and feed.

In the meantime, though, many cities are taking the innovative approach of planting rooftop gardens on apartment buildings where tenants can grow their own crop. The additional plants boost oxygen production and process carbon dioxide in the areas that need it most — our inner cities. In addition, many urban areas now plant fruit trees instead of strictly ornamental trees. Not only do these trees boost oxygen, but they also serve as a valuable food source for the most vulnerable — the homeless.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

If you’re not ready to go vegetarian or vegan yourself but you want to make an impact, just take it slow. Try to start cutting your red meat consumption down to once per week, and then either eliminate it entirely or save it for special occasions once you’ve replaced it as a staple in your diet.

Then you can move on to tackling poultry, cutting down until consumption no longer becomes as big of a deal. Don’t be shy about trying some of those veggie-based substitutes out there, either! While some are a bit on the “meh” side, others are delicious in their own right.

It may take learning a few new recipes, but it is possible to switch away from a meat-based diet — at least until technology catches up and minimizes the impact of meat production. Who knows? You just may end up feeling better, too — both in your body and your soul.


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Kate Harveston is originally from Williamsport, PA and holds a bachelor's degree in English. She enjoys writing about health and social justice issues. When she isn't writing, she can usually be found curled up reading dystopian fiction or hiking and searching for inspiration. If you like her writing, follow her blog, So Well, So Woman.

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29 thoughts on “It’s Vital That We Change the Way We Produce Meat

  1. To prevent environmental catastrophe, the government may even need to intervene to set rules as to how much land can be used for meat production

    This is not a good solution to the problems you identify. For one thing, some land is only fit for grazing – it can’t grow crops so you might as well grow grass and graze animals on it – if meat production is to be reduced we want that land to be left for animals since it cant be used for anything else.

    My suggestion for dealing with the environmental effects of animal farming is to either tax effluent run-off and agricultural methane emissions directly, or institute traceable permits for releasing them. At that point the market will sort everything out.

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  2. Have to disagree with a lot of this.

    1) Many of the health claims are … dubious. The connection between fat, cholesterol and heart disease has come under serious fire lately and more focus has been on sugar and other carbs as the driver of obesity. We now know, for example, that the Seven Countries study that fed these ideas was deeply flawed.

    2) As James noted above, land use is not really an issue. Cattle typically graze on land unsuited to crops. When I lived in Texas, we had a cattle ranch next door. When they moved the cows out and began to expand our development, you could see first-hand how poor the land was. New Zealand grazes zillions of sheep on land that could never be used for agriculture. And land use for food has been going down, not up, thanks to technological advances including GMOs. I do agree that runoff is a huge problem. But that’s one that can be addressed through better regulation.

    3) Won’t disagree to much on animal treatment. But it should be pointed out that when countries have abandoned factory farming and massive antibiotics, their meat production has sometimes gone up because of improved husbandry methods.

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    • I do agree that runoff is a huge problem. But that’s one that can be addressed through better regulation.

      The article is misleading because the runoff isn’t from the Cattle; the runoff is from the NPK deposited on the crops that are fed to the cows in feedlots. It is easier to finish cows on NPK Corn/Soy, but not required. I’m not sure what we mean by regulating NPK crops, but one way to reduce NPK use is to put Cows (and Sheep and Goats) back on the croplands and decentralize meat production. So, win, win, win.

      The other reference to runoff was also misleading in that it has to do with Pig slurries from industrial confinement operations. Decentralizing Pig production also puts pig shit to good use increasing crop yields and not becoming “runoff”. Basically the moment the farming operation moves from seeing manure as a benefit to production to becoming a bio-hazard is the moment our food production model has broken.

      Our food will cost more, but the decentralization and reintegration of meat production answers all of the objections raised by the author and is doable today without having to hope vat meat becomes a thing.

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    • Not on Fridays.

      One of the things about Vat meat is that while we might be replicating protein strings, a big part of eating things that eat things is eating the things they’ve eaten… which is usually conveyed in the fat. Animal fat is perhaps the most important thing we eat.

      …which we won’t really “discover” for a few generations of eating vat meat. At which point, I expect our descendants will have lively hologram discussions about the various costs of pharmaceuticals needed to keep us happy and/or our pancreas from disintegrating… which is why we can’t just go back to eating fat from ruminants that eat grass which conveys the trace minerals we need to keep our pancreas from disintegrating.

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      • One thing that shocked me to discover was that lard made from pigs that spent all day outside (“free range” pigs) apparently has a metric double-buttload of Vitamin D.

        So the biscuits, cookies, and pies that grangran made had upsides that you just don’t get anymore.

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        • The lard is the reason we process our own pigs; we’ve never sent the lard to a lab for testing, but we can taste the sunshine. :-)

          Actually the best thing we made last year was Gizard confit… which is exactly what the name says, chicken gizzards confited in lard… fork tender and an intensity of flavor that must capture the essence of the true name originally given by Adam himself.

          {In French, confit de gésier… which – for once – didn’t really improve the vocals}

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    • That question should go into Haidt’s Moral Foundations quiz. The expected result would be that people who describe their political outlook with a word that includes the root “liber” would reluctantly say Yes, unless they could come up with a good rationalization for why it’s somehow actually harmful.

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    • Also lamp shades.

      Didn’t we have a discussion here about the ethics of voluntary cannibalism a few years back? I recall that lining up as libertarians against everyone else with the opposition remaining unconvinced despite their (our, tbh) inability to muster a sound logical counter-argument.

      This strikes me as being in that ethical gray area, along with simulated kiddy porn and robotic sex slaves, where despite the indisputable fact that no actual humans are being harmed there nonetheless is an argument to be made against feeding that particular appetite. If for no other reason than that appetite, once stimulated, may lead to increased demand for the genuine article. Not saying I agree with that argument but I don’t not agree with it either.

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  3. If you’re going to give up only certain kinds of factory-farmed meat, it may make more sense to start with chickens — they’re arguably treated worse than cows or pigs, and more of them have to suffer to generate the same quantity of food.

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  4. I sorta hate to do the pile-on thing but I really have to, given how horribly misinformed and off-base much of this article is.

    First, I very much dislike the bait and switch of an article titled “It’s Vital That We Change the Way We Produce Meat” which then ends up as an entreaty to adopt veganism/vegetarianism. There’s actually very little in this article about specific changes to make in our methods of meat production. Which is a shame because there certainly are legitimate issues of animal welfare and environmental concerns surrounding our current industrial methods. But any solution of the form, “If only everyone would just do X” is a non-starter cuz everyone simply ain’t gonna just do X. This isn’t to pick on the SJW crowd in isolation; everybody does it, Conservatives, Libertarians, Communitarians, etc.

    Now to specific issues–
    Land use: As others have pointed out there’s a lot of land that simply isn’t suited to raising crops, whether due to climate (generally, too dry) or topography (too rugged) that can nevertheless support grazing. Take away the cows and you just have useless prairie. Now you may be thinking, “Great! Return it to its natural state!” Well, that natural state would include ungulates. On the Great Plains that was originally tremendous herds of bison, which are basically cows. They’re so closely related to cows that they can be interbred to produce Beefaloes. Cattle production on prairie pasturage is about the most “natural” use of the land possible. Plowing that prairie up to produce (generally) grain is more environmentally destructive by orders of magnitude and absent irrigation it’s not even that terribly productive.

    Pollution: Agricultural runoff is a very real issue. But as points out, that runoff is mostly NPK (Nitrogen, Phosporus, Potassium) fertilizer which is an issue whether the crops are being grown for human or animal consumption. The sewage from confinement pork and poultry production as well as beef finishing feed lots is, if anything, much easier to address technologically (driven by appropriate regulation) since it’s point-source pollution rather than distributed. It’s hard to see how a wholesale shift away from meat to more vegetables actually helps this situation.

    Animal welfare: This is actually your strongest argument but you are going to get exactly zero traction advocating for a shift away from meat consumption. The proper ethical framework here isn’t to anthropomorphize animals, thus imbuing them with something akin to rights, but to acknowledge our responsibility as moral agents to minimize suffering within a framework that also acknowledges that we’re omnivorous creatures ourselves and that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with consuming animal flesh. It’s “how” rather than “whether”. Look, I grew up on a farm, a real Old McDonald, e-i-e-i-o situation. Cows in the pasture, pigs in an outdoor pen, chickens running around the yard doing their chicken thing. Yes, they were our food source (as well as cash income) but in the meantime, until they landed on our table, they were fed and cared for and allowed to live pretty decent animal lives. No cruelty.

    Health: I don’t know what to tell you here. I have Type 2 diabetes (inherited: father, both brothers, a sister) and carbs, particularly sugars, are my nemesis. If anything, I’m better off eating more meat and dairy and less plant-based carbs to control my blood sugar. As Siegel points out, the actual evidence in favor of restricting meat consumption for weight control is increasingly tenuous. Restricting carbs seems to be more effective and there’s some evidence for an insulin feedback loop that causes you to actually consume more calories and gain weight on a fat/protein restricted diet.

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  5. Recently, I had a vegan try to sell me on this stuff and tell me that I ate too much protein. I was about to respond to his points until a gust of wind blew him away never to be seen again.

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