Giving Meat the Chop II: Is the Meat Industry Destroying the Planet?
We’ve already seen that meat has very dubious benefits to our health, but what good is worrying about our flimsy bodies when they’ll inevitably decay, give or take a couple of decades? What, therefore, could possibly be worth more than the health of this planet that has sustained humanity for millennia, this beautiful jewel that ought to sustain many generations to come? What if the things that we love today are the things that will one day destroy us?
So is eating meat actually wrong?
Trick question! Nobody can tell you what’s right or wrong, it’s up to you to decide. A YouGov survey conducted In 2013 found that animal welfare was the primary concern for people considering eating less meat. Of course morality isn’t measured in numbers so that doesn’t mean you can kick back and start making grand moral pronouncements. It’s your responsibility as a human with a beautiful and infinite mind to explore the world of ‘facts’ and decide for yourself what’s true and what’s false, what’s real and what’s illusion. So read on for a chance to explore and decide for yourself.
And what of our beloved planet?
Before we dive into what the experts have to say on the science of a dying planet, consider this: children in the UK have been learning at GCSE level for decades that the longer the food chain, the more energy is lost. To put this another way, the further that nutrients have to travel from the soil to the animal, the more energy is lost along the way. So it can hardly be said that we’re doing our best, or anything at all, to fit in with the natural order. Plants draw nutrients from the Earth, we feed those plants into an energy hungry machine, the machine feeds the animals, we feed those animals to an energy hungry machine, the machine feeds the humans, the humans eventually die and return to the Earth in the most indigestible way they can manage, making sure that as few nutrients return to the soil as possible. Most of us could agree that this seems pretty stupid, lazy and detached from the processes that we’re a part of.
Of course this is a simplification of what really goes on, but even the most basic science shows that herbivores are more energy-efficient beings. And isn’t that what we’re all about these days? Energy? Carbon footprints? But enough jibber-jabber, maybe the experts can shed light on why the meat industry has taken so much flack over the last couple of decades. Most of us have heard that meat manufacturers have been attacked for contributing to various global problems such as carbon emissions, a severe disruption of the ecosystem, and a complete failure to meet the nutritional demands of a soaring global population, but who’s launching these attacks and are they valid?
It will come as no surprise that the highest volume of anti-meat press comes from liberal media publications, but what is surprising is that even typically cynical and conservative publications such as The Daily Mail support the idea that meat is ‘both unhealthy and environmentally catastrophic’. One such article points to yet another simple scientific fact: cattle farming requires more space. Not only do plant crops physically take up less land per unit of energy gained, plant crops are needed in order to feed cattle as well as humans. If we skipped grain-feeding cows in the US alone and went back to grass-fed cattle, the extra grain ‘could feed 800 million people’.
Renowned Guardian writer and environmentalist George Monbiot has published several articles on the impact of the meat industry and has few positive things to say, but that doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom. In fact many farmers say that the problem seems to not be with the amount of meat that’s being farmed (although this certainly doesn’t help), but with the ‘methods of farming that are employed’. This is not particularly helpful in consumerist societies however since the individual tends to vote with their wallet. If the wallet still demands meat then the meat will still come, regardless of the methods of production employed.
What can I do about it?
When it comes to deciding what to actually pick up off the shelves it’s all too easy to find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place. We’ll come face to face with supermarket and convenience store options that, no matter which we choose, could prove equally destructive to ourselves or to the planet. It’s a total balancing act that has no clear and correct path. Take tofu: if we’re to believe the research that suggests the demand for soy is contributing to deforestation and the loss of biodiversity, there is just as much evidence that sheds light on the environmentally ruinous production of tofu’s nemesis: beef. So it would seem that from an environmental point of view, tofu is just as bad as beef, and soy milk just as bad as milk. Of course it’s nowhere near that simple, but it’s easy to feel that there’s no positive direction to turn. On one hand we’re ruining the planet and on the other hand we’re ruining the planet! Dick if you do, dick if you don’t.
If you’re looking to do something pro-active to ease humanity into an age of sustainability then eating less meat is a good place to start, but there’s so much more to think about. Until important changes are made at the top it’s up to us, the lowly consumer, to learn how to use the current system to our advantage ‘even if it feels like swimming upstream’. We can no longer be so short-sighted as to see the various petty desires of consumerism as the end-game. What good is being able to afford a T-shirt more easily when it increases suffering and hardship somewhere else in the world? What good is having a burger dished up in seconds when the life-span of our dear planet loses years?
But whilst we need to be more thoughtful in the decisions we make, it should never fall solely to the consumer to worry about the environmental consequences of what we consume. We have our own lives and our own concerns and we should be able to trust farmers and businesses to make the most ethical decisions on our behalf so that we don’t have to run through a tormented inner-monologue every time we pick up an item off the shelves. Unfortunately this is the system we’re stuck with and big business does what it can to cut corners in order to get ahead of the competition and promote growth, while the consumer is left with the burden of ethical conduct. Meanwhile the most ethical things to buy have no correlation with those enticing special offer or bargain labels. Businesses ought to have a responsibility that comes before profit to care for their customers as well as the planet at large. We’re a long way from getting it right but, with each new consideration that becomes a part of consumer consciousness, we take a step towards a cleaner, richer society that has a chance at one day thriving.