The Perils of Meat

By: Seth Deister

Americans eat about twice as much meat as the rest of the world, who are trying their best to catch up. Most people are aware that meat is not very healthy in quantities as large as we’re getting used to. However, there are many more dangers to this worldwide increase of meat consumption than bad health. This article will inform you of three ways America’s craving for meat goes far beyond high cholesterol.

In years gone by, farms raised animals for other purposes. Chickens, pigs and cattle provided manure for fertilizer. They plowed the field before tractors were relied upon. They also could eat grain that wasn’t sell-able to humans or graze on farmland that wasn’t rich enough to plow. They could even provide insurance against poor crops; if farmers didn’t make enough money one year, the animals could be sold. In most of the world this is still the case.

Unfortunately wealthy modern countries are now able to afford more meat than ever before. Farms have shifted from the idyllic slow-paced farms to massive corporation-owned farms that specialize in one type of food. Today, most meat is grown in ‘meat factories’ with the goal of producing the most pounds of meat with the smallest amount of time and labor. Even ignoring the glaring issue of animal rights, there are many reasons why producing meat this way is problematic, some of the biggest of which are environmental.

One of the biggest ecological problems with mass producing meat is animal waste. In many farms around the world animal waste is used for fuel to burn, or for fertilizer. This means that the soil around the farm can absorb all, or nearly all, of the animal waste. However, huge animal farms today create much more waste than can possibly be used by surrounding farms; 500 million tons in America alone. That’s three times more than the people in America! Due to relaxed government regulation this waste can often be dumped into the ground surrounding the farm. Animal waste contains nutrients that plants need, like nitrogen. The problem is that the nutrients are carried downstream in whatever water system the farm is located in. Once in a lake or ocean, algae and plankton use those delicious vitamins and multiply like crazy. The extra algae can use up oxygen that other water inhabitants need. An area of water without enough oxygen to support life is called a “dead zone” and there are many along the United State’s coasts, most notably in the Gulf of Mexico. This unexpected chain of events starts with factory farms with too much animal waste and ends with polluted waterways and dead zones in the ocean.

Another major problem with such a high demand for meat is deforestation. Many diverse and valuable forests around the world are being cut down to make land for cattle production. The most publicised is Brazil’s amazon rain forest. Up to 80% of the forest land cut down is to provide grazing pastures for cattle. The especially depressing part is that the top soil washes away in a few years because there are no trees to hold it in place. Soon larger and larger areas are needed to support a herd of cattle and the cheapest solution is to cut down more forest. The method of clearing forest most often used is burning. This releases carbon that was stored by plants into to atmosphere. 20% of global greenhouse gases are emitted from deforestation, more than all transportation combined. This statistic implies that it would be more beneficial to drastically reduce the amount of cattle grown than it would be for everyone in the world to stop driving their car.

The third way that growing excessive amounts of meat harm the environment is the amount of resources it uses. The larger a plant or animal is, the more energy it takes to raise them. In some situations this is intuitive. It makes sense that it is more efficient for humans to eat vegetables than it is to eat a wolf that ate a rabbit that ate the vegetables. 90% of the starting energy is lost every ‘level’ we go up. While statistics vary wildly on how efficient cows are at using energy to make meat, we can assume that the number can’t be more than 10%. That’s because cows are an extra layer in the food chain. Because more plants are needed to produce the same number of calories, adding extra layers mean more land and water are used too. The grain grown for animals must be watered as well as the animals themselves. Agriculture uses 80% of all fresh water used each year in the United States. The vast majority of this is used to grow food for or directly nourish animals raised for meat.

There are many more problems with eating animals instead of plants but most are localized or only affect certain parts of the world. Many of them blend into animal rights issues, of which there are countless. The three problems discussed, animal waste, deforestation, and limited resources, are worldwide and are a result of all countries’ increase in meat consumption. We might not see the full effects of these problems in the next year or even ten years, but the problems are mounting and must be addressed soon.

Cattle photo.