Can a Good Gaian Eat Meat?

burger-3962996_1280Recently a new study confused the long-fought crusade to get people eat less meat, with researchers finding that eating less meat didn’t equate with lower rates of heart disease or cancer. Even if, as the latest news suggests, the lead researcher may or may not have had a secondary agenda, this study has still certainly added to the enormous confusion around good dietary choices and will probably be used by many to excuse some extra burgers, which is a pity.

Up until this point, the crusade, which has been going well-ish, has relied on three complementary arguments:

  • Don’t eat meat as you will get fat, sick, and die younger;
  • Don’t eat meat as you’ll worsen climate change and other wounds to the planet;
  • Don’t eat meat as animals are treated horribly by modern farming methods and you’re contributing to the unnecessary suffering of sentient animals.

I say “well-ish” as these arguments (and related campaigning) have certainly helped to slow down the rates of meat consumption, but can’t touch the sheer momentum of meat eating, driven not just by population growth, but wealth and the marketing of consumer diets to the growing global consumer class.

Of course, all that meat is killing the planet through climate change, leads to vast habitat destruction (and the creatures that live there) to grow soy and corn, and is cruel—due to the sheer scale, we can only produce this much meat by factory farming it. And this new study aside, eating meat certainly affects our health. At the least, our massive overuse of antibiotics—required for factory farming such massive amounts of meat—is leading to widespread antibiotic resistance. This review projects that resistant microbes could kill 10 million people per year by 2050—more than cancer. That’s a horrifying thought. But it’s hard to imagine there isn’t also some direct connection—or indirect connection (e.g. when people eat meat they eat more calories, and more calorie dense sides, like fries and a Coke)—between the obesity epidemic and meat consumption as well.

But, perhaps surprisingly, this is not an essay advocating for a vegan future. That vision is nonsense, dangerous even (a position which I know will anger some). Of course, individuals can choose to not eat meat or any animal products. However, livestock has played an essential role—and will continue to play an essential role in the future. Before the era of modern refrigeration, animals converted grass (easy to come by even in the least productive areas) into food humans can eat (milk, cheese, eggs, lard, and meat), and into materials people need (wool, leather, feathers, bone, and sinew). Just because we replaced a lot of these materials with fossil fuels currently (particularly polyester and nylon) doesn’t mean that once we move on from oil (either because we choose to, or more realistically because our consumer civilization fails) we won’t once again need these materials. And as or more importantly, when energy is no longer overabundant and easily accessed, and we can’t keep food in our fridge or freezer for weeks on end in the middle of the summer, we’re going to need animals to sustain ourselves and preserve edible calories in our warming and less stable future.

Of course, that’s not to say we’ll be eating meat 2-3 times a day, more probable will be regular consumption of tiny amounts for flavoring or cooking (lard or dried meat), plus dairy and eggs, with punctuated moments of meat feasting, when killing a large animal. I’m not saying anything revolutionary (actually I’m saying something very traditional)—even if counter to the vegan vision. But foregoing livestock altogether is dangerous as it’ll mean having fewer food options. If all we have is stored potatoes and they rot, that’s a recipe for famine (as the Great Famine in Ireland demonstrated). Having a variety of crops and living food storage increases our odds of survival.

cows-552946_1280That’s not to say we should eat meat provided by the current system—factory-farmed meat is cruel and exploitative. Better to eat none than factory farmed meat, or buy one pound of grassfed beef instead of 3 pounds of factory farmed beef, and eat it far less frequently (and feel less guilty).

The good news is that a small amount of meat consumption is not an impossible thing to sustain, even in a world of 7-9 billion people. If the average person were to currently eat about 1 kilogram of meat and fish per month (that’s about two one-quarter pound servings each week), with our current population the total would be less than a fifth of current meat consumption (and closer to meat and fish consumption levels of 1950). Here’s the math: total meat and fish production hit 500 billion kilograms in 2017. If you divide that by the 7.55 billion people then, you get about 66 kg/person, not a perfect number, as that includes meat consumption by pets, but fairly, if you own a dog or cat, their meat consumption should be counted as yours—so you should subtract their meat consumption from your total (and yes if you have a cat or large dog, that probably means you should elect not to eat any meat because they’ve eaten your allotment).

Twelve kilos a year is plenty of meat and fish to enjoy, but if we could get down to this amount, we’d have not only reduced the impact of meat production, but have greatly reduced the need to factory farm, the pressure on the world’s oceans (as demand for fish has increased, we’ve had to farm the oceans more and more, damaging them far worse with aquaculture than with wild harvesting), antibiotic usage, and the destruction of land for pastureland and to grow animal feed. There would be huge ripple effects.

But then why not just say, don’t eat meat at all, as then the ecological benefits of the last fifth could be realized too. I’m not sure of that. If we relocalize our food systems and reintegrate meat production into permaculture landscapes, that would actually be helpful to lands and the soil, utilizing marginal areas (unsuited to grow crops but good enough for growing grass), integrating fertilizer and chicken-based pest-management into fields, and so on, as many articles, books and documentaries have shown. Ideally, we would replace our oversized pet population—which serves no purpose other than keeping us less lonely in our isolated consumer cultures—with a productive, but small-scale livestock population, which could over time (as prices of polyester shoot through the roof or it simply becomes unavailable) once again become essential for materials and not just meat, dairy, and eggs.

But what about the suffering of animals—do we just ignore this? Is killing an animal at adulthood—after a good life lived—truly unjust? We are omnivorous. Dolphins don’t live off of seagrass. Many animals, including us, evolved to eat other animals—not overeat them, but eat them all the same. The judicious continuation of hunting (including to keep species like deer in balance with their environment particularly as we’ve decimated predators) is essential. And maintaining small, healthy flocks of sheep or chickens, well-cared for and loved, seems not unethical at all. It is the suffering created by factory farming that is a deep deep transgression against these animals and against Gaia.

It is foolish to lose the knowledge of animal husbandry and butchering skills. It is only a matter of time when we (in consumer cultures) will need and rely directly on them again. In the meantime, if we choose to eat meat and animal products, we should support those who are caring for their animals humanely and sustainably, who are reintegrating these farming skills and services into our local economies, and who are helping to build or sustain a resilient local food system.

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8 Responses

  1. John Hall

    This is a helpful overview of the issue of raising animals for food. I’m interested in the economics (not just in terms of money and carbon emissions, but in terms of other negative outcomes) of meat substitute products.

    • Erik Assadourian

      My quick reply is that the more processed a food, the less healthy. So the Impossible Burger filled with processed pea protein covered in vegan “cheese” is a far worse option than getting a healthier meal option (when available). Though a factory-farmed beef burger slathered in factory farmed cheese isn’t a good choice either. Few of these choices will be black and white, unfortunately, though eating meat at home, so as to control the source and quality seems to be the easiest path forward.

      But ultimately the best meat substitutes are simply different meals–Indian cuisine has ample tasty vegetarian options as do other cuisines. Don’t try to replicate the unhealthy American diet with substitutes. That could be a worse case scenario.

  2. Benoit Lambert

    Hi Érik, this is Benoit, former Worldwatch translator into French. Hope you are welll !! I have great memories of our traveling in France. Congratulation for taking on this rather conflictual topic. I agree with your analysis. I would go further… I am sure you have listened to Allan Savory TED conference and my friend Seth Itzkan from Soil4Climate. They would argue there is no climate solution without putting big herds back in prairies and savannas of the world. Agriculture soils have lost 50-70% of their carbon by lack of regeneration… No-till, cover crops, animals are indeed the way to reverse this carbon starving of soils — the reason FAO says we have only 60 crops left. Most lands of the world can only be exploited sustainably using grazing. Others have written on that as Judith Schwartz Cows Save the Planet, Gabe Brown Dirt to Soil, etc. Lets not forget Norht America and the world used to have much more animals than today. In the case of beaver, I read somowhere it was 40’000 times more. 40’000… Same with bison, prairie dogs, birds, etc. Pretending we are going to save the world, heal the carbon in soils, by all being vegerarian makes little sense, some think the opposite is true. I love good vegetarian food, I make it a lot, but use vegan/vegetarian as an environmental argument is baseless IMO. It might even be dangerous. It is a debate in which many activist ecologists got lost (George Monbiot from the Guardian is one). PS. Now working to develop biochar in Québec, with soils, carbon dioxide removal, the carbon cycle debate. Best regards, Benoit

    • Erik Assadourian

      Great to hear from you Benoit! This kind of shift is hard to fathom at this point. At least without first reducing human numbers, livestock numbers, and pet numbers down dramatically. I think rhetoric like cows will save the planet is the other extreme, often driven by dairy/livestock interests. Modern animal agriculture is even more unsustainable than we want to believe as we use huge amounts of energy to keep dairy cows cool in the summer, for example, to keep them producing milk. I imagine instead the days post-consumer culture where local community members make a living shepherding their small herds of goats to eat grass on hillsides, parks, on the edges of forests, and wherever else, providing an important service and generating milk, meat, and fertilizer in the process. Roaming herds of large animals probably means humans number in the millions rather than the billions. But shrinking the amount of meat we eat (and displacing some more with other types of ‘meat’ like insects) might achieve the appropriate balance in a world of 8-9 billion.

  3. Jay Montgomery

    I would love to see us all eating less meat via rationing. I can’t it happening. We are sold meat not just as a wealth symbol but as a symbol of masculinity. Sadly, USA culture even embraces this with programs like “man vs food” and hot dog eating championships.

    Eating better has to be made sexy and masculine. It needs better marketing.

    Also, pets are as important as art. I disagree w you about that.

    • Erik Assadourian

      You’re right–it definitely needs marketing. Efforts to sell veggies have been weak and in the few efforts that have been made, brief. This effort to market baby carrots from 8 years ago should have paved the way for serious efforts, but seems instead to have been just a media stunt.
      And I recognize pets are a sensitive issue–people love them like family members. But just as we need to advocate for smaller families, we do need to advocate for smaller pet families. The good news is that can happen two ways: both size and number of pets. Small dogs have smaller impacts than large when it comes to food (though if they get on planes, get cancer treatments, or swim in toys and other doggie consumer goods, their impacts still add up fast. The hope one day is that as we rebuild community, pets become less central to our happiness, or maybe they become shared, or they once again take on a role like guarding our animals or helping in other ways.

  4. Marilyn Mehlmann

    Nice one, Benoit – I completely agree. ‘It’s not the cow but the how’. The work of many, many people has demonstrated that we need plenty of ruminants to restore (regenerate) the soil. Whether we then choose to eat them is another matter. Economics says yes, but it’s still an individual choice.

    Fortunately, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’. Choose the diet that suits you – and then make sure it’s regeneratively sourced, whether omnivore or vegan. (Some vegan diets are disastrous for the environment.)

    Erik, I remember you offering spicy insects as snacks at a conference long ago (yum). More insects – too!

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks for your comment Marilyn! Yes, insects have always been part of human diets and will be again. The good thing–in our crowded world–is that insects can handle denser conditions so growing many of these will take far fewer resources or medicines to keep them well. The key is to actually develop the culture of eating insects rather than making them into powder and industrializing this too. Bugs can be tasty–once you get over the culturally-created ick factor!

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