Recently 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.
That’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.