Editorial: The End of the Meat Industry
Growing up in North Dakota, the acreage all around my hometown was used for cattle and cattle feed. The farmers themselves were good people trying to make a living. My grandfather raised cattle, and my uncles and cousins followed in his footsteps.
Unbeknownst to all of us, researchers had meanwhile set up shop in Framingham, Mass., measuring cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and studying who stayed healthy and who did not in the Framingham Heart Study. Their painstaking research linked the very foods my family raised to heart disease, high blood pressure, and other health problems. Since then, it has become abundantly clear that meat eating increases the risk of other problems, too. Meat-eaters have three times the risk of diabetes, compared with vegans. Red and processed meats are clearly linked to colon cancer and other forms of the disease. The regular string of meat recalls shows us how often fecal bacteria contaminate meat products, sometimes leading to deadly infections.
But health problems were just the beginning. Environmentalists soon weighed in, pointing out that grains used to feed cattle could be much more efficiently used to feed people. And growing massive amounts of feed grains for animals creates havoc for the environment.
Irrigation of feed grains uses far more water than watering our lawns, washing our cars, or any other routine human activity. It takes about a million gallons of water to grow just one acre of corn. As that water trickles into rivers and streams, it carries fertilizer along with it—fertilizer that the farmers had applied to their fields. That fertilizer makes algae overgrow in the waterways. And as algae decomposes, it uses up oxygen in the water, killing marine life. Long before BP fouled the Gulf of Mexico with oil, there was already an 8,000-square-mile dead zone below Louisiana and Texas, all thanks to American agriculture.
Each cow is as big as a sofa, and in the United States, the combined mass of the 100 million or so beef and dairy cattle easily outweighs that of the human population. Every last one is busily belching methane into the air—methane that is produced as the feed in their stomachs ferments. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas—much more potent than carbon dioxide. At any given time, the result is an enormous invisible methane cloud.
Some doctors wonder whether they should recommend that their patients stop eating meat. Many laypeople wonder if it’s better to set meat aside. The fact is, the jury rendered its verdict long ago. Whether we are thinking of our coronary arteries, our children, or the Earth, it is time to rethink our food choices and act accordingly.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM