Foregoing meat means doing good

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Author: Haley Gray

 

This past week, Occidental’s new Veg Club showcased the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle through five events and a week-long display in the Cooler. Though vegetarianism is ultimately a deeply personal choice, the Veg Club’s events reflected three common and principled reasons to support vegetarianism: good health, environmental responsibility and compassion for animals. While not everyone can be persuaded by the compassion argument, most would not mind reducing their ecological footprint or simply being a little healthier. For the approximately 90 percent of Americans who eat meat, as well as the majority of students here at Occidental, simply curbing meat consumption has a powerful impact on human and environmental health.

According to the American Meat Institute, the average American consumes 233.9 pounds of meat and poultry each year, averaging about eight ounces of beef per day. That is roughly twice the global average of meat consumption. Producing all of this meat can not be accomplished by traditional means – the idyllic vision of cows grazing in open fields is simply not how Americans raise cattle anymore (there are some minor, more expensive exceptions). Instead, the cattle industry has been streamlined and industrialized. Imagine feedlots and factories designed to fatten cattle as much as possible and as quickly as possible and to slaughter as many as possible as efficiently as possible. Politics Professor Caroline Heldman, herself a vegan, put it plainly: “I don’t think many people would continue to eat meat if they saw how it is produced.”

Now think about the resources needed to produce and transport those two-hundred-something pounds of meat each year. At least one gallon of gasoline is consumed in the production of each pound of beef. Not only that, more than a third of all raw resources consumed in the US, including fossil fuels, are utilized for the purpose of raising livestock. To conserve the amount of water it takes to produce a single pound of beef, you would have to give up showering for a year, according to John Robbins’ “The Food Revolution.”  The large amount of water used for the production of beef has a lot to do with the enormous amount of grain cattle consume and consequently the enormous amount of grain they excrete, diminishing the overall availability of fresh water sources. It may seem funny here, but it is a serious problem that is seriously growing.

Livestock are also the number one perpetrators behind the greenhouse gas methane, which is actually significantly more nefarious than carbon dioxide in terms of its warming effect on the globe. Yet almost all of this damage to the environment is preventable. In the words of Professor Heldman, “Being vegetarian/vegan is the most significant action an individual can take to reduce her/his carbon footprint.” 

If cutting out meat entirely is too extreme, limiting the quantity of meat one eats incrementally helps-a single individual could cut his or her environmental impact in half simply by eating meat every other day. Considering the burden already placed on the Earth’s ecosystems, this could be a necessary step because the UN predicts global meat consumption will double by 2050 if current global trends continue. 

An equally compelling reason to consume less meat is to protect one’s health. A March 2009 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that heavy meat red meat consumption is linked to heart disease, cancer and an earlier death. In response to that study, Dr. Popkin of the University of North Carolina School of Global Public Health suggested that a reasonable meat intake might consist of “a hamburger only once or twice a week instead of every day, a small steak once a week instead of every other day and a hot dog every month and a half instead of once a week.”

An increased risk of cancer and heart disease is not the only health concern associated with meat. About 90 percent of US cattle are given hormones which have been found to be carcinogenic by the National Institutes of Health’s Toxicology Program, and 80 percent of cattle raised in the US are given antibiotics, contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria.

Cutting out meat entirely is a big step that about 90 percent of Americans do not want to take. A more moderate and workable approach might be cutting meat just a few days a week. “Meatless Mondays” is a growing movement to do just that. Proponents of the trend include Toyota, Olivia Wilde and Oprah, as well as a slew of conservation groups and health-related publications. Meatlessmondays.org offers data to support the idea that eating less meat will benefit people’s health and reduce their environmental impact.

Scaling one’s meat consumption back from the twice daily serving of the average American to a more moderate pattern of a few times per week means scaling back one’s exposure to chemicals and hormones that meat products often contain; and instead of subjecting one’s heart and arteries to the stress of high cholesterol and fat content means that he or she can receive the fuel he or she needs. Health effects aside, reducing meat consumption is also a powerful personal choice to tread lightly and consume a fair share of natural resources rather than leave a deep footprint on Earth. 

 

Haley Gray is an undeclared sophomore. She can be reached at grayh@oxy.edu.

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