Tuesday, January 29, 2008

meat: the personal is still the political

When I started grad school (read: started cooking for myself), I basically became a vegetarian/pescatarian. I think I bought one package of organic/natural chicken breasts from TJ's when I moved in, and then realized that I didn't like cooking meat. I didn't cut fish out entirely, but I'd eat it like, once every two or three weeks (if that). Sometimes I was more strict, particularly as saying "I'm a vegetarian" meant that I had a socially acceptable way of turning down meat products that I simply didn't want to eat. There are things that bother me about claiming or not claiming the label: I don't always feel as "strict" toward my eating habits as the label implies, and I tend, frankly, to feel like an impostor. Example: this past week, I went to dinner with my studio committee, one member of which is a fairly strict vegetarian, and we've discussed the ethical/environmental/religious concerns around eating meat in the past, and I completely admire his decisions. Well, the museum cafe didn't have the salmon salad that I had gotten on previous trips there, so I settled on a vegetarian salad. Naturally, they were out of avocado, and the only other protein-source the menu listed as an add-on was chicken (of course: free range, happy chicken, because we're at a museum cafe in the bay area -- god I'm going to miss CA). So I got the chicken on the side, and felt both good and bad about it. Good, because I *do* keep track of complete proteins (ie, making sure I have some combination of nuts/rice & beans/avocado/soy products/dairy, etc. each day), and on that particular day I was due for something. But still, bad.

Anyway, with my own fraught relationship to meat consumption, I was excited to read this article from the NYT:

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

Just this week, the president of Brazil announced emergency measures to halt the burning and cutting of the country’s rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the government says, 1,250 square miles were lost.

The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050, which one expert, Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations, says is resulting in a “relentless growth in livestock production.”

Not to get all Malthusian, but this, folks, is *not* sustainable. We've already gone from raising animals on pasture land to f-ing feedlots: what's next? How could meat production get even worse (in terms of animal cruelty, environmental degradation, etc.) in the name of efficiency?

Americans eat about the same amount of meat as we have for some time, about eight ounces a day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we “process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.

And we're a notoriously unhealthy country... maybe it's a cause/effect, and not just a correlation.

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

Yes! When will the reduction of meat in one's diet have the same sort of environmentalist cache as driving a Prius?

The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound. Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Just... yuck.

Americans are downing close to 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita per year (dairy and eggs are separate, and hardly insignificant), an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago. We each consume something like 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance; of that, about 75 grams come from animal protein. (The recommended level is itself considered by many dietary experts to be higher than it needs to be.) It’s likely that most of us would do just fine on around 30 grams of protein a day, virtually all of it from plant sources .

Come on, NYT, just say it: the reason the government recommends so much protein has a *ton* to do with the meat lobbyists. The food pyramid was always based on profits, not science. Much like everything else under the current administration...

I'd love to know when this mythology around meat started... when did masculinity and meat-eating become so intertwined that every fast food commercial invokes the link? When did it become acceptable for a *very* well educated 30-something living in SF to ask, in all seriousness, how a vegetarian gets enough protein? For a nation that avoids exercise at all costs, with a population that will drive across parking lots to avoid walking (or go in endless circles: waiting for a parking space right next to the door), how incongruous is it, that we're the ones worrying about getting enough protein?! We've got to fuel all that sitting that we do.

The article attempts to end on a high note, but considering all the subsidies wrapped up in meat production, and the effectiveness of lobbyists, and the downright moral blindness that our national ethos seems to embrace, I'm not feeling terribly optimistic.


Merrie said...

Oh man, right on Becky. I am in two classes discussing the "green revolution" of agriculture - how in the '50s huge advances in technology and chemicals made ag. productivity skyrocket - and how grain production per capita globally has slowed and is now decreasing. We're now pushing at the ceiling of natural plant physiology, and basically there's nothing we can do, short of some serious genetic modifications (MAYBE) that'll boost production to keep up with the global food demand. 40 million people a year die of starvation or malnutrition. Yet the U.S. is still devoting millions of acres to cheap, high-input corn production - mainly to feed cattle in feedlots for the final fattening(we can't feed them grain from day one, because they'd die. Their bodies aren't meant to digest it) - and to produce chemical-laden high fructose corn syrup and other low-quality "filler" foods. The U.S. needs to re-evaluate their priorities. Think of all the high-quality food we could grow for the world's starving if we could resist those damn hamburgers.

Justin said...

Fuck yes

karuna said...

Hmm...I don't really buy this. I was a vegetarian for about a year, gained a ton of weight, and became anemic. I tried to eat a lot of beans and soy and so on but it just wasn't doing it. I stopped eating meat because the practices in the slaughter mills bothered me and because frankly, I didn't like meat all that much (still don't).

Well. I talked to a dietician and she flat out told me that being a vegetarian is not healthy. She said no matter how many vitamins and supplements we all take, it doesn't avoid the natural nutrients in meat. This is especially true, she said, for red meat. There is just something in that piece of steak that can't be replaced.

I do think protein is an absolute must in our diets but everything in moderation. I eat red meat probably twice a week if that. I eat lean chicken or turkey pretty much everyda. The other thing i try to do is buy organic or kosher meat. I feel that this meat is killed in a more humane manner.

The bigger problem in our soceity, just health wise is our focus on grains and carbs. It's not a mistake that there is such a high rate of adult diabetes in our society. Most of the time, the diabetic trends correlate with heart disease.

If there is a government conspiracy in the agricultural industry (and I'm not saying there is), its with corn industry. Monitor trends of obesity in this country with the usage of high fructose corn syrup. It's pretty disgusting. And remember, it benefits the big corn industry in places like Iowa, for our country's food supply to pretty much rest on corn.

Anyway, long and short of it is that i believe in moderation and putting real food in your body. My body knows what to do with a piece of steak if it comes from a cow that has not been fed lots of hormones and chemicals. As long as I limit my intake to once in a while, things are good.

Becky said...

Exactly -- the idea of moderation in protein is a novel concept though to your average American. Red meat occasionally isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the idea that we should be eating it once a day at least *is.*

Also: I kind of don't believe your nutritionist =) . I've actually seen studies indicating that the average vegetarian lives ten years longer than your average omnivore (and that this benefit seems to hold to those that eat meat only occasionally as well, ie, a flexitarian). And plenty of human populations have thrived on vegetarian diets, so I'm still wondering how much of that conviction that "we need meat" is culturally produced. That said, everyone has to find his/her own balance -- I'm sure that people have varying nutritional needs, based on genetics, early life, etc. I remember reading one foodie's conviction that traditional diets are where it's at, and we should try to eat what our own ancestors ate... but I imagine that would mean I'd be eating a *very* eclectic variety of Welsh, German, Scandinavian, French-Canadian, and Native American foods...