Monday, December 8, 2008

Eat Less Meat

It's one of the simplest things you can do to improve your health, reduce your grocery bill, and save the planet. And it's the environmentalists' third rail. As I'm sure most of my readers could extrapolate from my views on other issues, I'm pretty dubious that we need to abandon economic progress for the sake of preventing global warming climate change. On the other hand, there are a lot of things we could be doing for their own sakes that will incidentally help us hedge our bets against global catastrophe. Eating less meat is one of them. Particularly, eating less grain-fed industrially-produced beef and pork. Grass-fed animals are healthier and presumably happier (call me a hippy if you must -- it does count for something), and they just taste better, but you pay for the premium. The thing is, though, you're paying the actual cost of the meat, without the benefit of the discount industrial meat enjoys in the form of subsidized corn, which you are paying for with your taxes.

We can all eat less meat (well, I guess vegetarians can't eat any less), or choose less resource-intensive meats like chicken or fish (though the issues of ocean fisheries would cover a few blog posts in their own right; there are a lot of words you could apply to mankind's current treatment of the oceans, "stewardship" is most certainly not one of them). The piece linked above also doesn't mention one major carbon-neutral source of cheap meat for some families: hunting, which has been in slow decline nationwide for decades. Livestock reared at home would be in nearly the same category, so all the happy hunters and homesteaders are already doing more than their part, even if they don't drive Priuses. Clearly, there's a lot individual people can do, though the ones doing it are likely doing it for themselves rather than to save the planet. Government's hands aren't clean here, though. It's a great example of the stubbornness of American tastes that years and years worth of harping about the dangers of red meat haven't slowed our appetite for the stuff one bit, so I'm certainly not going to advocate yet another nannying public awareness campaign. It's not necessary, anyway. If the government would just stop actively supporting the mass consumption of unhealthy, low-quality industrial meats (and refined flours, and white sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup) through its distortionary agricultural subsidies, that'd be a big step forward for American health, and encourage a far more defensible use of our nation's resources, both fiscal and natural. But I'm not holding my breath.

1 comment:

Shane said...

You just posted 3 blog posts in a row on topics I largely agree with you on, that are related to policy and society, but not actually partisan issues.

I will respond to this one, because I care about it a lot.

We should eat less meat. And yes, you are right to single out grain-fed meat. Even if you reject the global warming argument, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are terrible for the environment in more immediate ways - it makes large swaths of land uninhabitable due to contaminated groundwater and unbearable odor for like a 100 mile radius. There's one in southern California I would drive by on the way to LA and it was easily the worst part of the drive.

Also, the perverse incentives in the American agricultural system make American health worse. From the USDA meat grading system to the USDA slaughterhouse requirements, the rules are set up to reward unhealthy food. The Omega 3 vs Omega 6 ratio in normal beef is all out of whack, and I think an argument can be made that pasture raised 100% grass-fed beef tastes better. Certainly different, but I think it tastes better.

I also think it's immoral to eat meat without at least considering where it comes from occasionally. Pigs are on many measures smarter than dogs, so I think some consideration should be given to humane conditions. I have no problem with breeding/raising animals for slaughter, but we would be shocked and angered to see dogs being treated half as bad as pigs are.

Also, everybody should read Michael Pollan.