As we become more and more aware and concerned with the amount of carbon dioxide that is being emitted out into the atmosphere, countless fingers are being pointed at the livestock industry, which is responsible for 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions and which utilizes 70% of total agricultural land.
Specifically, red meat is incredibly energy intensive. It requires an enormous amount of resources and livestock grazing contributes to soil erosion, desertification, water pollution, and loss of biological diversity. We have lost millions of acres of tropical forest in Latin America to cattle grazing.
Our Complex Past
The human relationship with grazing animals for consumption began around three to four million years ago, when our ancestors began to walk on two legs and move out into grasslands, allowing for their diets to change from plant-based diets to include meat for the very first time. Now, this doesn’t mean that we were carnivores. We have always been omnivores, or, as one author terms it, “adaptavores”. We simply adapt to eat what we must.
But we are not our ancestors. Around 10,000 years ago, we transitioned to agriculture, and we changed. We used fewer calories in a day and we consumed less meat. Our bodies became smaller and, to some extent, frailer. Today, most of us privileged enough to be living in the developed world aren’t worried about getting enough calories. A majority of people are actually eating too many calories per day, with obesity rates doubling over the past two decades. And the real kicker is, most people are getting more protein than they need also, except for a small portion of us who are extremely athletic.
Meat and Money
There has been a direct correlation seen between an increase in income and increase in meat consumption. It creates a sense of power. Even my own grandparents remember a time in which meat was a luxury and a status of wealth. Just in the past hundred years, it has gone from an expensive treat which would be consumed on holidays and celebrations to a staple in every meal. This can be seen especially in the American diet: sausages at breakfast, deli-meat at lunch, and a burger for dinner. Low income countries that have experienced recent economic growth like China have seen large increases in total meat consumption, with the average person more capable of buying expensive meat.
The excess of fat and protein in meat which was so beneficial for our distant ancestors has proved to be disastrous in our own diets. Figure 2 shows the increase of risk in a plethora of diseases that are related to the consumption of red meat consumption. The high levels of fat and cholesterol have had a hand in making heart disease the leading killer of adults in the United States.
So why are we so stuck on meat?
Until fairly recently, a large portion of the world ate very little meat, and our diets revolved around vegetables and grains. Today, meat is likely related to the top killer of Americans, and people are getting far too much protein than they actually need. Why are we so stuck on meat? Why is it that public school lunches have a focus on meat and dairy and medical professionals cannot seem to decide whether or not meat is beneficial for you? It might be related to the enormous meat industry that is present in the United States and around the world. The production of meat in the United States is heavily subsidized. When the news first broke that meat was bad for hearts, the meat industry scrambled to find scientists to stir up doubt surrounding the science, and test the consensus. The meat industry is an area with an enormous amount of power.
So what is the alternative to a diet that revolves around meat? I am not trying to argue that the entire human race should cut out meat completely from our diets. Meat consumption has strong cultural, emotional, and even spiritual implications in many communities. However, there is a better way to consume meat.
Putting the label ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ on things tends to strike fear into people’s hearts. Hearing words like that tends to make people imagine that they would never be able to have their favorite BBQ ribs or pot roast ever again. That is not the reality of the future we need to create.
I think it is important to note here that the concern about heart disease and the concern for the environment has had a notable impact on meat consumption in the past few years. Strides have been made and our culture is slowly changing, but it is not happening fast enough.
We need to create a society in which people understand that meat should not be the center of their plate, nor the center of their societies. American society, which stereotypically revolves around barbecues and hot dogs doesn’t have to be completely disbanded, but maybe we can start to look at meat in the way that humans did only half a century ago. We don’t have to start boycotting Christmas hams or the classic American Thanksgiving turkey. But we should start growing to appreciate vegetables and grains, and considering that the less meat we eat, the better we are doing for our hearts, and the better we are doing for our world.
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