The bioethics of barbecue

Environmental consequences of eating mass amounts of meat

By Brian Halweil SPECIAL TO MSNBC

WASHINGTON, June 30 — In back yards across the United States, the 4th of July is one of the biggest meat-eating days of the year. More than 200 million Americans — three-quarters of the population — will attend or host a barbecue over the long weekend. And while some might be grilling vegetables or fish, most will chow down mass amounts of burgers, dogs, wings and ribs. And few have any awareness of the ethical and environmental consequences of being a dedicated carnivore.

Cancer, stroke, heart attacks. Ruined grasslands. Polluted streams. Hungry people who could eat the grain now fed to cattle. Care for a little guilt with that burger? Party on, omnivores!

AND THIS INDULGENCE is not limited to Independence Day. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans lead the way in a global trend. They are eating more meat than ever before: the average American consumes nearly twice his or her weight in meat each year. The growing consumption of meat worldwide means that more people will die from heart attacks, strokes and cancers. It also means new pressures on land and water resources; more threats to the world’s forests; more water pollution; and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising affluence has allowed people throughout the world to alter their diets to include more meat. Over the last decade, per capita consumption of beef, pork and chicken has doubled in the world’s poorer nations — though it is still just one-third the level in industrial nations. Nonetheless, global meat consumption remains highly concentrated. The United States and China, which contain 25 percent of the world’s population, combine to consume 35 percent of the world’s beef, over half of the world’s poultry, and 65 percent of the world’s pork. If Brazil and the European Union are included, this group — roughly 33 percent of the world’s population consumes more than 60 percent of the world’s beef, more than 70 percent of the world’s poultry, and more than 80 percent of the world’s pork.

Today, our planet is home to nearly 1 billion pigs, 1.3 billion cows, 1.8 billion sheep and goats, and 13.5 billion chickens — more than two chickens for each man, woman and child on the planet. We have altered vast ecosystems and devoted massive resources to support the world’s burgeoning livestock herds. These animals need to be fed. They need water to survive. If they are ranged, they need land. And these animals produce enormous quantities of waste. The ecological footprint of meat production is deep and wide, and ranges from forest destruction in Central and South America for ranching to suppression of native predators and competitors in the United States.

Nearly one-quarter of the world’s meat, primarily beef and mutton, depends on a natural ecosystem — rangelands. Yet, as overgrazing becomes the norm in much of the world, rangelands are being pushed beyond their limits. The meat that does not come from rangelands depends on grain. In a world where the anti-hunger group Bread for the World estimates that one in every six people goes hungry each day, the politics of meat consumption are increasingly heated, since meat production is an inefficient use of grain — the grain is used much more efficiently when consumed directly by humans. Meat production depends on feeding nearly 40 percent of the world’s grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat eaters and the world’s poor.   One 50,000-acre hog farm under construction in Utah will produce more waste than the city of Los Angeles.

Seven kilograms of grain are required to produce 1 kilogram of beef; the conversion is 4-to-1 for pork and 2-to-1 for poultry. Each kilogram of meat represents several kilograms of grain that could be consumed directly by humans, not to mention the water and farmland required to grow the grain. To put this in concrete terms, the beef in a Big Mac represents enough wheat to produce five loaves of bread.

Huge amounts of food — not to mention the water and farmland required to grow the food — can be freed up by modest reduction in meat production. For example, if the 670 million tons of the world’s grain that is fed to livestock were reduced by 10 percent, the resulting grain could feed 225 million people or to keep up with growth in the human population over the next three years. If each American reduced his or her meat consumption by just 5 percent, roughly equivalent to eating one less dish of meat each week, enough grain would be saved to feed 25 million people — the number estimated to go hungry in the United States each day.

The massive waste produced by livestock threaten waterways worldwide. In the United States, where 130 times more animal manure is produced than human waste — 5 tons for every U.S. citizen — animal waste is the principal source of water pollution. And livestock farms are getting larger throughout the world. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s recent bill to reform livestock waste management estimates that one 50,000-acre hog farm under construction in Utah will produce more waste than the city of Los Angeles. The challenge of containing and processing this waste makes large-scale, industrial livestock operations agricultural Chernobyls, poised for meltdown.

If each American reduced his or her meat consumption by just 5 percent, roughly equivalent to eating one less dish of meat each week, enough grain would be saved to feed 25 million people. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the world’s livestock herds are the largest source of human-induced emissions of methane — a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. For those concerned about our environment, reducing meat consumption is as fundamental as reducing car use or being a conscientious recycler.

For those concerned about their health, reducing meat consumption is as essential as quitting smoking or regular exercise. People who eat high on the food chain, consuming large amounts of meat, dairy products and eggs, are plagued by chronic lifestyle diseases, ranging from cardiovascular deterioration to many types of cancer. A rich body of medical literature links the high quantities of cholesterol, saturated fat and protein found in meat-rich diets to the incidence of these diseases throughout the world.

The healthiest individuals are those who consume a diverse, plant-centered diet, rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. For example, in the traditional Mediterranean diet or traditional Asian diet, meat is eaten sparingly, typically as a garnish, and reserved for times of celebration. It is estimated that excessive meat consumption is responsible for between $60 and $120 billion in health care costs each year in the United States alone. Since domestic cash receipts for the meat industry totaled roughly $100 billion in 1997, it is possible that this industry is a net drain on the American economy.

Reducing global meat consumption even slightly offers win-win solutions to some of humanity’s most pressing problems. Massive reductions in consumption in industrial nations will ease the health care burden while at the same time improving public health. Reducing livestock herds will take pressure off of rangelands and grainlands, allowing the agricultural resource base to rejuvenate. As populations grow, lowering meat consumption will allow more efficient use of declining per capita land and water resources, while at the same time making grain more affordable to the world’s chronically hungry.

Brian Halweil is an earth systems specialist and research fellow at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.