Wednesday, August 29, 2007

To meat or not to meat...

A bit of an argument broke out in my comments yesterday. I was extolling the virtue of a good steak, and Imperatrix, quite rightly, put a case for the opposition. She stated that meat production requires a disproportionate amount of energy and resources, as well as being environmentally damaging. The argument holds that calorie for calorie a piece of meat takes more resource to produce than corresponding edible vegetables. Second, that unchecked grazing could be very damaging to the land. Third, that modern farming methods used unnatural means such as growth hormones, medication and often feed was adulterated with animal products. The later being a pretty horrific thing to do to herbivores.

I did some scanning of the internet afterwards to look for and reference arguments for both sides. There is a lot out there, and I will not this time do proper quotation. If you’re interested I suggest you go out there and search a bit. There is a lot of material, and its easy to find. Unfortunately much of it is quite heated and emotional. Many of the diatribes on both sides do not use correct scientific procedure, and much also follows my sin of not correctly referencing.

That does not mean there is untruth, its just harder to find. To be honest, much of the above arguments hold water. In fact, a bit of dipping into the research shows it might actually be worse. Grain fed livestock can be intensely damaging. Intensive forced grain production can have a double wammy effect of topsoil erosion and water table pollution from fertilisers and herb/insecticides. Meat raised on a diet of medication, grain and animal by-product can be carcinogenic and is the root cause of mad cow disease (whoever came up with the idea of feeding cows dead cow should be shot). Worse, it can be nutritionally neutral or even negative. Plus its often pretty tasteless.

So, the argument against meat on environmental and health grounds is pretty strong. Children, do not buy factory reared meats. They are bad for the environment, bad for the animals, bad for you, generally just bad.

However… The corollary that all meat is therefore bad does not entirely hold true. At least to my eyes. On the environmental front there is opposite evidence that sound animal husbandry and careful pasturing can have a net positive environmental effect. The sad truth is that once man meddles with an environment it doesn’t immediately go back to its former state. In fact, it almost never does. Once we meddle, we have to keep meddling for a time to help it recover.

Take grassland for example. Once intensively farmed or overgrazed it will likely turn to desert, not naturally return to grassland. There is a human and capital cost to keeping it as grassland. Grass fed beef and lamb gives an economic incentive for farmers to maintain the environment. Done appropriately, with proper technique and careful grazing there is now evidence that there is a fairly significant net positive effect.

Grassland likes to be grazed, it needs it. Left alone it tends to overgrow, choke and die. It likes the feed of manure, it likes being munched down so the new season can grow. It’s a good thing. Also, grassland is often not really very good for other types of agriculture. Yes, there are types of grain that can be grown, but often not without fertiliser. Plus there’s an added bonus. Grassland is now thought to be one of the more significant carbon sinks. It captures CO2 and traps it in extended root systems. So careful grazing of cattle and lamb (for meat and the by-products leather and wool) can be a good thing. It also tastes better, though needs aging sometimes to tenderise.

Next, on to pigs and chickens. Both are good scavengers and can be fed human food waste (pigs especially are voracious omnivores (did you know they are a close cousin darwinianly)). We could, and should be using animal husbandry as part of our waste recycling programme. Curiously, there are farmers that still do this, but they are few and far between.

All of these animals can be raised in an environmentally productive way. There is a downside, which is why factory farming is at the fore, yields do decrease. Personally I think that is a good thing. A balanced diet should include more vegetables, grains and carbohydrates than meat, and our fast food diets are often the opposite.

To conclude, I generally respect people who hold to vegetarian values. They are idealists, and the world has few enough of those. Their diet can be healthier (though not necessarily, I’ve met vegetarians who ate appallingly). I just don’t agree with them. Meat, in moderate quantities, carefully raised, can be a good thing for diet and for the environment. You just have to put a little more effort into finding it.


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