Thursday, September 12, 2013

That Persistent Animal Question

photo via National Cancer Institute

Over at David, the question of eating animal protein once again raises its confusing head. 
Jenna Stoner, the Summer Masters Student and writer, comes up with four bullet points about eating animal protein:

1. Trying to compare the environmental impacts of different dietary proteins is not easy

2. Trying to compare the environmental impacts of different dietary proteins is not easy... but researchers around the world are doing it

3. What the research is saying about environmental impacts of different dietary proteins

4. Beef, chicken, fish, pork, tofu, beans... Which should you choose?

 Thankfully, Ms. Stoner doesn't try to give a definitive answer. My readings on the topic suggest that trying to come up with one answer to the question "should we be eating animal protein" is a mugs game. Ms. Stoner writes: "A 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group found that eating one fewer burger every week for a year was the equivalent of taking your car off the road for more than 500 kilometres, and if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week for a year it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road." Clearly, industrial meat production has a hell of an environmental impact on the planet.
But raising meat as it's done in North America isn't the only way to raise meat. Once you begin comparing Guinea pigs being raised in a Peruvian backyard to Spanish black-hoofed hogs being fattened up in oak orchards, well, the math is going to get pretty tricky.
There are a few points to remember when thinking about whether or not to eat animal protein.
  • Different animals have different feed conversion rates. Chickens are much more efficient than beef animals, for example.
  • Animals--particularly those outside the NA big three of hogs, chickens, and cattle--serve to bring otherwise unused land into the food chain. 
  • Organic agriculture really needs animals--they are a good way to create organic fertilizer. And grazing animals often improve the land they evolved to graze.
  • Animals--particularly hogs--can and should be used to recycle food waste. And food waste in the developed world runs at about 40%+  between the farm and the point at which you push your plate away. 
  • Animal protein is nutritionally efficient. You can eat a balanced vegetarian diet (and my family lived a vegetarian life for eight years), but it is more difficult. And you have a lot of food waste to recycle (don't forget all that peeling and preparation). Chickens and pigs help with that.
That all being said, yes we can certainly stand to reduce our meat consumption. Particularly industrial feedlot meat. that stuff is nasty, environmentally horrendous, and not doing us a lick of good.
But before you go rushing off to buy the soy-based substitutes, read up on how that is produced. It's looking no better for us than the industrial beef....

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