There’s been talk lately of taxing soda and candy, but there’s something more dangerous to public health than Coke — beef. Society discourages harmful behavior by taxing or fining it. We have luxury taxes on smoking and drinking and fines for speeding because they are harmful to our health and to society at large.
But the problem with meat is that its negative implications aren’t immediately apparent. Eating meat isn’t like smoking when only your personal health is at risk. Meat consumption has unintended consequences beyond what meets the eye at the dinner table.
It takes one third of the Earth’s land area to satisfy the world’s appetite for meat, according to a report issued by the U.N. in 2006. One-fifth of the world’s land area is used for livestock grazing while one-third of the Earth’s arable land is used to grow the crops necessary to feed the some 1.5 billion cattle alone.
Making room for new farmland is the leading cause of deforestation. According to the same U.N. report, roughly 70 percent of the Amazon’s deforestation is attributed to the livestock industry.
With deforestation comes the loss of one of Earth’s most potent carbon dioxide sinks, trees. To make matters worse, cattle-rearing generates more carbon dioxide equivalent than all the world’s automobiles, amounting to 18 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In the words of a senior U.N. Food and Agriculture official, “… (it’s) one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.”
Animal agriculture is also the lead consumer of fresh water in the United States, according to David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University. John Robbins, author of “The Food Revolution,” writes that it takes about 5,000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, while 1 pound of wheat only takes 25 gallons. In addition to needing fresh water, livestock is responsible for 64 percent of the world’s ammonia emissions, which are a major contributor to the acid rain poisoning our fresh water.
The human cost of meat consumption is similarly atrocious.
“If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million,” Pimentel says.
Globally, there are 852 million humans starving according to the Food and Agriculture Association. Back in 1993, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released statistics that for the over 192 million tons of feed concentrate, mostly corn, used to raise livestock, only 31 million tons of meat was produced — an average yield ratio of 6:1. Instead of feeding cows, we could be feeding people and making a huge dent in world hunger.
The Earth cannot sustain our current appetite for meat. All of these problems are compounding as more and more people around the world try to consume like Americans. On average, Americans consume 27 billion pounds of beef annually, or about 64 pounds each. If we don’t take a stand now, what will be the consequences later down the road?
It’s really hard to come to terms with the reality behind a Big Mac. How could such an innocent looking food be so complicated? But, every one of us has a responsibility to be as socially aware of our consumption habits as possible. What are we to do?
It can be hard to entirely give up meat, for nutritional or societal reasons. Try minimizing how much meat you eat — every bit counts. Think of the disaster that could be averted if Americans, the lead consumers of beef, cut their meat diet in half or become vegetarians. As Albert Einstein phrased it, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”
No one likes being told what to do, but knowing what we know now, how can we fail to act? /
M. Alex Stephens is a senior political science major. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.