But in a new book being released in February 2011, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie claims that eating moderate amounts of meat could be greener than going vegan.
Fairlie argues that every agricultural system produces hard-to-use biomass that is best fed to livestock, and that animals kept on small farms also fend off predators and pests and fertilize the soil.
However, Fairlie tells Time magazine that:
"... [O]f course, it is not what we eat individually -- it is what we eat as a whole society that has the impact on the environment. Some vegans may continue their vegan ways. I'm arguing for meat in moderation, not to eradicate meat entirely, nor to overconsume it."
One of the greatest arguments that vegetarians and vegans use to support a meat-free diet is its apparent toll on the environment. And in its current state, industrial animal farming is an atrocity to the planet.
Just 2 percent of U.S. livestock facilities produce 40 percent of farm animals, and when you raise thousands of animals in one small space, you're left with a lot of waste. This is a form of animal rearing that is very unnatural, and as such leaves a devastating environmental footprint.
But when raised according to natural laws, Simon Fairlie, British farmer and author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, argues that it can be quite healthful, even necessary, for the planet.
The Environmental Argument FOR Eating Meat
As Fairlie tells Time magazine, and explains in much greater detail in Meat, many of the statistics that make meat eating seem akin to using the Grand Canyon as a garbage dump do not reveal the whole picture.
The UN's widely quoted statistic that meat produces 18 percent of the world's carbon emissions contains "basic mistakes," according to Fairlie, including attributing all deforestation to cattle, rather than logging and development. It's also widely stated that the ratio between plant foods used to produce meat is about 5 to 1.
However, Fairlie points out that this takes into account only feeding animals foods that humans eat, which is common practice in the United States. But if you feed livestock such as cattle their intended diets -- grass, which people do not eat -- the real ratio is 1.4 to 1 -- much more sustainable.
There are benefits, too, to small farming particularly, including fertilizing soil and eliminating pests and predators. Meanwhile, animals that can be fed off of food waste and whey, such as pigs, are incredibly easy on the environment. Likewise for cows that are fed grass, which Fairlie says are "on balance, benign" from an environmental perspective.
But there is a "catch" to Fairlie's assertions that meat-eating is beneficial for the planet … we would need to switch over to organic farming, he says, as well as cut our meat consumption in half. In other words, in order for eating meat to become good for the environment, some major changes need to take place.
Factory Farming is an Environmental Disaster
The industrial farming practices used to raise the majority of meat in the United States right now are in no way healthy -- for the animals, the environment or you.
In a small farm setting, animal waste is used to naturally fertilize the land, and in that way it becomes quite healthy. But in a factory farm setting there is no way you can use the millions of gallons of animal waste generated in a "beneficial" way. So, large "lagoons" are created to hold the waste or excessive amounts of the waste are sprayed onto crops in the area.
It is not at all unusual for this waste to leach into groundwater or run off into surface waters. At Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal protection organization, they explain what this means for the future of the environment:
"The quantity of waste produced by farm animals in the U.S. is more than 130 times greater than that produced by humans. Agricultural runoff has killed millions of fish, and is the main reason why 60% of America's rivers and streams are "impaired."
In states with concentrated animal agriculture, the waterways have become rife with pfiesteria bacteria. In addition to killing fish, pfiesteria causes open sores, nausea, memory loss, fatigue and disorientation in humans."
There are other concerning issues too, like the fact that animals are raised in such filthy conditions and fed inferior-quality food so they must be given antibiotics to ward off illness. Agricultural antibiotic uses account for about 70 percent of all antibiotic use in the United States, so it's a MAJOR source of human antibiotic consumption.
Animals receiving antibiotics in their feed also gain 4 percent to 5 percent more body weight than animals that do not receive antibiotics, but the price is high for you, the end consumer, because this practice also creates the perfect conditions for antibiotic resistance to flourish.
And, of course, it goes without saying that these factory farming operations are typically behind the largest and most deadly food recalls in the United States, including the 2008 recall of 143 million pounds of beef and the recall of half a billion eggs earlier this year.
Should Everyone Eat Meat?
There is no doubt that the farming methods currently being used as the primary model in the United States will end up sacrificing the environment and human health.
So, please, understand that any time I discuss meat consumption, it is with the explicit understanding that I only recommend humanely raised, organically farmed livestock that have roamed free, feeding on their natural food source, without any use of the antibiotics and other growth-promoting drugs typically used in conventional farming.
That said, I am not at all advocating everyone needs to eat meat, but it is my clinical observation that virtually everyone benefits from some animal protein.
In some cultures this may be very little and might just be the insects consumed in grains as in India. It is clear that meat is not necessary for most carb nutritional types, but they would benefit from other animal proteins like raw organic dairy and eggs.
From a dietary perspective, your nutritional type will determine what ratio of fats, carbohydrates and protein your body needs to thrive.
I believe it's safe to say we all need some of each of these three categories, but our bodies require different ratios of each. This means that some people will thrive on very large amounts of vegetables and very little animal protein. For others, this ratio would spell disaster for their health, and they will need greater amounts of animal protein.
Of course, the quality of the meat and the way it is cooked will also impact its health benefits.
It's Time to Stop Supporting Factory Farms
From an environmental perspective, in the United States most people get their meat from completely unsustainable factory farms, a practice that would need to change in order for meat to become "environmentally friendly."
But once you become aware of the "rules" for healthy meat-eating, those that will protect not only your health but also the animals' and the planet's, this issue becomes a moot point because virtually no one should eat factory farmed meat.
The "rules" for healthful meat consumption:
- The meat should be organic and grass-fed
- It should ideally come from a local farmer (try finding a farmer's market or community-supported agriculture program in your area to do this) who can verify that the products are raised on pasture, without antibiotics and pesticides
- The animals should be allowed to live in their natural habitats, eating their natural diets
- The farmer should be aware of the relationships between animals, plants, insects, soil, water and habitat -- and how to use these relationships to create synergistic, self-supporting ecosystems
There is still a long way to go … organic food represents less than 2 percent of the food economy, and local food makes up well under 1 percent. I urge you to start supporting these economies in favor of the conventional model, for the sake of your health and the environment's, as well as to take a stand for the humane treatment of farm animals.