Are we eating our way to extinction?
by MICHAEL BRAUNSTEIN
America’s biggest fast food meat maker is in the news leading off 2015. And Mickey D’s can’t win for losing. McDonald’s, worldwide icon of fast food and cheap meat, stirred the pot by initiating a program adding what they call “verified sustainable beef” to their slurry of a food chain. While on the surface it looks like a wonderful idea to lean toward a more ecological way of sourcing their primary product, meat food, critics rightfully are accusing McDonald’s of but another example of a corporate goliath jumping on the eco-bandwagon. That’s a practice known as green-washing: positioning your business in such a way as to imply a noble creed of healthier food, environmentally sound ideals and business ethics.
The crux lies in what critics say about the criteria for McDonald’s version of “sustainable.” They say McD’s criteria is so vague and specious as to be meaningless. Until McDonald’s comes out with a campaign that says “Eat less meat,” and raises its prices, they won’t get my vote for eco-business of the year.
McDisaster America wallows in a diet of cheap, questionably obtained, industrially produced animal protein that restaurants, supermarkets and schools provide under the nickname of “meat.” Assembly line, confined animal production has been the target of scathing reportage beginning with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, first published in 1906. Sinclair described the horrible conditions of Chicago slaughterhouses, arguably the birthplace of commercial meatpacking and perhaps the start of our spiral into planetary extinction. Since his book, we should know better than to eat industrial meat.
From Lewis’ searing exposé of the meatpacking industry over 100 years ago, things have only gotten worse. Former cattle rancher Howard Lyman told us more in his 2001 triumph Mad Cowboy and movies like “Food, Inc.” and “King Corn” visually depict the horrid qualities of the meat industry. In the 2014 title, The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business, Christopher Leonard takes on the history and ethical drive of the Tyson meat megalopoly. The dangers of a vertically integrated and controlled meatpacker pay consequences that are dire for animals, eaters and the planet. The list of valiant observers working to right an industrial wrong is vast and long. Mickey D’s apparently wants to steal some of the shine and luster that a true “real food” movement has worked hard to bring to the public’s eye.
Livestock production steals 70 percent of all agricultural land, over one-third of all ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet, is responsible for 55 percent of our surface erosion, 37 percent of pesticide use, 70 percent of all antibiotics used and one-third of the nitrogen and phosphorus load that pollutes our freshwater system. The annual amount of manure produced by animal confinement facilities exceeds that produced by humans by at least three times. Untreated animal waste is spread over the landscape, sprayed into the air and toxic chemicals, drugs and heavy metals leach into the soil and water supply.
A Pew Charitable Trust report stated clearly: “The current industrial farm animal production system poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves…changes must be implemented and must start now.” Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) congregate tens of thousands of animals together in buildings, with conditions as bad as you can imagine. Employees venturing into vast windowless buildings housing 10, 20 or 30 thousand chickens wear Haz-mat suits or die.
Eating meat is deficit spending. Livestock uses more human food than it gives back. Worldwide, livestock consume 77 million tons of protein (grain, corn etc. that could feed humans) but produce only 58 million tons, a net loss of 19 million tons. The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. By 2007, it was 284 million tons; last year, 309 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than tripled over that period. In China, India and Brazil, consumption of red meat has risen 33 percent in the last decade. It is expected to double globally between 2000 and 2050. But Americans are still King Carnivore. We average nearly half a pound of meat a day — about twice the global average.
“I’m not sure that the system we have for livestock can be sustainable,” Dr. R.K. Pachauri has said. He suggests that an individual lifestyle change of one meatless day a week can be as good for the environment as driving a hybrid car. Consider this example: a meat-free meal of three cups of mixed vegetables (broccoli, eggplant, carrots and cauliflower) over rice has 25 times less carbon impact than a single six-ounce beefsteak. Both the United Nations and the Pew report found that industrial meat production has a devastating impact on the planet and major contributions to human health problems. The obvious response an individual can make is to eat less meat. That’s a message that is promoted by researchers, scientists and surprisingly, a growing number of meat producers. The traditional method of raising livestock in pastured, grazing settings may hold some hope. Not only is the environmental impact much lower but the nutritional profile of the livestock products — meat, eggs, milk — has been shown to be healthier.
Eat less meat but better. Steve McDonnell of Applegate Farms is a meat producer of products humanely raised without antibiotics or processing chemicals and sold in grocery store chains across the United States.
“I know it raises eyebrows when a meat producer says we should eat less meat but it’s true. It should be better meat though,” he said. McDonnell is one of many who feel that the meat-centric diet should be a thing of the past. Public demand for higher quality, traditionally raised meat and livestock products is growing. The number of farmers markets in the country has doubled in the past few years and the organic food sector is the most robust part of the retail food industry.
Grass fed, pastured livestock products may have an initial higher cost but those are offset by reducing the hidden healthcare costs and global environmental impact. Many who believe the “eat less but eat better” meat philosophy find that high quality beef, chicken and pork with a better nutrient profile satisfies the appetite with smaller portions. That’s exactly the transitional approach that can allow humans to still eat meat while improving their own health and remaining responsible stewards of the environment.
Eating fast-food burgers doesn’t meet my criteria for sustainable. Choose better and tell a friend.