It is no secret that “vegetarianism” and “veganism” have been on the rise in recent years. According to a New York Magazine article, “perhaps inspired by Jay Z and Beyoncé’s 22-day vegan diet or the recent outing of Al Gore as a ‘newly turned vegan,’ news outlets on both sides of the Atlantic [have already declared] 2014 ‘the year of the vegan.'”
And as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is getting ready to release this year’s dietary guidelines, there may soon be another push for the trend of Americans eating less meat. In the past, these guidelines (updated every five years) have advocated for overall healthier eating, but recently, the government is advising for the guidelines to also reflect the health of the environment.
Meat’s Environmental Impact
The production of meat contributes a large carbon footprint (release of greenhouse gases). Although Americans are now eating less meat than they have in the past, the deeply-embedded American diet includes an assortment of meat items (e.g. hamburgers, fried chicken, steaks). This comes with a huge environmental cost.
According to the Washington Post, “Carnivores contribute far more to environmental decay than do vegetarians.” The production of lamb, beef, and pork in the United States find their way to the top of the largest emission of greenhouse gases (CO2)–with a combined CO2 weight of 78.3 kilograms (Source: Environmental Working Group).
A recent study shows the environmental impact of beef, in particular, creates a lot of damage. The heavily-consumed red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than chicken or pork. With the animal’s large weight and complicated biology, an incredibly large amount of grains and/or grass is needed to feed them. Not to mention the amount of waste that is produced daily is enough to make one feel sick.
Dr. Tim Benton, professor at the University of Leeds, said the study uses national US data, and therefore, provides a good overview of the current situation.
“The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat,” Benton said.
Meat’s Impact on Our Health
The question of whether or not the consumption of meat is harmful is still under research. This explains why the government advises Americans to eat leaner meat rather than decreasing their intake. The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are pushing for a lean-meat diet, afraid that international and government agencies will cut meat production considerably.
Today, there is a larger community of vegetarians and vegans than ever before, something that was unfathomable 70 years ago. The eating of meat is becoming increasingly less popular and this is due to known health factors that have emerged throughout the years.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest a diet containing protein foods that are lower in solid fats and calories. Fats from animal products (i.e. meat, eggs, dairy) are considered solid fats, whereas fats found in seafood and nuts are considered healthier oils.
The connection to heart disease and cancers also surfaces when discussing meat consumption.
A National Cancer Institute (NCI) study of 500,000 individuals suggested that those who ate the most red meat on a daily basis were 30 percent more likely to die due to a health cause during a 10-year period than were those who ate the least amount of the red meat.
In the past, meat has been made infamous due to associations with atherosclerosis (the hardening or clogging of the arteries), shortened lifespan (according to Harvard School of Public Health), the increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (report from JAMA Internal Medicine), and many more.
Not only are humans said to be at health risk as a result of the meat industry, but the very animals also suffer from maltreatment.
“From locking animals in tiny cages, to slicing parts of their bodies off without any pain relief, to genetically selecting them to grow so obese and so fast that many become lame, it’s by far the biggest cause of animal suffering in the world,” said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States.
As the meat producers and lovers of all-things animal flesh await their fate, for now, just keep in mind all of the information mentioned. At the end of the day, it is up to the consumers to determine their own conditions of health–and that of the environment.
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