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Meat and sustainability.

Your recent articles on the meat industry's unsustainability (July/August 2004) and impacts of human overpopulation (September/October 2004) are more than welcome in a world out of control regarding the need to protect people, ecosystems, and animals now and for the long term. But I disagree with Mark Muller's September/October letter suggesting only "industrial" meat production must go.

Yes, some meat, milk, and eggs are produced without the horrible ecological destruction of factory farms. But that doesn't make "better" methods desirable. Mr. Muller's arguments presuppose that a human world that stops treating nonhuman animals as food sources would make no other improvements. However, to create a good future, we must change the amount of grain produced, the amount of fertilizer used, how land is used when farmers go out of business, how much land we occupy, and poverty and other injustices.

It's factory farming and gigantic subsidies that keep prices so low that products formerly available mainly to the wealthy few are consumed as staples by millions of even the least affluent people in affluent societies. Eliminating factory farming altogether and switching to "sustainably produced" meat, milk, and eggs would mean removing animal products as dietary staples--a wonderful result for many reasons, since sustainability would mean far fewer animals.

Under that scenario, if the animal industries sought any sort of economy of scale or expanded, non-local markets, the industries' inherent inefficiency and unhealthfulness would again kick in: inordinate inspecting, refrigerating, and freezing; cooking needed to prevent food poisoning; saturated fat- and cholesterol-induced diseases; more land needed to feed more animals; more water and topsoil gone for foods no one needs; and more ozone-depleting [sic] methane from animals.

"Sustainable" production means minuscule industries, not another way of fattening billions on animal products. Meat, milk, and eggs are not biological necessities for the human diet--they were added long before the advent of nutritional science or the study of comparative anatomy and physiology. And even a "sustainable" system would find it uneconomical to provide optimal care for animals' natural lifespan and euthanasia rather than slaughter. Under "sustainable" methods, as under factory farming, those raised for their milk and eggs are slaughtered young like those for their flesh. So "sustainable" production is inhumane and unjust, even if less so than factory farming.

Some researchers believe the injustice of breeding and raising animals to exploit and kill them exacerbates injustices among humans. It promotes a habit of thought that deems some sentient beings--with offspring and others they care about, and lives they seek to enjoy to the fullest--less worthy of life than others. Human holocausts against other human beings are characterized by the labeling of victim groups as nonhuman animals to indicate their unworthiness. By eliminating categories of unworthiness--such as "food animal"--we will disestablish meat-eating "upper" classes of people and make more headway against injustice generally than if we continue seeking justifications for exploiting animals where no justification exists.


Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc.

Glenside, Pennsylvania

Your July/August article on meat consumption ("Meat: Now, It's Not Personal!") was excellent, but I was disturbed by Mark Muller's highly misleading response ("A Disservice to Environmentally Appropriate Livestock Producers," September/October). The whole idea that "grass-fed beef" based on "free animals" is "a better way to protect the environment" is nonsense.

The destructiveness of livestock agriculture is not something invented in the twentieth century. Worldwide and historically, grazing systems have been far more destructive than factory farms. Grass-fed, free-ranging animals reduced much of North Africa to desert after the fall of the Roman empire. Grass-fed, free-ranging animals created extensive deserts in the American southwest in the late nineteenth century, probably the greatest single human-created environmental disaster in this area. Grass-fed, free-ranging beef is now eliminating the rainforests in Central and South America. For the amount of meat produced, grazing animals is far more destructive of habitat than factory farms, simply because so much more land is required to support each animal.

Furthermore, meat is not healthy, and returning some extra omega-three fatty acids to beef isn't going to make it healthy. Meat, whether "environmentally correct" or not, is almost entirely fat and protein, and contains no fiber. Decades of research have established that diets high in fat and protein but low in fiber are associated with the epidemic of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and the other "diseases of civilization" the treatment of which is sending our health-care costs in the United States through the roof. Sure, it's relatively better to get the antibiotics and corn out of cows, but like the "safe cigarette," this at best only ameliorates the problem.

Grass-fed, free-ranging animals are extremely destructive environmentally, and so-called "sustainable" beef can at best be no more than a niche market for the conscience-stricken elite to which this industry caters.


Denver, Colorado

Worldwatch researchers Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg respond: We don't agree that grazing systems historically have always been destructive or that they have been far more destructive than factory farms. Yes, there have been cases around the world where ranchers kept too many animals on too small an area--the herds scraped the soil bare, destroyed all vegetation, and polluted the water. But in many other cases, livestock become an integral part of the grassland ecology. In a 1999 report that is still widely cited and that depended on case studies from around the world (Livestock and the Environment: Finding a Balance, from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization), the authors found that grazing could rehabilitate and return biodiversity to exhausted or denuded land. Factory farms do yield more meat per unit of area, but we don't see any benefits to the environment or public health from this form of raising food.

We agree that high-meat diets are not healthy, but that doesn't mean that all meat eating is necessarily unhealthy. Grass-fed meat, raised without hormones or antibiotics, is obviously an improvement on the standard factory-farmed fare. For many of the world's poor who live in arid and semi-arid regions, livestock are the only efficient and feasible means of food production.
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Title Annotation:FROM READERS
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Mar 1, 2005
Previous Article:Live long, don't necessarily prosper.
Next Article:Relative size matters.

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