The Meat in the Vegetarian Argument
by Gabriel Cross
You may have heard that being vegetarian is green. You may also have had a vegan activist tell you that meat is murder and you are killing the planet. While there is definitely some truth to the argument that a vegetarian diet is a little more earth friendly, there is a little devil in the details.
The issues of food production are numerous, from health and humanity to environmental impact and sustainability. Which issue is most important to you probably depends on a number of factors: your age, location, political views, etc. By and large, however, beef does not fare well in any serious analysis of food issues. At least, not conventional beef that is fattened in a concentrated feed lot.
If global warming and climate change are your primary concerns, you’ll be happy to hear that feed lot beef and dairy are the only things that you need to strike off your menu. Chicken, fish and eggs are comparable to vegetables in green house gasses emitted during production and transport.
Speaking of fish, however, is opening a whole other can of worms.
If sustainability is what you are after, a lot of sea food is out: over fishing is stressing stocks all over the world, and aside from a few species that are managed responsibly (wild pacific salmon, e.g.) most edible fish populations are dropping at a staggering rate. Seafood doesn’t fare well on the health test either; electronics, fluorescent bulbs and industrial practices have contaminated most seafood populations with levels of mercury that are dangerous for human consumption.
If you are a card carrying member of PETA, or sympathetic to their cause, chicken and eggs are back on the black list. On the humanitarian scale, chicken production is much, much worse than just about anything else out there. Feed lot beef is not much better. If humanitarian concerns are foremost in your mind, you should probably explore expensive alternatives to conventional food at a specialty or kosher butcher shop. If you can’t
afford that, then meat is out.
If health is what you are thinking about, then a strictly vegetarian diet might not be a good idea at all. Many people develop anemia, iron deficiency, or other issues when not eating meat, and careful management of protein and iron intake is essential for a healthy meatless diet.
Pescatarians (a word I am not entirely comfortable with, I’ll have you know) can get around this quite easily, as salmon and mollusks like clams provide massive doses of protein and iron in tiny portions. But again, mercury is a real threat which much be considered constantly. Farmed clams are better, but farmed salmon are terrible: they are fed other fish from depleting stocks and foul up coastal waters with concentrated waste.
Here is something that your vegan acquaintances will not be quick to point out, however: grass fed and grass finished cows are better in every way. On the humanitarian angle, they are demonstrably healthier and ostensibly happier (in so far as we can tell these things). They produce less methane (a green house gas) and foul up less water during their lives. They are wildly healthier for you, with little saturated fat and more omega 3 fatty acids than salmon.
In summation, if all of the issues in this article are important to you, you probably should be vegan. However, if you are willing to do your food homework and buy the right products, you can put the vegan argument out to pasture with the grass fed cows.