Sustainability and Skepticism

It is easy to demonize the system of industrial production of meat, to lament the damage it does to the environment (manure runoff and methane), to public health (indiscriminate use of antibiotics on animals ends up creating resistant strains of bacteria that kill thousands of Americans every year), and to the soul or spirit or entity that unites all living things (hidden in plain sight we have allowed killing factories to flourish, to place economic efficiency over all else, so that we have the false comfort of an endless supply of meat products). We are simply delaying the eventual reckoning when we come to understand the full cost of our desire for cheap, convenient, easy meat products available at all times.

The alternatives to this environmental, public health, and spiritual damage look pretty good: grass-fed cows, free-range chickens, organic production methods, humane treatment. However, as with any system, it is important to assess these non-industrial methods with a skeptical eye. No person, no living thing, no system designed by people, can ever be perfect.

In “The Myth of Sustainable Meat,” in The New York Times, James E. McWilliams provides a healthy does of skepticism. He claims that these alternatives to industrial meat production are not as sustainable as people think them to be. He points to increased methane emissions from grass-grazing cows over grain-fed cows. He mentions the fact that “a tract of land larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to cattle grazing.” He pokes holes in the “more natural” argument and makes an economic case for why small-scale production won’t last, and will have to scale up. Instead of interrupting the nutrient cycle by killing animals, he says that the discussion we should have is not how to produce animal products, but “whether we produce them at all.”

Also, read Joel Salatin’s response on Grist to McWilliams’ article, which criticizes Salatin’s Polyface Farm.

In light of what Mark Bittman has written about plant-based “meat” products, the question of whether to produce and eat meat at all is a fair question. If a plant-based product tastes like meat, and provides the protein of meat, but doesn’t have any of the hormones or antibiotics in it, and is better for the environment in the way it is produced, then why not cut out meat entirely? Bittman acknowledges the moral puzzle that exists here: theoretically, the killing of animals at all, no matter the conditions, is immoral. But we have evolved as meat-eaters, our bodies crave it and process it well. So why would anyone give up meat?

Taking McWilliams’ argument into account with Bittman’s writing on plant-based “meat” products, it is fair to say that, as a country, our meat intake needs to decrease and can decrease if we recognize the damage that our meat habit is causing.

The fact is that life feeds on life, and finding nourishment from the earth necessarily involves removing and consuming what grows from the earth. Of course, there are sustainable ways to do that, methods that restore soil fertility and cycle nutrients back into the earth, methods that don’t move the environment on a linear path of destruction, but on a cyclical path of continuous flourishing and renewal. We should move more and more every day in that direction, recognizing that no system is perfect, but that some systems will be more sustainable than others, and that what we really need to do is focus on ways to align our bodies and spirits and live in harmony with our environment.

2 Responses to “Sustainability and Skepticism”
  1. Michael Perkins says:

    The subject you have taken on is enormous in terms of its implications on society and the world at large. Meat consumption is but one small segment of Agriculture Inc. I think the issue of the environmental damage due to modern day agriculture is inevitable due to the rapid growth of the worlds population. This factor requires more production on a mass scale and also impacts the inevitable need for cheap food as the Earth cannot provide a sustainable lifestyle either in terms of household economic progress or the luxury of living inharmony withyour environment that you enjoy in the affluent world you live in.

    Until the world’s population startes to decline you will see the forests disappear, the sea depleted, and climate change speed up the Earth’s decline. Crop rotation and eating less meat can help but I fear not enough to counter the impact of billions of new mouths to feed.

    But, I commend you on your position on these issues. At the very least it will mean you will live a healthy and I hope long life.

    • ehimmel says:

      Hi Michael — Thanks for those comments. You’re right that with population growth comes the need to maintain or increase the levels of production. There’s definitely room to produce meat in a much more environmentally-friendly way. I guess my hope is that, somehow, sustainable methods + a decrease in meat intake will put the planet on a better path.

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