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Kathy Freston

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Red Meat vs Chicken: An Argument Against The False Distinction

Posted: 04/14/09 11:00 AM ET

Nicholas Kristof's column on Wednesday discusses the recent work by animal activists on behalf of chickens and pigs, and the degree to which "animal rights are now firmly on the mainstream ethical agenda" in the United States, as they have been for some years in Europe. I am delighted to see from Mr. Kristof yet another thoughtful essay about a moral issue that is, until recently, not widely discussed, and even more pleased that in discussing the cruelties of modern intensive farms, he is focusing on birds.

You see, people often tell me that they've given up eating red meat out of concern for animals, the environment, or their health (or all three). Of course all efforts to make the world a kinder and less polluted place should be applauded. But here's the thing: cutting out red meat while still eating chicken doesn't address the whole problem.

Here's why: Both choices - beef and chicken - badly damage the environment, so choosing one or the other is sort of like the difference between driving a huge SUV and a Hummer. That's also why I'm a little baffled when some environmental organizations say that cutting out beef is advisable, but eating other meats is "relatively" ok. It's really not.

On the issue of global warming, all animal agriculture is a nightmare, relative to producing grains and beans. In a 400 page report from the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization, Livestock's Long Shadow, scientists conclude that the business of raising animals for food is responsible for about 18 percent of all warming--in fact meat causes about 40 percent more warming than all cars, trucks, and planes combined.

That is in part because turning animals into meat requires many stages of (energy intensive and polluting) production (i.e., transporting feed, animals, and meat; running feed mills, factory farms, and slaughterhouses; refrigerating carcasses during transport and in grocery stores--chickens are at least as energy consumptive as cattle for all these stages), compared to plant foods.

Environmental Defense calculated that if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads. Imagine if we dropped all meat from our diets altogether.

And it's not just global warming, of course: In a story about chicken waste pollution, the New York Times reported in November that "[a]lthough the dairy and hog industry in states near the bay produce more pounds of manure, poultry waste has more than twice the concentration of pollutants per pound." I assume that's in part because poultry are given a lot more drugs than pigs and cattle--because they're kept in even worse conditions and thus require more drugs.

When you have the attorney general of a state like Oklahoma battling poultry producers over the industry "wreak[ing] havoc in the 1-million-acre Illinois River watershed, turning it into a murky, sludgy mess," it seems pretty clear (to me) that environmentalists might want to think again about putting that product into even a "relatively" favorable category.

So it makes more sense to cut down on meat altogether, in favor of a more plant based diet, rather than trying to sort out which meats are relatively better or worse. And we can do so in stages.

For example, after looking at the health and environmental problems associated with chicken, beef, and pork, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman (in his superb new book Food Matters) suggests eating exclusively plant-based foods until 6 p.m., and then eating whatever you want for dinner. I know people who have tried this sort of plan, and they find--quickly--that they're eating more and more vegetarian food, even during the times when they eat whatever they want. Writes Bittman, "By reducing the amount of meat we eat, we can grow and kill fewer animals. That means less environmental damage, including climate change; fewer antibiotics in the water and food supplies; fewer pesticides and herbicides; reduced cruelty; and so on. It also means better health for you."


Similarly, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health leads the "Meatless Mondays" campaign, which is supported by 28 other public health schools. Their goal is to cut Americans' meat-consumption, in order to lessen our risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and so on. And of course, they rightly impugn all meat, not just "red" meat.

Although he vigorously advocates vegetarianism, the much adored Buddhist monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, writes in his latest book that "[i]f you're not able to entirely stop eating meat, you can still decide to make an effort to cut back. By cutting meat out of your diet ten or even five days a month, you will already be performing a miracle--a miracle that will help solve the problem of hunger in the developing world and dramatically reduce greenhouse gases."

These suggestions from Bittman, Johns Hopkins, and Thich Nhat Hanh strike me as much better half-measure alternatives to picking between various meats.

For those who want to do well by the environment, have more robust health, and consider the welfare of animals, the solution is not to just give up eating red meat, but rather lean away from eating animal products - chicken included - altogether.

A few things to remember:

* for animals the poultry industry is much worse than the beef or pork industries;
* for your health, it's a toss up at best;
* and for the environment, the poultry industry may not be quite as bad on global warming, but it's still bad, and it appears to be even worse in categories like water and air pollution.

For people who want help cutting back on meat or transitioning toward a vegetarian diet, please check out my previous post, "One Bite at a Time: A Beginners Guide to Conscious Eating."