Don't Have a Cow

Meat is wasteful: it takes 10,000 pounds of grain to produce 1000 pounds of meat. But is abstaining from eating meat really the solution?
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

At best, meat is wasteful: it takes 10,000 pounds of grain to produce 1000 pounds of meat. That's 90% of the total energy it takes to make a burger, thrown away. And if you're more philosophical, the problem is some more complicated equation of inhumane and unethical. The feedlot conditions under which the vast majority of livestock are raised are barbaric and killing something generally makes one want to reach for an rationale. But is abstaining from eating meat really the solution?

The issue was addressed recently in the New Yorker review by Elizabeth Kolbert of Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Eating Animals.

"The cost that consumer society imposes on the planet's fifteen or so million non-human species goes way beyond either meat or eggs," she writes. Bananas, blue-jeans, soy lattes, the paper used to print this magazine, the computer screen you may be reading it on -- death and destruction are embedded in them all. It is hard to think at all rigorously about our impact on other organisms without being sickened."

The implication is that we shouldn't bother not eating animals when we're just going to trounce all over mother nature with everything else we do. Which is like my argument for not practicing general hygiene when I was 6. I was just going to get dirty all over again. You know what else is hard to stop? Violence, world hunger, and the Yankees. But that's never been a good reason for the Orioles to stop showing up for spring training. We would never except this complacency about stopping violent crimes. We cannot stop human nature; people are going to die at the hands of other people, it's only natural. What's great is that we all know that that's true, but we balk at the idea of eliminating our police departments. We don't cut funding because we're not 6 years old. Just because something is unpleasant, and the battle is destined to be fought forever uphill, doesn't mean we lay down.

Preventing violence is about self-preservation, though. What's pragmatic about changing the way we factory-farm? In order to produce the largest animals in the shortest amount of time, livestock in this country are fed 28 million pounds of antibiotics a year (apparently they don't need a prescription or a public option). Compared to only 3 million pounds for the entire human population in the U.S. We feed cows food that is not natural to their diets, food that's high in calories to promote growth. Their stomachs can't take it though, so they start to bleed internally and that leads to infection. These infections are so inevitable that we just throw antibiotics, sometimes in massive doses, into each of their diets everyday. This leads to bacteria developing resistance to those antibiotics, which are often the same ones that we use. "The CDC estimates that, each year, nearly 2 million people in the United States acquire an infection while in a hospital, resulting in 90,000 deaths," states the FDA. "More than 70 percent of the bacteria that cause these infections are resistant to at least one of the antibiotics commonly used to treat them." We are being killed by microbes that have developed immunities to the antibiotics that we feed our livestock. It's in our best interest to not raise animals the way we do right now.

Another justification for eating meat, even the way it's farmed now, is a sort of faux-bio-anthropology argument which briefly goes like this: humans evolved with the ability to eat and digest meat so it is our right to chow down. Biologically, it's true. We can eat meat. We can also commit adultery, vote for Nader, and wear flannel, but we (usually) recognize that we have the responsibility not to. Letting our biology dictate our behavior was an idea we waved bye-bye to when we first found a higher being a GODzillion years ago.

But the actual logic behind eating meat is really much simpler. It's straightforward and easy to follow. It goes like this: I want bacon-bits in my mouth. Amen. Meat tastes great. Let's just acknowledge that that's the rationale for eating it. This isn't about a principle to never eat meat. The less meat you eat the better, to my mind, but I'm not as concerned about that as I am that people eat meat and rationalize it these two arguments. These two arguments for eating meat, "We're going to ruin everything anyway" and "we can so we should", are really about doing nothing, and they're about as sound as the concrete around Yankee Stadium.

Being vegetarian or vegan is not the solution to waste, a greener earth, and animal ethics. But who said it was? Just like the solution to global warming is not to just change your light-bulbs and find Al Gore not boring. The solution to feeding lots of people cheaply, using land responsibly, and raising animals with dignity is not a simple equation. It's a constant (math pun) effort from all of us to think about what we eat, what that food costs in real terms, and be smart about our choices. It's uphill, but that's all the reason to focus and not let apathy and complacence decide what we eat.

If we want to have a real discussion about the value of factory farming versus the risks, expenses, and sacrifices of the alternatives, let's do it. There's not a perfect answer so it's not about us versus them. Not eating meat isn't the final solution but it allows us to express a little control over a problem that is way beyond any individual.