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I agree with this.

Also, steakums!

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[…] And Chris Bird looks at the environmental case for eating meat… […]

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Speaking as someone that’s leaning more and more vegetarianism, I agree with your point. Just because we reduce meat doesn’t mean saving the planet. It just means we’d have to harvest more fruit and vegetables.

For me, though, I’m just finding that, as I’ve been eating healthier over the last few years, I’ve been eating less meat. It’s a result of cutting up and adding vegetables to meals and finding “Well, I’ve got so many vegetables. Do I really need the meet in there? What if I put, say, beans in there instead?” I’m finding that protein (what most people eat meat for) is found in pretty much every single food out there in some amount or other.

However, I think what needs to change is the globalization (sp?) of farming, sending produce huge distances across the country or countries. I’m a huge supporter of organic, locally grown foods. I think more people should grow their own food, as well, so they can learn where their food comes from. A large part of suburbia and houses have good size backyards or lawns that they could grow a small patch. Then, they could share it with their neighbours, who might grow their own.

MGK, have you ever read a book called Biomimicry, by Janine M. Benyus? I just picked it up at the library and it’s an interesting read. It talks about taking ideas of how nature works and applying it to our science. For example, solar panel is inspired by how a leaf works. Basically, creating a technology that rather than steals from the environment, it works with it. I recommend it, if you haven’t heard of it.

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Actually, I think the main thrust of those who argue that vegetarianism is better for the environment has more to do with the caloric pyramid of raising meat vs agriculture. A cow must eat something, a lot of it, and that something is grown at a cost.

Even a grass-fed cow or a bug-fed chicken requires a great deal of land and inputs to get that grass or bug life to live there. They don’t need to be artificial inputs, but they still draw nutrients from somewhere and convert it to plant life, which is then converted, not very efficiently, to animal flesh.

The argument I have heard is that good, sustainable agriculture can feed more people with less inputs than meat. You skip the step of converting the plant mass to animal mass. I don’t remember what the exact conversion is (my sister borrowed my _Omnivore’s Dilemma_, which put it most succinctly), but it amounts to something like 60 calories of plant to make 1 calorie of meat.

Not that I am a vegetarian either – we eat meat a few times a week, almost exclusively properly-raised meat. If everyone ate meat sparingly and at true cost, the inefficiency outlined above might be worth it.

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sgt pepper said on January 18th, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Well, those cows and pigs and chickens and farmed fish that you eat are fed tons of vegetable matter. I’m sure you know that much (most?) of that corn and soybeans that is grown in North America is grown to feed animals that humans then eat. So a large portion (if not the largest portion) of that fertilizer runoff you mention is actually the result of animal farming (indirectly–to fertilize the corn and soybeans and other grains used as animal feed). So would it really be more efficient to grow vegetable matter to feed the billions of animals every year that are then slaughtered, and then the vegetable matter needed to feed the next generation of animals the next year etc. or to grow vegetable matter to directly feed the billions of humans on the earth (who aren’t slaughtered and who don’t require the caloric resources to add hundreds of pounds to each and every year).

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Charlotte made my point already – but (as I think I’m part of what contributed to this entry, if not the friend mentioned) my own PERSONAL reasons for going completely meat-free are more varied than just the environmental aspect. I probably haven’t been as clear about them as I could be, but I’m not as eloquent as you are, either, because I don’t plan on making debating with people into a career.

The fact is that I can’t AFFORD the proper cost of local, organic meat. Yes, it should be expensive, because that’s fair, but just because it’s fair doesn’t mean it’s affordable. Given my financial situation right now, it’s a luxury that I can do very well – better, in fact – without.

There’s also my own desire to live a more “cruelty-free” sort of life – animals may not be as intellectually evolved or whatever as humans but I’ve never heard of a cow dropping bombs on children in Gaza, or economically exploiting other cows. No, a lot of people don’t agree with my (again, highly personal) stance that living at the cost of the lives of other creatures isn’t worth it. But that’s how I feel, and I have the right to make decisions as to how I live MY life based on my personal values, which includes vegetarianism.

I can support sustainable farming by buying locally farmed products that AREN’T meat, and I do. I even buy animal products from these farms – milk and cheese. (Though lately I’ve been considering veganism but that’s a whole other kettle of fish substitute.) I’ve never argued that vegetarianism is the ONLY environmentally acceptable solution to issues of agricultural supply. I do believe that it’s more sustainable than how most people in North America generally eat, and I do believe that is sustainable in and of itself for all the reasons mentioned above by Charlotte.

I don’t think everyone everywhere should have to go vegetarian RIGHT NOW. Neither do I have just one reason for going vegetarian myself. I am simply trying to live as sustainably as I realistically can without contributing to the deaths and exploitation of other creatures (including humans). Sure, it may make me foolish, but I don’t think it makes me misinformed or wrong.

I’m sure there are probably some vegetarians who are vegetarian for weird reasons, or who don’t know about the realities of mass farming (animal and otherwise), or who are members of PETA. We’re just not all like that. Most of the vegetarians I know have considered their eating habits at great lengths (moreso than the vast majority of meat eaters that I have met and discussed this with) and don’t take the decision to stop eating meat lightly at all.

Blah blah blah, too much preaching, whatever. Just felt that since we have sort of had at least an abbreviated version of this discussion, I should elaborate more on things I never did elaborate on.

Anyway. Carry on.

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For the record: meat can indeed be quite delicious, but if you think eating it is a better experience than getting head, seek medical attention immediately.

Or maybe seek better head…

(Honestly, if you want to encourage healthier meat production, doing it by refusing to buy meat is counterintuitive; doing it by buying meat that is raised in an ethical, ecologically friendly and healthy manner makes more sense, because you aren’t just monetarily punishing factory farmers, but also rewarding the free-range meat producer.)

That is a good point actually, and this is coming from a vegetarian.

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There’s also my own desire to live a more “cruelty-free” sort of life – animals may not be as intellectually evolved or whatever as humans but I’ve never heard of a cow dropping bombs on children in Gaza, or economically exploiting other cows. No, a lot of people don’t agree with my (again, highly personal) stance that living at the cost of the lives of other creatures isn’t worth it. But that’s how I feel, and I have the right to make decisions as to how I live MY life based on my personal values, which includes vegetarianism.

For what it’s worth I more or less agree with that, Laura, depending on what creatures we’re talking about, how they’re killed, and how they were treated before they were killed. I do feel sorry for animals in factory farms, and I won’t go into why because I don’t want to get excessively preachy but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. I’ve also read that even if something qualifies “free range” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been treated well, so for a while now I’ve pretty much been avoiding most meat altogether, aside from seafood, just to be on the safe side.

Slightly off-topic, I’m glad you feel that way about Gaza, because in the CUPE thread when I was arguing about it in the comments I felt like I was in the minority. It’s good to see that maybe I’m not.

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Okay, I don’t normally tripe-post, but I’ve just gotta add one last thing: after re-reading the quote and focusing just on “…I’ve never heard of a cow dropping bombs…”

…mental picture of a cow in an airplane, a la Snoopy. And I gotta say, even if that cow did bomb a city, it would still look amusing getting ready for takeoff. 😀

That is all.

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Nora Bombay said on January 18th, 2009 at 7:04 pm

@”(Remember: the average amount of meta you need at a given meal? About the size of a deck of playing cards.)”

I realize that the meta/meat is a typo. But it is probably the best typo I’ve seen in weeks. Because it is true either way you read it.

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Factory farms also require us to pump animals full of antibiotics so they don’t die of disease and the like

Factory farmed animals survive disease just fine because it’s much easier to sterilize stalls and isolate a building than hundreds of acres of pastureland. The antibitoics are given because it was found that huge quantities make the animals grow larger and faster, getting more meat to market in less time.

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I’m always disappointed by people who say sex is better than food. It just means they haven’t eaten well enough. Sex is good, sure, but it’s not foie gras good.

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Actually, I think the main thrust of those who argue that vegetarianism is better for the environment has more to do with the caloric pyramid of raising meat vs agriculture. A cow must eat something, a lot of it, and that something is grown at a cost.

Sure, but raising that point ignores the fact that we have to grow the crops anyway. Better there be animals to make poopy, ecologically superior, natural fertilizer than to make it out of potash and petroleum, and if the animals are there, we might as well eat ’em.

And they probably shouldn’t be cows. Pigs and goats are much less of an environmental burden (since they will eat just about anything and remain fairly healthy under non-factory conditions, and because their farts are less greenhouse-y). I remember one expert calling cows “locusts with hooves” and he had a point.

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@jwilson:

I think you’re just wrong.

Factory farmed animals do not survive disease better than pastured animals. For starters, pastured animals do not sleep in the pasture. They come in at night, into stalls. If sterilization and isolation was how disease was managed (which it isn’t), it would be just as easy to do it with pastured critters.

Secondly, the animals are given antibiotics to stave off the infections they get from being forced to digest corn, which they are not really able to do naturally. It’s the corn feed which brings them to market faster, not the antibiotics. That’s just the big reason, anyway: there’s also the antibiotics they get to prevent their clipped body parts from getting infected.

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@ MGK:

But we wouldn’t have to grow the crops anyway. One of the arguments is that feeding animals grain puts huge pressure on the planet to grow millions (billions?) of tonnes of grain which could otherwise be fed to humans or left as *insert terrain type here which isn’t “agricultural land”*.

Or, in the case of grass-fed and scavenger animals (which is the environmentally friendly way of producing meat; grain-fed meat is factory farmed meat), millions of acres of land that must be converted to pasture.

Keeping animals as manure factories is an interesting point. I wonder how many animals it takes to fertilize a vegetarian world…

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The bottom line here is that our entire food production system — vegetable, meat, and otherwise — is a disaster for the same reason as most of the rest of our resource chain: overcentralization. The hub-and-spoke distribution system that we use for everything turns out, unsurprisingly, to scale well only in a certain range.

That is, it works great when you’re moving from a pre-industrial through and industrial economy, but starts to break down pretty noticeably as the last-mile costs of everything increase and the incentive to overproduce at the centers becomes overwhelming.

On one hand this is just basic network/graph theory, but the same insight applies to energy, shipping in general, farming, transportation, suburbanization, broadband deployment, intellectual property, water usage, waste disposal, etc.

In this case, it’s pretty clear that we desperately need more decentralized agriculture: industrial farms produce bad food, worse byproducts, and none of it very efficiently.

But there are a lot of structural impediments to change, which can generally be classed into three categories:

(a) The distribution network for food production is spread different industries (farming, transportation, food additives, retailing, etc.), each having a vested interest in maintaining that structure, or at least little to gain from a decentralized system.

(b) Many of the most serious social costs (mainly pollution and food contamination) are highly externalized.

(c) There are still a number of problems with decentralized food-production that we haven’t solved yet (quality control, basic distribution, retailer relations, maintenance). Moreover, our regulatory system isn’t equipped to deal with local agriculture.

But meat, vegetable, or otherwise, it’s the infrastructure and the associated economies of scale that create bad food; the economic and social costs are simply the inevitable result of output-maximization in any such system. (You can isolate analogous structural issues in most of the other areas mentioned above.)

MGK’s point is correct, but badly in need of a rephrase. I.e., moral questions aside, the economic/environmental case against “meat” or “factory farms” is not so much about eating less meat as it is about eating “better” meat; that is, how to efficiently and safely produce and distribute local agricultural products.

The fact that we manage to produce so much meat and feed it to the current population demonstrates that, as a practical matter, it can be done, and that therefore “mass vegetarianism” is not an economic necessity. That’s just objectively false.

It is, however, quite plausible to say that our current approach is already unhealthy and not scaling well, and that there’s little reason to think that situation will improve. Whether and how we contend with that fact is the question at hand. Clearing out the ideological cobwebs is a good place to start, though.

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No doubt someone wants to reply to that previous post with, “But local agriculture is already feasible! I buy local [whatever] all the time and it’s great!” or something to that effect.

Granted. So, to clarify and preempt: the logistical problem is that local farming doesn’t scale. Clearly, we know how to grow food and raise animals in a relatively safe fashion; it’s really not that different from anything we’ve been doing for thousands of years. But “buy local!” isn’t a practical solution to a factory-farm system that can selectively undercut local producers. That’s just a band-aid.

We still are a long, long way from scaling local farms systematically, in the way that factory farming can be scaled by just adding more output. Decentralized production is entirely distinct from fragmented/localized production, which can’t expand to compete against large centralized production networks.

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@Rob Brown – you know, I’ve had people argue that cows would totally drop bombs on each other if they had the ability to, but I just don’t see it. Cats, though – I can believe that cats would be capable of genocide.

(Also, I didn’t even look at the CUPE thread. I just tend to assume that MGK readers know to take mainstream Canadian media coverage of international conflicts with a grain of salt, and seek out alternative news sources too, to get a more balanced view, especially of complicated, nuanced situations like the one going on in Gaza. It may be a delusion, but it’s a delusion that I like.)

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@Andrew W – orgasms to you aren’t as good as the livers of geese who are kept deliberately unhealthy to the point where they die painful deaths?

Dude, if you’re not being sarcastic, I feel REALLY sorry for you right now.

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you know, I’ve had people argue that cows would totally drop bombs on each other if they had the ability to, but I just don’t see it. Cats, though – I can believe that cats would be capable of genocide.

And dolphins. Dolphins are bastards:

Thirteen-foot male Bottlenose Dolphins were hunting down porpoises, beating to death and then playing with their corpses, all for no readily apparent reason. At the time of this writing, the majority opinion of the marine science community was that this breathtakingly savage interspecies homicide is for–and this is Science, here–shits ‘n’ giggles.

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No need to feel sorry for me. Foie gras is really, really good.

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…mass plant farming requires fertilizer to come from somewhere, and if it’s not coming from animals (IE, “organic fertilizer”), it has to come from artificial fertilizer, which not incidentally demands the consumption of a great deal of fossil fuels in its production.

This. This right here. Very well put.

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Yah, cruel or not, fois gras is damn tasty and an end that totally justifies the means, if you ask me. >.>

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sgt pepper said on January 19th, 2009 at 12:40 am

Is manure necessary for growing crops? I’m really not sure. Wouldn’t compost, nitrogen fixing crops, and crop rotation also work well to replenish the soil? Is there some reason why these wouldn’t work for mass plant farming (and anyway, if we’re shooting for a future of small farms like you suggested, this question is irrelevant).

And I’m pretty sure those synthetic fertilizers you mention are used largely on corn and soybeans to increase yields (which creates a paradox–the farmers need to buy those chemicals to produce enough bushels to make a profit, but the more bushels they produce, the greater the supply and the lower the price they can demand for the product). At any rate, my point is that those fertilizers are only “necessary” for a culture that demands the cheapest foods possible, and that the corn and soybeans those fertilizers are used on are fed livestock–so it’s the demand for cheap meat that drives the “need” for synthetic fertilizers.

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sgt pepper said on January 19th, 2009 at 12:42 am

That should be “fed to livestock”.

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Of course, when it comes to turning plant matter (particularly grains) into animal matter, herbivores are much more efficient at that than omnivores or carnivores.

(Unless, of course, you have a pollution-belching factory process it into “Ano-Wheets” first…)

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Most things that I do are in pursuit of a more sustainable lifestyle.

You can say that everyone should just *reduce* their consumption and yes, I definitely agree, but people are lazy fucks. My vegetarian urban hippie lifestyle balances out that of one SUV-driving dude who correlates eating a giant steak with his dick size.

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Vegetarianism can be just as unhealthy if you do not know how to eat healthy. When we tried it for over a year. It was great on the pocketbook. But you can still make unhealthy meals. We found out when we looked back, our favorite meals had so much sauces in them that the sodium content was worse than processed foods.
We never thought about that as we ate our beans and tofu. I developed a soy allergy, my husband gets hit with high blood pressure. And we could not go full vegetarian anymore. We tried.
The good thing about the year eating that way, is the reintroduction of basic foods that get over looked (barley, Irish oats, cabbages, turnips, etc.) , or trying new vegetables. Reducing our meat consumption. Finding out the farmers market is an awesome place to shop. So it was not a failure, it did open our eyes.
Now we eat meat more like a flavoring, except on special occasions. I still like cooking and eating beans, I just cannot have any thing with soy in it. For us it’s more important to reduce the amount of fat and sodium.
As for the Local food argument, if you live in an area that can support you with enough local foods, go for it! The problem is a lot of the family farms are gone now. I grew up in Wisconsin, the dairy state, yet by the time I was a kid, most of the dairy farmers around me had stopped farming. They were now working for the large corporate farms. So if I still lived there, local food would be hard to do. You could do it, if you liked turkey, because that’s what most of the farmers turned their old farm steads over to. I live in Central New York now. Local food is a lot easier to find here. It helps to have a major regional chain of grocery stores promote local foods as well.

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mygif

Dude, if you’re not being sarcastic, I feel REALLY sorry for you right now.

I’m sure he’s joking. As for me, I just say no to any form of liver and always have.

And dolphins. Dolphins are bastards…

Wow, they really are!

To clear up an apparent contradiction in what I said yesterday, I’m currently not buying any meat free range or otherwise (unless you count wild caught salmon as rewarding somebody who doesn’t farm animals). But when I said MGK made a good point about buying meat from animals that had been treated ethically in order to give people an incentive to treat them ethically I did think it was a good point.

I mean, I’m buying eggs from free run hens these days (different from free range hens; both can run around and roost and so forth, but free run birds are kept inside they’re raised in one of those provinces where it’s too cold to keep them outside). Costs a little more, but I hope that I’m sending a message, and I am getting a decent amount of protein from them. I bring that up because I contacted this animal rights group before I started buying the eggs and asked whether the chickens were really all right or whether President’s Choice was just making that claim, was told not to worry, and that was good enough for me. So if I learned that a particular seller of free range turkey was treating the birds decently instead of, say, like what’s described here, I’d want to buy some. Not just because turkey is good but because I’d want to reward the producer like MGK said.

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Actually forget that last link; having a second look at it, it doesn’t explain very many of the problems. This one explains it better.

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I am just happy that my addiction to PB&J sandwiches now means I am a fucking awesome environmentalist.

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sgt pepper said on January 19th, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Or instead of rewarding the free range meat famer (my dad’s a free range meat farmer, by the way, and that designation does not exclude him from feeding grains to his animals) you can reward the local vegetable grower instead. You’d be creating less of a market for meat and fewer animals would be produced to be treated badly.

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mygif

I know I’m a little late to this party, but saying the only options are either cow/pig/sheep manure or petroleum-based fertilizers is a false dichotomy.

I regularly compost vegetable scraps to use as a soil amendment in my garden. I would hazard a guess that if all the spoiled or otherwise wasted food landfilled(estimated at somewhere around 100 billion pounds of food annually in the US) were composted instead, it would provide plenty of fertilizer.

You are also overlooking the potential for reusing human manure as fertilizer. If it were sourced separated from everything else that goes into the sewage stream and then composted, it would be an excellent soil amendment.

The argument about using cow manure as a soil amendment only really makes sense if you’re already committed to eating meat.

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