Meat should be a treat

Warning. This is a soapbox post, which is not the norm for this blog. But I need to rant a bit.

I spent last Saturday at the Animal Law Symposium put on by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). What is an ecologist doing at a law symposium, you ask? Well, it helps if your partner is the Regional Director of the ALDF Los Angeles office. So partly I went there to be supportive, but also found it incredibly interesting as an ecologist. I like to think of myself as somebody who is relatively conscious about my impact on the environment around me and takes some measures to reduce that impact. I’m not an environmental saint, but feel like I’m fairly aware. So I was surprised to come away from this symposium with huge eye-openers about what factory farms are doing to the world. I thought I’d use this blog post to share some of those things with other people who might be in the same position.

(1) I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t realized the environmental impact of beef and dairy production until recently (pigs and chickens, you’re not exempt either). Or at least I’d been willing to stick my head in the sand about it. It seems like all of the focus with climate change is on driving fuel efficient cars and reducing factory emissions. In Los Angeles, like many people, I drive around in my Prius, feeling superior and shaking my head at people who haven’t done their part. Now I realize I could be doing much more by foregoing that hamburger I picked up on the way home. But forget greenhouse gas emissions. California is in a historic drought. The governor’s solution is to have restaurants not serve water unless it’s requested and to water your lawn less frequently. Of course, we should conserve household water, but it will solve close to 0% of the drought problems. Check out this image from the Daily Show last week:


Yes, 47% of our water goes towards producing beef and dairy!!! Much of this goes towards growing the crops that we have to feed to livestock. Why why aren’t we encouraging everybody to eat less meat as a solution to the drought? You don’t even need to be a vegetarian. Just eat less meat and dairy.

Listen, I love meat. I could eat carne asada tacos and beef taquitos every day. But do I need to? No. Could I eat half as much meat as I do? Sure…without much sacrifice even. Go vegetarian? Better, but a bigger commitment. Vegan? Even better, but even more commitment. I grew up in a house where meat was assumed to be a part of every meal. I understand that people need protein and that meat is a relatively cheap source of protein (but only because your tax dollars have already paid for the subsidies that make it cheaper). But alternative sources of protein (such as this amazing stuff that Beyond Meat makes, that I might like even more than regular chicken!) aren’t something that I often hear people talk about as a solution to climate change. It’s something we should talk about more, but you won’t hear it coming from many politicians because of the INSANELY HUGE agriculture lobby. But if we eat less meat, then fewer farmers have jobs. Yes, it’s complicated, but we should be having those conversations, rather than ignoring the huge cow in the room.

(2) Meat is cheap for a reason. Partly it’s government subsidies. But also, it’s because giant factory farms pack as many animals as possible into as little space as possible in an attempt to maximize profit. When there’s profit at stake, you can guess that animal welfare takes a seat WAY in the back. This isn’t just about animal rights though. In order to maintain animals in factory farms, we have to pump them full of antibiotics. 70-80% of human antibiotic consumption comes from antibiotics given to animals just to prevent them from getting sick. Yes, human are omnivores, but I suspect that for a primitive Homo sapiens, meat was a treat. Finding a mammoth to eat was no easy task! Meat should be very expensive, and our consumption of it should reflect that.

(3) Maybe this is Pollyanna-ish, but I like to think that most things in the world are getting better. I think the world is progressive in most ways, albeit at a very slow pace. Agriculture is going the other way though…and quickly. The meat industry is terrified that people will find out what they do to animals and how they do it. So they have enacted Ag Gag laws that prevent anybody from talking about conditions on factory farms. And they’re kind of brilliant about how they write these laws. Many states have proposed bills that would require those who observe animal abuse on farms to report their findings in a short time (like 12 hours). Seems like a great idea. Who would vote against that? But prosecuting such crimes requires documenting a pattern of abuse, rather than one isolated incidence. That’s impossible if you’re forced to report each and every abuse, resulting in the reporter getting kicked off the farm. These bills are written claiming to support animal welfare, but really they’re backed by factory farms who want to continue to do whatever they want in the name of making a profit. It’s the same as a drug cartel backing a bill that would require reporting every dime bag of pot that gets sold. It would prevent any undercover investigation of the cartel.

The Ag Gag bills are the most infuriating to me. Although I think we should all eat less meat, I still would like to eat a little occasionally. When I do, I’d like to know it was raised well and killed humanely. That means I’ll probably have to pay more for it. Yes, I can do this by going to a local farm with a good reputation, but that’s not an option for most people for various reasons. If you want to buy meat in a supermarket or restaurant, then 90% of the meat is produced by the 1% of farms that are giant factory farms. The Ag Gags also apply to water usage. Farms aren’t required to report water use and do their best to hide those numbers, because they don’t want people to know what the real numbers are. Then we might want to do something about it. As the keynote speaker at this Symposium, journalist Will Potter, said: “In the history of time, when has staying quiet about abuses by those in power led to a problem going away?”

I’ve always thought that most vegetarians didn’t eat meat because they didn’t like it much anyway, so it wasn’t much sacrifice for them. I’m an absolute meat lover who is trying to go mostly vegetarian, and even vegan sometimes. I’m not saying I’ll never eat meat again. I don’t generally go for absolutes. But so far, honestly, it hasn’t been that hard, and it gives me a bigger sense of satisfaction about helping the environment than anything else I’ve ever done.


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