Dear Vanessa,

I get, basically, the health and ethical reasons we’re told not to eat meat. But at least chickens and cows don’t have to be sprayed with fertilizers and pesticides. Are there any real environmental reasons not to eat meat?

— Chris in New Hampshire

Dear Chris,

In case last week’s litany wasn’t enough (climate change, water shortages and pollution, land degradation, deforestation and loss of biodiversity) to assure you of the very real environmental repercussions of eating meat, I’ve got a few more for you.

Large-scale, factory-style meat production — referred to by the industry as CAFO or Confined Animal Feeding Operation — is the modern practice of cramming huge numbers of animals together and feeding them an imported diet of grain.

As Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan both eloquently relate, CAFOs take a working, self-sustaining system (the traditional diversified farm) and create instead a mass of deadly new problems.

One of those is a problem of waste: turning what would-be fertilizer (manure on the farm) into pollution (manure in a CAFO). What was once home-grown fertility becomes a major health and environmental threat as huge concentrations of manure and urine radiate from CAFOs into surrounding water, air and soil. Imagine: Every year, CAFOs in the U.S. produce three times as much waste as our country’s entire human population. That’s 575 billion pounds of parasite, bacteria, virus, pesticide, antibiotic, antibiotic-resistant pathogen, nitrate and hormone-infested manure every year. 

The flip-side of the waste problem is one of fertility: farmers now import chemical fertilizers to fill the void of animals being exported to CAFOs. How absurd that these animals stand — crowded into sheds, cages or lots, usually deep in their own manure — waiting for feed to be shipped to them from distant fields (where they could be grazing) at great environmental expense. And that the fields, in turn, are treated with pesticides and fossil fuel-based fertilizers because there are no animals in rotation to fertilize them. There goes the self-sustaining farm.

There are also multiple and intricately bound problems of consumption. The best farms generally require the least amount of inputs (resources from outside the farm). I think of CAFOs as artificial farms, unable to survive without endless resuscitation. Like the bodies within them, CAFOs require a constant inflow of support. Artificially cheap corn, artificially cheap energy, externalized costs (they don’t, as a rule, pay for damage to local economies, human health or the environment), pesticides and antibiotics (to artificially keep animals alive until slaughter), and water (yes, artificially cheap) are just some elements of the life-support systems needed to keep CAFOs functioning — or rather, malfunctioning.

(Insert here litany about economics of CAFOs … if this were not an environmental column.)

You mention health reasons to avoid meat: I’m guessing you’re referring to any number of diet-related theories about fat and whatnot. The health concerns I write about here refer to the repercussions of how we produce meat calories, not to any inherent adverse or beneficial effects of eating natural meat — in other words, health issues that are environmental issues. Remember, for example, the 2006 E. coli outbreak, when water fouled by agricultural animal waste was sprayed on spinach? Unfortunately, E. coli is just one of the nasty microbes found more often, and in greater concentration in CAFOs than on small farms. (Check out 5 Nasty Microbes Linked to Factory Farming)

And, unfortunately, exposure to microbes is just one of the menacing health problems associated with CAFOs. Inherently, CAFOs demand expansive use of pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics, and each come with their own health threats. Globally, the two crops with the highest percentage of herbicide sales are the two crops that makeup the bulk of animal feed: corn and soy.

"Seventy percent of the volume of herbicides used in agriculture can be attributed to animal feed production in the form of soybean and corn,” according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Global agriculture also uses 3 million tons of pesticides each year. Over 1,600 chemicals are used in the manufacture of pesticides and most have not been seriously tested (if at all) for toxic effects on humans. I’ve written previously about some of the potential effects of pesticide exposure, which include poisoning, negative impacts on the immune, reproductive and nervous systems, and an increased risk of cancer.

The routine administration of antibiotics to CAFO animals — whether they are sick or not — is, well, routine. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates 70 percent of the antibiotic consumption in the U.S. is fed to non-diseased livestock to promote growth and counter the health risks of CAFO life. The Animal Health Institute, a trade association representing drug manufacturers, puts the figure below 30 percent. The unmitigated administration of antibiotics, and widespread use of antimicrobials in general, contribute to the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A 2003 joint report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and the World Health Organization (WHO) addresses this severe global health threat. An introduction to antimicrobial use in animal agriculture, along with a long list of articles on the subject can be found in the University of Chicago Press Journals.

The ramifications of CAFO-produced beef on human health stand out when compared to other CAFO-produced meats. That’s because cattle can do something very few animals can do: digest grass. This special skill, made possible by a complex digestive system, also means the ruminants cannot easily digest corn — a major problem when corn is the main ingredient of all meals served in CAFOs. Without antibiotics, CAFOs’ bovine inmates are unlikely to live long enough to be slaughtered. Even with antibiotics, and corn’s prized capacity to fatten quickly, grain-fed cattle generally require growth hormones to get them big enough to slaughter before they die from disease. What a life.

The hormones, antibiotics and corn-based fat that is passed on to consumers and an unwitting environment add heart disease, cancer, diabetes, reproductive and genital abnormalities, and super-germs to the list of “real environmental reasons not to eat meat.”

Antibiotics in the form of beef … flu in the form of pork … starvation in the form of meat? The majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds animals, not humans. More grain — two to six times as much — is needed to produce the same amount of calories from livestock (meat) as from the grain itself. Make that as much as 10 times more when it comes to U.S. grain-fed beef. quotes calculations that “the world's cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the needs of 8.7 billion people — more than the entire human population on Earth.” 

David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, estimates 41 million tons of plant protein is fed to U.S. livestock to produce about 7 million tons of animal protein for human consumption.

Food First’s Frances Moore Lappé asks people to imagine sitting down to an eight-ounce steak, and then, “imagine the room filled with 45 to 50 people with empty bowls ... For the feed cost of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full cup of cooked cereal grains.”

Chew on that, and let me know what you think.

Stay green, eat greens,


P.S. I keep getting asked, so, for the record, I eat meat. I also smoked for years (many years), and supported smoking bans while sucking down a pack-and-a-half (or three) a day. I eat meat and I advocate that we limit, or halt, our meat consumption. I think I am serving the planet and my family better by occasionally eating elk that I killed, or a pastured pig from a local sustainable farm, than indulging in nutrient-deficient, irradiated, pesticide and herbicide-sprayed heads of lettuce cultivated by underpaid laborers in dangerous conditions and shipped 2,000 refrigerated miles. Location, method and quantity are my main guides in navigating the contentious realms of food. But that’s just me.