Save a Cow, Save the Earth and Save Your Own Health




Author Michael Pollan writes in In Defense of Food that global demand for meat inevitably rises as populations become wealthier. More than a billion Chinese who grew up on plant-centric diets are now migrating toward more meat at every meal.

From a number of standpoints, that’s not good. Health problems more often associated with western industrialized cultures – obesity, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer – are less prevalent in developing countries, where consumption of animal flesh, beef in particular, is historically lower. Some argue that more meat means more hair loss, however a counter argument can be made as well. But without question, the shift from plant- to animal-based diets has a significant effect on the health of people and the environment. All of it is unnecessary.

Protein is king – making paupers of us all

It’s said that a New York Strip Steak in Hong Kong starves a child in Africa and allows a disease to go untreated in Kansas. It’s not that the cow was stolen from the kid’s family, it’s that grain and farmland useful for human consumption was diverted instead to raise cattle. If the cattle were raised in Argentina, the grain probably was grown on land cleared of Brazilian rainforest, where diminishing biodiversity reduces discovery of new medicines.  Meanwhile, 800 million people worldwide lack adequate nutrition.

Resources required for the raising of cows, pigs and sheep are profligate. It takes six pounds of plant protein to produce a pound of beef. Pork requires only a third of that and with chickens it’s a one-for-one exchange, but all livestock require additional energy for raising – between 20 and 80 times more fossil fuels are used to produce animal versus equivalent amounts of vegetable proteins. They also produce prodigious amounts of waste. Deepwater fish (salmon, tuna) require more energy to harvest than those in coastal areas (herring, sardines, anchovies), with the former laden with higher amounts of mercury because they are higher on the food chain.

Americans already eat more beef, pork and poultry than almost all other countries, clocking in at 200 pounds of land-animal flesh per capita per year, up one-third from just 50 years ago. Beef really is for dinner, almost every night. Federal guidelines from the USDA tell us to consume about half this much, and many nutritionists argue for even less.

With the current global recession, prices of meat might temporarily be lower. This is because cattlemen are selling off stocks to reduce costs, creating a temporary glut on the market. Long term, prices will increase.

Do we really need all this protein from meat?

In our “more is more” culture, the idea that protein is good for you took hold emphatically over the past generation. Particularly among men involved in strength training – and anyone trying the meat loving, carb-phobic Atkins diet – a pseudo-science of protein powders, bars and meat requirements have driven a super meat-consumption population subset.

Excess protein taxes the kidneys and animal protein carries higher concentrations of saturated fat. Which is why vegetarian bodybuilder Steve Holt surprises so many people inside and outside his sport. He maintains a website focused on the topic, with a strong argument against use of both steroids and animal flesh (he does consume dairy-derived whey protein and eggs).

Reverse the trend of excessive meat-eating

Most of us have a hard time going full-out vegan. But it’s possible and relatively easy for just about anyone to migrate toward less beef consumption.

Eating fish two or more times per week has long been established (Kromhout 1985) as beneficial to cardiac health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially warns against eating more than three servings per week by women who are or may become pregnant, women who are nursing and young children, because the concentrations of mercury may harm developing nervous systems. Speaking as a 50-year old male, I’m not so keen about mercury in my body, either. That same EPA warning specifically advises against shark, swordfish, king mackerel, albacore tuna and tilefish, which have the highest concentrations (light tuna is less worrisome).

As for the depletion of certain fishstocks and wild versus farm-raised fish, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium offers a terrificwallet card guide that can be downloaded from their website.
Allow me to offer my personal suggestions for reversing the “more-is-more” global trend toward beef, pork and chicken consumption. I’ve cut back by about a third in the past year and feel pretty good about it:

  • Try to cover at least 75 percent of your dinner plate with plant foods.
  • Extend tuna, chicken, turkey or canned salmon by mixing in mashed garbanzo beans (canned salmon is almost always wild caught, a healthier choice over farmed).
  • Roast a chicken, then use the leftover bones to make a chicken soup broth (add any beans and vegetables).
  • Try the weird fish: Recently I’ve discovered how great sardines can be; on a hearty slice of whole-grain bread slathered with avocado and mustard, sardines are now my favorite pre-workout snack. While preparing dinner, I often eat two or three pieces of pickled herring sprinkled with roasted soy nuts.
  • Visit farmer’s markets and ask questions about preparing unusual (to you) vegetables. The vendors usually are advocates for their produce and will provide great ideas.

If you’re going green in transportation, home heating and cleaning and by recycling, make judicious food consumption your next step toward environmental sustainability. The impact on earth health will occur over the long term, but its effect on your own health can be immediate.