In defense of meat

Eating animals is not destroying the planet. And it can even be good for you.

By Kevin Slaten

Writing on FP's The Argument blog, Jim Motavalli recently predicted that the "vegetarian world" will be coming your way soon. Unhealthy, polluting, and simply impractical, meat won't be around much longer, he argues -- at least not in a morally acceptable way.

Let me be blunt: This is not our future. Red meat might well deserve probation, but fish and chicken are innocent of all charges. And even beef, lamb, and pork have their redeeming qualities -- not least that technology might soon make them greenhouse gas free. So please, don't toss out your butcher's business card yet.

Motavalli offers two reasons why we ought to go veggie. First, he cites a study linking red meat consumption to cancer and heart disease. But alas, he seems to forget that there are tremendous differences between types of meat. Red meat is the only kind addressed in this study. And the Harvard School of Public Health claims that other meat sources (the ones that are low in saturated fat such as chicken or fish) pose little risk to human health. What's more, they might actually be good for you. Many fish are rich in the fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid, which humans need but bodies can't make themselves. Those omega-3s have become the latest "superfood," and -- sorry, vegetarians -- they cannot be found anywhere else in nature. A person who eats fish is less likely to have heart disease than someone who doesn't -- say, a vegetarian.

Next, Motavalli warns us that meat contributes more to greenhouse gases (GHG) than the entire transportation sector. But here again, he fails to differentiate between different types of livestock. True, the industry overall may emit 18 percent of all GHG, but the beef sector emits 13 times as much as the poultry sector, meaning that chicken production contributes no more than 1 percent to global GHG. Compare that with a vegetarian favorite -- rice -- which emits 1.5 percent of climate-heating gases.

Despite all of this variation, Motavalli declares, "The obvious solution to both health and environmental disasters is to stop eating meat altogether." Actually, that choice will be a moot point in just 15 years, he argues: "By 2025, we simply won't have the resources" to keep eating meat. With growing demand for resource-intensive animal products, vegetarianism seems inevitable.

Again, I beg to differ. This prediction rests on the bizarre assumption that technology will stagnate. The reality is quite the opposite. Scientists are refining methods for growing meat tissue in the lab without the costs of land, water, and feed, whose use inflicts so much environmental collateral damage. They call it in vitro meat, and even the veggie-lovers love it. Last year, the animal rights group PETA even offered a $1 million prize to the "first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012."

So, upon closer inspection, the vegetarian revolution appears to be neither essential nor likely.

None of this means that we should ignore the pressing threat of climate change. But the plan of action need not be as bombastic as cutting out an entire section of the food pyramid. At the policy level, a carbon cap could tax the worst polluters in the livestock industry. Meanwhile, more money should be invested in technologies like in vitro meat and methane capture and storage. As consumers, we should think about diversifying our sources of dietary protein, eating less beef and pork and more dairy, poultry, fish, and soy.

Climate control and public health are critical for our collective future, but both are damaged by inaccuracies and half-truths. Vegetarianism is not the impending reality. Technology and good old common sense will allow us to have our meat ... and eat it too.

Kevin Slaten is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He blogs at kevinslaten.blogspot.com.

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