Deliberations and Resources on Radical Christianity

“There is no such thing as a meat-eating environmentalist.”

Now that I have your attention, let me first of all say that this quote is not mine. I have heard it frequently, however, and given its controversial nature I thought it might be an idea to explore its possible veracity or lack thereof.

At first glance, however, this does not seem like an entirely unreasonable assertation. Given the common knowledge of modern farming practices, logic alone would tell us that much more energy must surely go into the breeding, transportation, and slaughtering of animals to provide the world with food than it would to provide nutrition from vegetation sources.

According to the American Public Health Association and the United States National Academy of Sciences, “pollution from massive animal factories jeopardizes public health in rural communities across the nation. Bearing no resemblance to the traditional family farm, these facilities pack thousands of animals into small spaces, produce as much waste as a small city, and spew toxic gases and other pollutants into the air. Livestock production is the single largest contributor of ammonia gas release in the United States, and giant animal factories also emit hydrogen sulfide and fine dust particles—both of which are linked to respiratory illness—in dangerous quantities.”

A study by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, assistant professors of geophysics at the University of Chicago, compares the CO2 production resulting from various human diets. They find that a person switching from the typical American diet to a vegan diet would, on average, reduce CO2 production significantly more than switching from a Toyota Camry to a hybrid, Toyota Prius. Relatedly, the production and consumption of meat and other animal products is associated with the clearing of rainforests, resource depletion, air and water pollution, land and economic inefficiency, species extinction, and other serious environmental harms, as well as various health issues such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and others.

Petroleum and other fossil fuels are thought to be one of the resources freed up by a vegetarian diet. According to Environmental Health Perspectives: “Fossil fuel energy is also a major input to industrial agriculture. The food production system accounts for 17% of all fossil fuel use in the United States, and the average U.S. farm uses 3 kcal of fossil energy in producing 1 kcal of food energy. Meat production uses even more energy. In the typical feedlot system—where a little more than one-half of the cattle’s feed is grain—the fossil energy input is about 35 kcal/kcal of beef protein produced.

These are just some statistics which assert the tremendous toll that animal farming takes upon our planet today. Vegetarians are all too often associated with Animal Rights extremists who use violence and hatred to promote their causes, often marginilising the rest of the vegetarian population (whom I can only assume constitute the majority here) who are expressing a desire to see more ethical treatments for animals and, in the process, ensuring a safer planet through the nonviolent expression of meat-abstinence. I’ve been hearing many discussions lately about how it is more ethical to purchase local produce over even Fair Trade goods as they take a lesser toll on the environment; yet, somehow, vegetarianism as a very practical example of environmental ethics is often overlooked.

Yet again, at the risk of sounding increasingly frustrated, it is the Christian community who prove to be a stumbling block in issues such as this by claiming divine right to eat meat. I feel that I am within my own rights to be somewhat irritated at such assertations, having held to them myself until very recently. Christians have confused “permission” with “commandment.” The Bible does permit and indeed encourage meat consumption, and Jesus Himself ate meat. No Christian vegetarian with any small amount of integrity would deny these facts, but when it comes to practical modern living, I feel this is an area where we must go deeper into the Bible for our ethical standards rather than looking on the surface. We are called, as God’s people, to be good stewards of the earth, and I no longer feel that good stewardship constitutes the reckless slaughtering of animals for food which we don’t even require to meet our basic nutritional standards, much less so when this reckless slaughter comes at a severe cost to the environment and to the global agricultural yield.

If whole rainforests are being cleared in our modern age to provide farms with animal feed, and if we are severely depleting grain crops to sustain mass farming, then it stands to reason that the developed world must take notice and amend their lifestyles accordingly.

So is there such a thing as a “meat eating environmentalist?” Perhaps so, and undeniably there are people who consume meat who are greatly concerned for the environment. However, this is one lifestyle choice that must be amended or at the very least greatly considered if we are endeavouring to lead ethical lives. In wanting to stay true to my efforts to be an understanding and tolerant person, I would not by any means go out of my way to try and make someone feel inferior to me (or indeed anyone else) by making different choices or holding different views; on the other hand, I do feel this must be addressed. An individual who chooses to remain omnivorous in our present age may not be committing an immoral action, but I would say it is certainly an unwise one.

If a person can survive and be perfectly healthy in our current age while living on a meat-free diet, then vegetarianism no longer becomes a personal choice – it becomes a matter of human responsibility, for himself and for those inhabiting his planet.

Relevant Sources:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3559542.stm
http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Aug97/livestock.hrs.html
http://www.iiasa.ac.at/Research/LUC/ChinaFood/argu/impact/imp_21.htm
http://www.epa.gov/methane/sources.html

6 responses

  1. Carl

    My worry is that the quote will collapse into “there’s no such thing as an eating environmentalist”.

    March 9, 2007 at 5:09 pm

  2. I think I see where you’re coming from, Carl, and I do think it is dangerous or at least unhelpful to get into a legalistic frame of mind where we constantly aspiring to lofty and impractical goals of ethical living. My current standpoint is that if there is a practical measure to be taken whereby a holistic improvement can be made upon one’s lifestyle, then the best decision would be to take that measure.

    March 10, 2007 at 11:44 am

  3. I’ve thought a lot about vegetarianism since I
    came across Steve Pavlina (a personal development blogger who is a strict vegan and has an interesting terstimony regarding his decision). I don’t eat much meat, but I’m always interested in studies like these, whether they concern personal health or environmental health. Maybe after Easter I’ll make the final leap (hey, the chickens have already been killed).

    April 8, 2007 at 5:09 am

  4. Anna

    To cut it down to the issue of meat eating is overly simplistic. I am a meat eater and when I hold my “environmental footprint” up to every vegetarian or vegan I know, I always trump them by quite a wide margin. Where and how do they they think all that soy, corn, and grain is produced? More importantly, people seem to conveniently forget the very important difference between naturally raised pastured cattle and fodder fed feedlot animals. It is only the latter whose production is inefficient and not environmentally sustainable. Meanwhile, it is completely ignored that large scale agricultural production is just as destructive and also not sustainable.

    As for the methane theory, I have one word for you…buffalo. I’ll let people do the math on that for themselves.😉

    Anyone who thinks that the large scale agriculture producing most vegetarian foods is a superior or even a separate industry from the one producing conventional factory farmed meats is not as informed as he/she thinks. In fact, at this point in time, the fodder fed meat industry is practically a by-product of large scale agriculture. Small sustainable and biodynamic farms are far more effecient and also a thorn in the side of Big Ag. They are more environmentally friendly and ethical that any of the large food industries whether those large scale food industries are producing meat, soy, or vegetables.

    The meat versus no meat issue is divisive and misleading. Let’s move beyond it and talk about what really works.

    April 8, 2008 at 4:50 am

  5. Anna, thank you for your intelligent counter-argument, it’s always refreshing to see them come with a little more substance than “meat is tasty.”

    I think you have some very valid points, but I remain skeptical as to the kind of abundance in which these locally-sustainable farms might exist. Even local organic farms will quite probably import grain and feed which has to be shipped internationally, in addition to using its own agricultural feed. You are completely correct that we must not over-simplify the issue into a simple “meat versus no meat” ping pong battle, and indeed it’s not simple at all. When buying meat we must ask ourselves such questions: What went to feed this animal? Was this feed genetically modified? Was it organic? Was the feed “improved” with antibiotics, stimulants, hormones, etc? Were the living conditions of this animal acceptable?

    Couple these questions with the additional mechanical effort to produce meat, the machinery involved, the conditions under which meat might be kept preserved, etc.

    And so on. Additionally, I have similar skepticism toward anyone who claims that their diet is completely local. I don’t doubt it is done by certain people, of course, but with as much effort, diligence, planning, and carefulness as a person enjoying a vegetarian or a vegan diet. Perhaps even moreso. Those who obtain their meat from a sustainable local farm will, unless they are adopting a strictly local diet, couple their sustainable purchase with global produce. I agree with you completely that it is a problem, that we rely so heavily on our technological luxuries of globalised markets, but very few people now manage to live successfully outside that system, however much for better or worse that might be.

    Of course, I must be honest, environmentalism is not the only reason I am a vegan. It’s one of the primary reasons, yes, but I still live as an example that a person can be perfectly healthy and gain all their nutritional needs without the need for eating meat. I don’t suggest that everyone has the means or the conviction to go vegan, but I do feel that people in our part of the developed world have the means available to them to exercise greater care and responsibility over creation if they opt to transform their diet into a vegetarian one. That, to me, seems both sustainable and practical.

    April 8, 2008 at 9:31 am

  6. Pingback: Meat's not Green - Green Living - Sustainable living, ecology, conservation, local agriculture - City-Data Forum

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