The Meat Industry....Is it worth it?

by Fiorella Gardella

Seminar in Global Sustainability
University of California, Irvine
March 1999
Instructor: Dr. Peter Bowler

The cattle industry produces vast amounts of strain in the environment. It is energy inefficient, pollutes water, occupies many acres of land, and deteriorates the health of the people who abuse its consumption. The government subsidizes this industry. Therefore, the price paid for meat doesn’t reflect the environmental hazards involved in the process. In order to protect our health and the health of the environment we should pay close attention to our food choices and make sure we don’t support industries that degrade it.

The energy return ratio (as food energy per fossil energy expended) of the most energy efficient factory farming of meat is 34.5%, while that of the least energy efficient plant food is 328%. Fossil energy is utilized from before a cow is raised until it is eaten. This account for the necessary energy to clear land from its original vegetation, to grow cow feed, to operate slaughterhouses and transportation. Forty pounds of soybeans are produced by the same amount of fossil fuels required to produce one pound of meat. All these factors indicate the inverse relationship between meat production and fossil energy savings.

The meat industry consumes over half of all water used for all purposes in the United States. Most of this water is used to irrigate cattle feedlots. Water utilized to produce 1 pound of meat amounts to 2,500 gallons. In comparison, the water utilized to produce 1 pound of wheat amounts to 25 gallons. In Texas, a quarter of the groundwater has already been used to grow crops for the expanding cattle feedlots and wells are drying up across the northern part of the state. Also, cattle contribute to water pollution. Cows are routinely washed and the runoff containing manure enters the sewage system. This infiltrates high levels of nitrates to the water. When drank, this prevents oxygen circulating in the bloodstream, researchers have suspicions that this may be linked to disease and birth defects in children.

Land is greatly affected by the meat industry. The percentage of U.S. agricultural land used to produce meat is 56%. The strains on land include topsoil erosion and depletion of forested areas. The percentage of U.S topsoil loss directly associated with livestock raising is 85%. In Mexico 37 million acres of forest have been destroyed since 1987 to provide additional grazing land for cattle. The cattle industry is a driving force behind the destruction of the tropical rainforests. Until 1994, in the Amazon the total deforested area was of 450, 000 square Km. The current rate of species extinction due to destruction of tropical rainforest amounts to one thousand per year. Various species of plants live in the tropical rainforest, which can be used for their medicinal properties. These plants need yet to be discovered. We can not afford to risk their extinction.

Heart attacks are the number one cause of death in America due to high saturated fat in the bloodstream, as a result of fast food diets. Among other health problems, excessive meat consumption is also linked to colon cancer. Americans consume in average double the amount of protein required by the body. This lowers the levels of calcium. Calcium is needed to process protein, the body acquires it from the bones, weakening them and causing stereoclorosis. Other health problems are a result of extra hormones injected into cows to produce milk, which may be linked to breast and uterus cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. Furthermore, America suffers from a weight problem. According to the Centers of Disease Control, over 34 million people in United States are overweight, due to excess sugar in the diet and an increasingly sedentary life-style. But the consumption of animal fat is among the most important factors that contribute to obesity.

" High intake of total dietary fat is associated with…some types of cancer and possibly gall bladder disease. Epidemiological, clinical, and animal studies provide strong and consistent evidence for the relationship between saturated fat intake, higher blood cholesterol and increased risk for coronary heart disease…breast and colon cancer." (Rifkin, Jeremy, pg. 171)

The U.S government indirectly subsidizes the meat industry. The cost of a common hamburger would be $35 and the cost of one pound of beefsteak would be $89 if water was not subsidized by taxpayers. In Brazil the government promotes land in the rainforest for ranchers to keep livestock. In the 1970s and 1980s, migration was the Brazilian government best way of combating the growth of urban slums in the main Brazilian cities. Migration provided land in the Amazon as a way of land reform. Private investors augmented the flow of subsidized investment capital from official development projects in the Amazon. Then, an increase in population growth added to demands for cattle products. Today, many Brazilian immigrants work in the cattle industry in the rainforest area.

In essence, our food choices are affecting the land, water, and health of our ecosystems, as money hungry industries exploit natural resources in search for profits. The cattle industry has proven to be energy inefficient because of the quantity of fossil fuels required for its production. It causes deforestation, topsoil erosion, extensive water usage and pollution, along with numerous health hazards. Many of our tax dollars are directed towards this cause through government subsidies. Among the possible solutions to this problem would be to implement laws to halt deforestation for cattle production, to stop subsidizing water for cow feed, to control cattle population and to increase standards for manure management. Also to, implement mandatory education measures in hospitals for patients suffering from cardiovascular disorders and other health problems related to meat consumption. At the personal level, it is necessary for us to take responsibility for our actions, by paying attention to every bite and being aware of how our decisions affect the planet.