Exploring the ‘wise’ of choosing a vegetarian diet

Food is an emotional topic. Yet like most important subjects of conversation such as religion, politics or morality, sometimes it is most illuminating to discuss such issues with people of differing perspectives. In the realm of food preferences, abstaining from meat once rested mostly in the religious domain, but as health and environmental issues are tackled by future-thinking people, vegetarianism is taking a more prominent place in our culture’s dialogue.

For anyone who has ever tried being a vegetarian in a meat-eating society, being questioned about the decision is a common occurrence. The herbivore of the dinner party has faced curious questions from their carnivore friends, who understandably want to know: Why?

Answering this question becomes a central part of making the decision to stop eating meat, and differs from one vegetarian to the next. It is a difficult maze to navigate because it often feels like answering honestly subsequently passes judgment on the carnivore — and so the vegetarian is put on the defensive and feels like if they don’t have statistics and graphs on hand, their perspective is lost on their friend who often says, “Well I love hamburgers and I love bacon. It’s a tradition in my family to eat meat, and humans have eaten meat for centuries.”

The vegetarian, who tries to diffuse this sentiment of defensiveness, often prefaces their perspective with: “I’m not out to change anyone, if you want to eat meat that’s fine by me, this is just my decision, or I used to love meat too.” Because for many vegetarians, it’s an on-going process and the path of experimenting with food is often one with multi-faceted motivations and is difficult to describe when put on the spot.

Yet this discussion is beginning to change. Anyone from the “far-out environmental movement” or “super-secular medical community” or “deeply religious ashram in the hills” can testify that a meat-consuming diet has a very different effect on the Earth, the body and the spirit than a plant-based diet. For anyone who has wondered, “Why would you ever want to give up Big Macs, baby back ribs, and Kung Pao chicken? Why don’t you eat meat?”

Here’s a primer on your herbivore friends’ curious motives, and maybe another question to consider, “Why do you eat meat?”

On human health

According to The American Dietetic Association’s paper on ‘Position of the ADA and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian Diets,’ June 2003, a vegetarian diet offers a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as Vitamins C and E and phytochemicals. Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indexes than non-vegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancers.

Aside from the extensive research available that shows that a diet high in red meat consumption leads to higher occurrences in heart disease, colon cancer and obesity, some of the most recent concerns are specific to America’s meat industry.

• Human beings have thrived on meat-based diets over millennia — why should eating meat be any different now?

When sources for livestock and slaughter were once a very local business, where families even raised their own meat for the year, the health of the meat was considerably higher. According to Gail Eisnitz, author of “Slaughterhouse” she describes the consolidation of the unregulated industry: In the last 15 years, thousands of America’s small to mid-sized slaughterhouses have been displaced by a few large, high-speed operations, each with the capacity to kill more than a million animals a year. “In 1996 more than 40 percent of the nation’s cattle were killed in a mere 11 plants that slaughter more than one million animals each year. Similarly, more than 40 percent of the nation’s hogs were killed in 10 plants.”

• From an interview in Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” the author describes the overwhelming incidents of E Coli and other pathogens found in meat sold in the US, “children under the age of 5, the elderly, and people with impaired immune systems are the most likely to suffer from illnesses caused by E Coli 0157:H7. The pathogen is now the leading cause of kidney failure among children in the United States.”

• From an interview published in Go Veg.com, the author describes the effects of using growth hormones on chickens set for human food, “It used to take four months to grow a three-pound bird, he explained, and now, thanks to genetics and growth stimulants, it took only six weeks. That was more than their bodies could handle, he said, and so they flipped over, dead from a heart attack at the ripe old age of one month.”

• The source and type of beef often determines the ‘health’ of the meat: PBS reports, “Meat from a grass-fed steer has about one-half to one-third as much fat as a comparable cut from a grain-fed animal. Lower in calories, grass-fed beef is also higher in vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to help reduce the risk of cancer, lower the likelihood of high blood pressure, and make people less susceptible to depression. Before the second World War, all American beef was ‘grass-finished,’ meaning that cattle ate pasture grass for the duration of their lives. Today, the vast majority of cattle spend anywhere from 60-120 days in feedlots being fattened with grain before being slaughtered. Unless the consumer deliberately chooses grass-finished or ‘free-range’ meat, the beef bought at the grocery store will be of the corn-finished variety.”

On environmental health

According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the production of one calorie of animal protein requires more than 10 times the fossil fuel input as a calorie of plant protein. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people — more than the entire human population on Earth.

The Environmental think-tank WorldWatch Institute reports, “The easiest way to reduce grain consumption is to lower the intake of meat and milk, grain-intensive foods. Roughly 2 of every 5 tons of grain produced in the world are fed to livestock, poultry, or fish; decreasing consumption of these products, especially beef, could free up massive quantities of grain and reduce pressure on land.”

• Water: In an effort to conserve water, you might install a water-saver on your kitchen faucet, saving up to 6,000 gallons of water per year. Most of those savings would be lost if you consumed just one pound of beef (which requires 5,200 gallons of water per pound to produce — compared to only 25 gallons for a pound of wheat). Raising animals for food consumes more than half of all water used in the U.S. A totally vegetarian diet requires 300 gallons of water per day, while a meat-eating diet requires more than 4,200 gallons of water per day.

• Gas: Producing just one hamburger uses enough fossil fuel to drive a small car 20 miles. Of all raw materials and fossil fuels used in the U.S., more than one-third is used to raise animals for food. 

• Waste: A typical pig factory farm generates raw waste equal to that of a city of 12,000 people. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, factory farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. 

In December 1997, the Senate Agricultural Committee released a report that states that animals raised for food produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population, roughly 68,000 pounds per second, all without the benefit of waste treatment systems. A Scripps Howard synopsis of the report (April 24, 1998) states: “It’s untreated and unsanitary, bubbling with chemicals and disease-bearing organisms. It goes onto the soil and into the water that many people will, ultimately, bathe in, wash their clothes with, and drink. It is poisoning rivers and killing fish and sickening people.”

• Land use: Of all agricultural land in the U.S., 87 percent is used to raise animals for food. That’s 45 percent of the total land mass in the U.S. More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to create cropland in order to produce our meat-centered diet, according to the USDA.

Sources: ‘Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating’ by Erik Marcus; ‘Diet for a New America’ by John Robbins; ‘Beyond Beef’ by Jeremy Rifkin; Union of Concerned Scientists Web site; ‘Hope’s Edge’ by Francis Moore Lappe, EPA.org., Nazarene Way.org.; USDA.

On worker’s rights

While many worker’s rights groups have been working to illuminate the controversial issues surrounding slaughterhouse workers in America, Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’ has offered extensive exposure to the plight of the labor force behind America’s meat industry. Schlosser spent months with workers in Colorado while conducting research that took into account statistics from The Bureau of Labor, multiple lawsuits relating to this issue, experts in the human rights organizations that are working on changing this aspect of the industry, and first-hand accounts.

“Every year more than one-quarter of the meatpacking workers in this country — roughly 147,600 women and men — suffer workplace injuries … at some plants as many as half of the workers may be hurt each year; that’s 33 times higher than the national average of other types of work,” writes Schlosser.

• “Despite the use of conveyer belts, forklifts, dehiding machines and a variety of power tools, most of the work in the nation’s slaughterhouses is still performed by hand … many slaughter houses workers make a knife cut every two or three seconds, which adds up to 10,000 cuts during an 8 hour shift … lacerations are the most common injuries suffered by meatpackers, who often stab themselves or someone working nearby,” writes Schlosser. The speed of an American slaughterhouse conveyor belt averages three times higher than a Dutch slaughterhouse which processes one hundred cattle per hour. The faster the belt, the faster the cuts and the subsequent injuries.

• “Some of the most dangerous jobs in meatpacking today are performed by the late-night cleaning crews. A large portion of these workers are illegal immigrants,” whom the industry continues to hire for lower hourly pay and no benefits, “when a sanitation crew arrives at the meatpacking plant usually around midnight … three to four thousand cattle, each weighing about a thousand pounds, have been slaughtered that day.” The crews clean with a 180 degree heated chlorine-water pressure hose that creates a thick fog of heavy fumes. Wearing masks, the workers wade through blood, scraps, manure and chlorine to clean the conveyor belts and slaughter tables. “The scariest job, according to a former sanitation worker, is cleaning the vents on the roof … clogged with grease and dried blood … although official statistics are not often kept, the death rate among the sanitation crews is extraordinarily high. They are the ultimate in disposable workers: Illegal, illiterate, impoverished, untrained,” writes Schlosser.

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