21Feb Rare Steak not rare enough

Impact of Meat on Humans and the Global Environment

Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

In his encyclical, Laudato Si’ reminds us that “our sister (planet earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will” (No 2). In the next paragraph he tells us that “he would like to enter into dialogue with all the people of our common home” in order to determine what needs to be done. The pope is aware that this will call for serious sacrifices which amount to changing our modes of production and consumption and opting for an ecological conversion. (No. 5).

One of the most difficult conservations which must take place is about the amount of meat which many of us eat each day. In November 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned us that eating too much meat can cause cancers and heart disease. Our human body is not designed for a heavy meat diet. Our hands are flat which facilitates pulling fruit and nuts from trees. Our teeth are designed to grind plant material. Our intestines are 12 times longer than our trunks in order that they can absorb nutrients slowly. Finally, our stomachs and liver have a low concentrate and tolerance for acids which are needed to digest animal protein. Contrast that with a tiger – a true carnivore. Their intestine is only three times longer than their trunk. Their stomach and liver have high concentrates of uric acid to help them break down animal protein. So, even if we do not become vegetarians, meat should only be a small portion of our diet.

We might think that this generation is merely following the tradition of our ancestors when it comes to eating meat. In reality the global meat industry has grown dramatically in recent decades. Between 1963 and 2014 meat production globally has grown from 78 million tons to 300 million tons. This amounts to a fourfold increase.[1] With growing prosperity in Asia meat-eating has increased in China and India. Experts believe that with population increase and a growing appetite for meat, production will increase by 75 percent by 2050.

According to Damien Carrington in The Guardian, to reach a healthy level of meat consumption, citizens of the United States would have to cut their meat consumption by two-thirds, while in Britain and Ireland we should be eating half as much meat as we do. [2]

Our current effort to produce meat takes a huge toll on our environment. A total of 40 percent of the world’s land surface is used to feed the world’s population which now stands at 7.2 billion. Much of this land is grazed by cattle, pigs and chickens. One third of the world’s fresh water is used in food production. The 75 percent increase which is expected to take place by 2015 would be disastrous, making it impossible to keep the increase in the average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

While people are aware that transport and industry contribute hugely to climate change, most people do not realise that agriculture is responsible for 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Fifteen percent of greenhouse gases are attributed to the meat industry globally, because ruminants produce methane, which is 20 times more heat retentive than carbon dioxide. This is more than all the cars, trains, planes and ships combined. [3]

We are expected to reduce greenhouse gases in response to the agreement made at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December 2015. I have pointed, out on numerous occasions the contradiction in the commitment made by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny in Paris to be actively involved in reducing greenhouse gases while at the same time planning to increase our bovine heard by 300,000 does not stack up.

An analysis from Glasgow University and the thinktank Chatham House found that in 12 countries measures to change peoples’ behaviour can be acceptable to the public if they are seen to promote the common good. Of course, if there was a concerted effort to begin to tax our use of meat, the farming lobby and large multinational agribusiness corporations would be up in arms. The average subsidy on livestock in 13 OECD countries in 2013, was $190 per cow. [4]

There would need to be a huge education campaign to support initiatives such as cutting subsidies to livestock farmers. Farmers would have to be given support to diversify their food production.

 

 

 

[1] Conor Purcell, “Meat production Big Environmental beef,” The Irish Times, January 21st 2016, page 12.

[2] Damian Carrington, “Tax on meat not too hard to swallow, study suggests,” The Guardian, November 2nd 2015, page 11.

[3] ibid

[4] Ibid

5 Responses

  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Farmers would do well to be subsidized like they were in Germany. Everyone in the green-tech world is talking about Germany and how “ahead-of-the-curve” they’ve been on pretty much everything. Thank Benedict for that perhaps. I read something about Germany subsidizing beef farmers at some point to help them convert their herds to solar farms. Interesting idea. I don’t think we can tell people what they should eat. I think advising people it’s a great idea to not have their food travel thousands of kilometres before hitting a plate is suffice. Whatever is produced locally, well that will depend on peoples’ available surroundings. We have become parasitic but the earth needs us to show we can evolve into something greater.

  2. Sean O'Conaill

    So why never any homiletic reflection on the food snobbery reflected in so many of those culinary TV competition shows, given that gluttony was always one of the seven deadly sins? All snobbery is also founded on mimetic desire – desires that originate in the desires of others, aka covetousness – but never a word do we hear about that either. Surely beef and flesh generally (including e.g. salmon) have become prestige foods for urbanising populations, just as whale meat is for the Japanese.

    Overconsumption of all kinds is deeply related to our original uncertainty about our own value: the nouveau riche imitate the already riche, convinced that it is that lifestyle that will at last ‘do it’ for them – and so we get ‘designer beef’, ‘designer everything’ – all vanity (i.e. vacuous silliness).

    Were I to hear a passionate homily on the beautiful environmental appropriateness of a diet of bread and wine before I die I would be thunderstruck. I feel like a small boy in an amusement arcade wondering if all those poised coins are about to drop – and wondering why they still don’t.

    Come on, all ye ordained – wake up before you can’t! I haven’t eaten beef in years and am as lively as the trout I have stopped lusting after.

  3. MM

    We would be doing ourselves and the world a favour if we continued to enjoy our pint and instead went off meat for Lent.

  4. sara

    My mother was a good money manager and cook. She knew how to use every bit of an animal so there was no waste. If we had a chicken -the crate was used for soup. If we had ham -she made pea and ham soup from the bone. She also knew how to use beans and pulses. She always said too much meat was bad for you. We live in a throw away society of instant gratification. Basically we act like toddlers and society is poorer for it.

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    True enough Sara. I’m 43 but grew up in a household where we still raised a pig and kept laying hens for food. We had no indoor toilet so we went outside and used an outhouse. This throw-away-society is bringing us to our knees. Estimates are that the USA threw away enough food last year to feed 200 million adults. There is a link between alleviating poverty and saving biodiversity (and enforcing the “greening” of the planet). They are like the links of a chain. I’m glad to see the Roman Catholic Church coming to the forefront on the conversation but I’m still really pessimistic that anything actionable is going to come out of it. The plight of the Catholic is that there is a spiritual conversion that needs to take place which has been strictly mental and all these items that need addressing represent actions and not intellect. Once the Catholic understands what is right and wrong, and makes the decision, then the work is done. But that is not even the tip of the iceberg on this matter. So much work needs to be done.


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