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November 18, 2011

A weekly column about sustainability and intentional living

Growing up I had a vegetarian stepmother. The evil woman refused to eat bacon (my only form of worship as a child), picked all the chicken out of my grandma’s chicken noodle soup and complained at Thanksgiving when my dad and I refused to cook a Tofurky. As a result, I commonly approached people who abstained from meat with squinting eyes and a sense of deep confusion.

While I still hold bacon close to my heart, I now view meat consumption in a different light.

Meat serves as one of our nation’s greatest food commodities. It shows up in practically every meal of the day, making its influence hard to overlook. As stated in “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” an article in October’s issue of the biology journal Nature, “North America and Europe devote only about 40 percent of their croplands to direct food production.” In the fertile soil of the Upper Midwest the figure shrinks to 25 percent. Look around: the endless seas of corn that engulf our region’s landscape are not meant to feed us (except by way of corn syrup) but rather the cows, pigs and chickens our tummies so indiscriminately covet.

However, the process of raising animals for food (which involves growing corn, transporting corn, feeding animals, transporting animals and then transporting meat) is not efficient. A study done at Cornell University by David Pimentel found that while “chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output, beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1.” The study parallels Pimentel’s other studies of the industry’s inefficient use of water, soil and fossil fuel. Just as middlemen absorb a large amount of economic capital, the production of animals for food consumes a large amount of energy.

Oppositely, food that directly feeds the populace does not face such drastic energy losses. Pimentel goes on to assert that if the grain currently fed to livestock was fed directly to people, it could feed nearly 800 million. Raising plants for food only entails growth and transportation, reducing the carbon cost and energy waste. Without a middleman, all of the nutrients and proteins go directly to the consumer, creating a much more efficient ratio.

In addition to the immense energy waste, the practices of the current meat industry also pose problems with meat consumption. Prior to being butchered, the animals are held at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), designed to bring them to an ideal weight as quickly as possible. Because of the close proximity of the animals, their unnatural diet of primarily grains, and the desire to have larger volumes of meat, companies often apply antibiotics and hormones to the animals. Though these chemicals might not show up in the taste of a hamburger, they do represent policies that work against the natural tendencies of nature.

This being said, in no way is this an attempt to brainwash people into joining the secret cult of meatlessness, or into becoming like my witch of a stepmother. My grandma would smack the snot out of my curly head if I ever even thought of refusing her pot-roast. This is an attempt to show how as a whole our country eats far too much of a far too inefficient substance.  No doubt the benefits would be abundant if we all just tried not eating meat on Mondays or took the Meatless-Month Challenge. There is no need to become a militant vegetarian when conscientious moderation will do the trick.

Make a change.

William J. Terrill
Contributing Writer


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One Response to Grassroots

  1. Ryan Bronaugh

    November 18, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Nice article, Will. My stepmum is not a vegetarian, though her and my dad are now only eating meat for supper twice a week–holdays aside. Not sure their motivation but my dad says his doctor took him off colesterol medication he had been on for years, only a year after they started that practice. Unfortunately, I fear my body would reject my soul, or whatever drives this clunker, if I started doing something like that. So, I guess you get an example from both sides of the fence in one response. Keep it up, man!