Sunday, September 15, 2013

Skeptical Eating

As a skeptic, you should want to know the truth about something; and as moral person, you should give a shit.  Changing your diet is one of the number one ways that you can benefit environmentalism - even more than cutting down on your driving.

OK, don’t navigate away from this post just because I’m going to try to convince you to change your eating habits, and don’t get offended when I say that what you’re doing is bad.  This is a post about why you should have an appropriate amount of skepticism about your lifestyle and the way it affects the environment, and how you can make some changes to be a better steward to our environment.
As a non-believer you can’t use the “dominion over animals” argument, and you can’t use “the apocalypse is coming, so saving the environment doesn’t matter.” It’s true, humans are at the top of the food chain, but this isn’t a moral argument about why you shouldn’t eat animals, this is an argument about why you should change your diet because you should care about the future of the one place in the universe that supports human life, and the people all over the world who are suffering from starvation while you eat your $1 McDouble. 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the 2009-2010 assessment of meat consumption by country, the United States ranks #1 worldwide in consumption of beef and poultry, and #3 in consumption of pork.  That ranking is based on the total of thousands of metric tons consumed, not per person per year, which means that as a nation with a population of 308,745,538 in 2010, we are consuming more meat total than China, with a population of 1,370,536,875.

Here’s an easy ecology lesson that explains why animal farming is an unsustainable practice for Earth’s growing population:

First, there’s a basic energy pyramid that you may remember from your high school biology class that shows how energy is distributed among trophic levels (the position an organism occupies in a food chain). There’s a Rule of Ten which describes the 90% energy loss at each trophic level, meaning that if we’re eating an animal that ate bunch of grass or corn, we’re only consuming 10% of the energy that would be available to us if we ate that grass or corn. We don’t want to and can’t only eat grass, but the point is that by eating on that first trophic level that contains plants, we’re consuming the maximum amount of energy available to us by the wonderful sun. 

Additionally, about half of our corn production in the United States (and the majority of our soy production as well) goes toward feeding livestock (which lose 90% of the energy available), and it appalls me that we put that much of our resources into growing meat to put on our plates three times a day when that amount of corn (and the land being used to grow it) could go toward feeding the 870 million starving people in the world (1/8th of the world’s population), according to the World Food Programme, a United Nations organization.

Finally, it’s just not sustainable to keep cutting down complex ecosystems like forests and prairies to turn into more farmland when most of the food being produced on that land is not going toward feeding humans directly.

Many people hearing these facts for the first time may come up with kneejerk defenses of an omnivorous lifestyle because let’s face it, changing is hard. However you should be skeptical about the idea that future technology can save us, because you should do as much as you can right now.

While it’s true that meat is an easy source of protein, you can easily replace it in your diet with beans or nuts. There are vegan marathon runners, so although it requires more diligence, it’s entirely possible to lead a healthy lifestyle with a vegan diet.

Now I know that I probably won’t have much success asking you to become a vegan. Many of the same arguments against eating meat apply to using any of the animal products ubiquitous to life in the developed world. Instead, I just ask you to consider cutting down your animal product consumption. Look up some delicious vegan recipes and start by eating meat one meal a day, then maybe only three times a week. Make a difference by making a personal change. We all have to take responsibility for our own actions if we’re to see a cultural shift towards sustainability.


Abraham Matlak said...

But bacon is so good...

Jessika said...

How insightful Abraham!

Ellen, great post! Thanks for writing what so many of us are thinking :-)

dumb_boy said...

scientists are already making beef from stem cells, and it will cut the cost by 99%, so everyone will still have meat.

Roshan Murthy said...

@Abraham: Its so easy to get hooked on some delusion isnt it.

@dumb_boy: Provide us some citations please. Common sense tells me that it is probably equally or more energy intensive to grow stuff in a lab.

Anonymous said...

While I do agree with the general idea you laid out in your post, I take issue with a couple of points.

Your article starts off by telling me that I should I give a %%%% if I am a moral person. This is off putting and gives the impression that if I don't agree with you, then I am not a 'moral' person. Morality is not set in stone, and what is moral varies from person to person.

While many people are starving throughout the world, I am not convinced that utilizing less farmland for meat would result in significantly less hunger. Several challenges remain, such as how the extra food is transported and stored safely and reliably. Many areas that currently receive aid have massive corruption issues that hamper efforts to feed the region. To reiterate, just because more food is produced in the United States does not necessarily mean it will be used for humanitarian efforts.

Additionally, your lesson on ecology does not show why animal farming is unsustainable. The graph simply shows that there is considerable loss of energy at each trophic level. Whether or not the practices are sustainable would depend on whether the energy being taken out of the system outpaces the rate energy is being put in. If you believe that to be the case, please provide that information.

Other questions remain unanswered as well, such as the long term health consequences of a vegan diet. While the vegan diet has tremendous health benefits, many suffer from vitamin deficiencies that require them to consume supplements or fortified food, which may not be widely accessible.

I am not arguing against you. However, I feel your argument could be stronger and your explanations a little more thorough. I understand there is a looming crisis (or ongoing crisis) regarding our use of resources on the planet, and urgent action is required. Convincing others to change requires providing evidence that the current practices are inefficient, but must also demonstrate that the new practices result in a net benefit.

I would enjoy discussing this topic with you at the next ISSA meeting.

Ellen Andrews said...

While I agree that there are many more sources that I could cite in this article to back up my argument (because there is an overwhelming amount of evidence in support of it), I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a blog post. I feel that I achieved the goal that I was aiming for, which was to provide a succinct post touching on what I believe are important pieces of information that would hopefully influence people to think about, and, if they care enough, research further into, changing their diet. With a somewhat limited number of words, I hit the main points that influence me as an individual to be a vegan.

If you would like to continue researching, here is the Wikipedia page that will sum it up for you and provide a lot of other useful sources:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! The hypocricy within the secular community over their food choices is astounding to me. Veganism is completely in line with everything that most freethinkers hold dear, but amazingly, with regards to this one topic, their ability to think critically is often thrown out the window in favor of a very narrow worldview with excuses that often use habit, tradition and bad science as excuses to eat meat and dairy.

Abraham Matlak said...

Ok, I feel like I should clarify.

It is my belief (strange to use the term on this blog) that, since humans are evolutionarily adapted to consuming both plants and animals with equal facility, we should continue to consume both. We would have been selected to be herbivores if that had been the more beneficial route.

But, from the ecology standpoint, your argument is valid. Animal farming does indeed require more energy per kilogram of edible material produced than does plant farming. But I don't see this as a signal that we need to change our diet, I see it as a signal that we need to change our practices. We as a species have managed to accommodate an ever growing population in relative comfort (they all aren't dying), so I think it is rather hasty to cut out what has been a significant portion of the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years.

Jacob Glowacki said...

I have to disagree with you Abraham. While we have evolved the capability to eat meat, it is not indicative of a requirement to eat meat today. It is my understanding that there have been several studies published that hypothesize meat was required for humans to develop their brains at the rate observed in the fossil record. However, these studies note that this requirement existed prior to the rise of agriculture, and when ancestors of humans found food quite scarce. Since then, humans have developed the technology to generate large amounts of food reliably and at low energy cost.

Additionally, the amount of meat we consume as well as the preparation methods that we use have changed drastically from our ancestors. Many Americans consume large amounts of meat laden in saturated fats, sugars, and
nitrates. Many studies have linked the over consumption of meat with Atherosclerosis and other disorders such as diabetes.I believe a change of diet is required. Americans must consume less meat and eat meat using healthier practices.

From an ecological standpoint, our current practices of producing meat are unsustainable. We are using water at a rate faster than can be regenerated in some regions. While this is not solely to blame on the production of meat, the amount of water to produce meat is significantly higher than that of other crops. (This value varies widely, depending on crop compared and the study conducted). Recent studies from 2011 have linked the methane emissions from livestock to climate change, with some studies estimating the contribution of greenhouse emissions from livestock rivaling that of automobiles (methane is more potent greenhouse gas than CO2). There are many more issue associated with the large scale production of meat, notably pathogenic issues, that I will leave out for the sake of time.

I agree with you, Abraham, that meat has tremendous benefits in terms of energy and nutritional value. Unfortunately, while we have accommodated a growing population, we are not doing so sustainably. Again, I would agree it would be hasty to simply remove meat from our diets, but action must be taken immediately to make the production of meat more sustainable. This includes drastically reducing the amount of meat consumed.

If I have misinterpreted information or have wrong information, please let me know. Again, I would enjoy discussing this issue sometime.

Abraham Matlak said...

You might have misunderstood me, as I said that she was correct, and that meat was currently unsustainable.

In fact, the only point that we disagree on, is that humans are required to eat meat, and I believe that discussion would require an entire biochemical study.

Otherwise, I agree with you, in that we must reduce our consumption, and thoroughly rethink our methods of production.

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