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SalmonIf you eat fish for the health benefits, then you likely value salmon for its Omega-3’s and its supposed ability to boost brain function.  In that case, sorry for the bad news, but recent research shows there’s a shadowy dark side to the salmon’s light, silvery façade.

My book Meatonomics (Conari Press 2013) explores the hidden forces at play in Americans’ high levels of consumption of fish and other animal foods.  Salmon is particularly troubling because research shows that our obsession with this and other fish is causing real-time, catastrophic declines in marine ecosystems. This article explores these and other problems with salmon, giving you five reasons to drop-kick the fish the way you might a false lover.

  1. Salmon’s “Health Benefits” are a Fish Story

Studies often praise salmon’s health benefits. But that’s just because salmon is healthier than other animal-based foods, particularly red meat. However, when research compares salmon to truly healthy alternatives like plant-based protein, which has no cholesterol, the fish comes up as short as a ship’s flag at half-mast. Nutritionist John McDougall, MD, for example, warns salmon is “half fat” and says eating it increases the risk of obesity and type-2 diabetes. And the USDA says ounce for ounce, salmon contains just as much cholesterol as hamburger.

But wait – what about those healthy Omega-3’s everyone seems to crave? Unfortunately, research finds fish-based Omega-3’s inhibit the action of insulin, thereby increasing blood sugar levels and aggravating diabetes. Another study shows fish-derived Omega-3’s increase the volume of colon cancer metastasis by a massive factor of 1,000 when compared to a low-fat diet. And forget salmon if you’re worried about bone density: the fish’s highly-acidic flesh speeds calcium loss and contributes to osteoporosis and kidney stones.

  1. Down on The Farm, Things Are Even Worse

800px-Lachsfarm2Of course, we’ve been talking about wild salmon, which is far healthier than its farmed cousin. But if you eat farmed salmon, you’re really asking for trouble. Farm-raised salmon contains unhealthy levels of contaminants like PCBs, dioxins, and other chemicals that cause cancer and developmental problems in kids. One study says “young children, women of child-bearing age, pregnant women, and nursing mothers” should avoid farmed salmon if they’re “concerned with health impairments such as reduction in IQ and other cognitive and behavioral effects.” Which makes one wonder: who isn’t concerned about such things?

  1. Salmon Takes a Walk on the Not-So-Wild Side

If the concept was unclear before, now you know: farmed salmon is bad news. The problem is, sticking to wild-caught salmon is easier said than done. With armadas of commercial fishing ships scouring the oceans, largely unregulated and driven by huge government subsidies, the last few decades have seen many of the planet’s wild salmon habitats decline or collapse like tents in a storm.  As a result, producers increasingly turn to aquaculture to meet demand, and today, four out of five forkfuls of salmon eaten in the U.S. come from fish farms. With numbers like these, it’s no big surprise that a New York Times investigation found three-quarters of fish stores pawning off farmed salmon as wild-caught. One store in the sting had the nerve to charge $29 per pound for farmed salmon falsely labeled as wild.

Could this happen to you?  Is it possible it already has?  Yes and yes. Fish farmers feed red foodstuffs to salmon to turn their flesh pink, which makes it impossible for consumers without a lab or a sophisticated palate to tell the difference between wild and farmed fish. Worse, it’s not just fish distributors and retailers who deceive us – the fish do it themselves. One alarming study found that as a result of farmed fish escaping into the wild, up to 40% of supposedly wild-caught salmon studied were actually of farmed origin.

  1. Salmon for the People Means Less for the Animals

600px-Bald_Eagle-27527-13There’s a lot of competition for food in the wild, and when humans eat salmon, we make it harder for other species to eat.  Salmon is a “keystone species” – that is, it has a disproportionately large importance on its environment compared to its abundance. In regions where predators rely on salmon for their own survival, decreases in the salmon population cause predator populations to decline. Thus, in the Pacific Northwest, one of a number of regions where wild salmon populations are struggling because of over-fishing and other human-caused problems, the sharp drop in salmon numbers is causing populations of bears, orcas and eagles to die off. With one-third of the world’s commercial fishing grounds already in a state of collapse, and the rest headed there by mid-century, one person’s whimsical enjoyment of an occasional salmon steak can literally mean the difference between life and death for another animal.

  1. Farming Only Makes Overfishing Worse

Zalophus_wollebaeki2Some urge fish farming as the solution to the problems of overfishing, but aquaculture only aggravates things. Salmon are predators who must eat other fish to survive, and it takes up to five pounds of prey fish like anchovies and herrings to produce one pound of salmon.  As fish farmers around the world scoop up prey fish to feed their farmed animals, this lop-sided math is damaging prey fish stocks everywhere. One sobering report finds that aquaculture’s insatiable demand for prey fish is responsible for declining populations of whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, tuna, bass, salmon, albatross, penguins, and other species. “We have caught all the big fish and now we are going after their food,” said Margot Stiles, the report’s lead author. The result, said Stiles, is “widespread malnutrition” in the oceans.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

breaking-upIt can be hard to drop a food you’ve loved for years, but sometimes you’ve got to read the writing on the seawall.  People don’t need salmon or any other fish to survive. In fact, by avoiding fish and other animal foods, millions of vegans around the world lead uber-healthy lives with negligible levels of cancer, diabetes and heart disease compared to the rest of the population.  Looking for Omega 3’s?  Try cholesterol-free plant sources like flax, hemp, soy and walnuts. Of course, fish get all their Omega-3’s from aquatic vegetation like seaweed, which is another great source of these beneficial fatty acids. With a little willpower, you can dump salmon.

bee in the sand

There’s a beautiful beach called “Crystal Cove” near my home, so close that my partner Tania and I, who consider it our personal sanctuary, walk on the shore several times a week.  (This stretch of coastline is one of the best things about Orange County, California, a place so conservative and corporate-friendly that voters here rejected a GMO labeling initiative by a two-to-one margin.)  In the past year, however, we’ve seen something strange on the beach along with the starfish, anemones and shorebirds: dying bees.  Sometimes there are none.  Other times they’re present by the dozens, wriggling in circles in the wet sand at the water’s edge like drunken, disoriented little aviators.  Eventually, they get tired and simply expire.  You can pick them up, barely alive, and move them inland to a safe place, but it makes no difference.  They’re fatally lost, they can’t find their hive, and they’ll be dead in a few hours.

749px-Anthidium_February_2008-1“Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) refers to the mysterious disappearance of millions of US honeybees over the past half-century – and at an alarmingly accelerated rate since 2006.  I don’t know for certain whether dying bees at the shore are casualties of CCD, and the academics I asked didn’t know either.  But it sure seems likely, especially since CCD is such a generalized concept that almost anything might fit the category.  Which brings me to the main point of this post: the evidence shows that CCD is yet another unfortunate, costly result of Americans’ extraordinarily high consumption of meat and dairy.

mcdonalds-Big-MacIn my book MeatonomicsI show that our nation’s obsession with animal foods – leading us to consume more meat per capita than any other country on the planet – costs us more than $400 billion yearly in hidden, or externalized, costs.  The expenses related to these bee die-offs are also significant, which is why the agriculture industry and the US Department of Agriculture take CCD seriously and are devoting resources to addressing it.  One-third of the food we eat depends on honeybee pollination – giving those pollination services an estimated value of $215 billion worldwide.[1]  In 2008, there were just 2.4 million honeybee colonies in the United States, down from 5.9 million in 1945.[2]  These massive colony losses have already raised honey costs and beehive rental costs, hurt some beekeepers’ incomes, put others out of business, and threatened to disrupt the production of crops worth $15 billion.[3]

Let’s consider how bees are dying, then look at why meat and dairy are to blame.  One leading explanation for CCD is that the prevalent use of pesticides on crops is killing the little pollinators.[4]  When exposed to toxins, bees become disoriented and die within twenty-four hours.  The bee deaths at the beach, of course, fit this pattern like a honeycomb fits a hive.

800px-Corn_field_ohioAnother theory for the bees’ disappearance is that with vast amounts of US cropland now dedicated to monocrops like corn and soybeans, foraging bees cannot find sufficient nutritional or seasonal variety to meet their needs.[5]  Moreover, bees get important immune-boosting benefits from consuming a variety of pollen types, and when they consume only one type, these benefits are diminished.[6]

A final hypothesis says that bees are dying because the pollen of GMO plants is altering the DNA of bees or of bacteria that live in bees’ guts.  One researcher who studied this phenomenon found that genetic material transferred to bees from GMO corn may have “altered the surface of the bee’s intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow parasites to gain entry.”[7]

764px-Honey_bee_on_a_dandelion,_Sandy,_Bedfordshire_(7002893894)Of course, it could even be a combination of all three of these factors.  After all, bees evolved to consume healthy pollen from a variety of natural plants, not toxic pollen from pesticide-soaked, genetically modified, monocrops.  So the triple-whammy theory makes sense too.

It seems indisputable that CCD is a consequence of industrial agriculture, but what does this have to do with meat and dairy?  That’s easy: most of the crops we grow in this country are fed to livestock.[8]  Thus, the top three US crops are corn, soybeans, and hay. Farm animals eat 70 percent of the soybeans, 80 percent of the corn, and virtually all of the hay.[9]  Moreover, 94% of US soy is GMO, as is 88% of US corn.[10]

Thus, the picture that emerges is this: most US cropland is dedicated to GMO monocrops being raised to feed livestock.  And the research shows that it is precisely these crops that are killing bees.  So it is fair to conclude that animal agriculture is largely responsible for the massive bee declines associated with CCD.

800px-Fresh_cut_fruits_and_vegetablesWhat can we do about it?  For starters, we can consume less meat and dairy and eat more organic fruits and vegetables.  This switch alone would go a long way toward helping restore the natural and variegated sources of healthy pollen that bees need.  I propose some other solutions to this and other problems of animal agriculture in my book – so for more details, check out Meatonomics.

 

[1] Dennis vanEngelsdorp et al., “A Survey of Honey Bee Colony Losses in the U.S., Fall 2007 to Spring 2008,” PLoS ONE 3, no. 12 (2008).

[2] Ibid.

[3] George Raine, “Many Causes Blamed for Honeybee Die-off: Colony Collapse Disorder Could Cost $15 Billion,” San Francisco Chronicle (June 1, 2007).

[4] Pettis J, vanEngelsdorp D, Johnson J, Dively G. Pesticide exposure in honey bees results in increased levels of the gut pathogen Nosema. Naturwissenschaften. 2012;99:153–158.

[5] M. Spivak, E. Mader, M. Vaughan, N. H. Euliss Jr., 2011.- The plight of the bees.- Environmental Science and Technology, 45: 34-38.

[6] Alaux C; Ducloz F; Crauser D; Le Conte Y. 2010. Diet effects on honeybee immunocompetence. Biology Letters.

[7] Gunther Latsch, “Collapsing Colonies: Are GM Crops Killing Bees?,” Spiegel Online (March 22, 2007).

[8] Edgar G. Hertwich et al., “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials” (report, Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, United Nations Environment Program, 2010), 80.

[9] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Major Crops Grown in the United States”; Lester Brown, “Soybeans Threaten Amazon Rainforest,” Grist (2010).

[10] Ryan Beville, “How Pervasive are GMOs in Animal Feed?,” GMO Inside Blog (July 16, 2013).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a bad case of multiple personality disorder, and just like Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in the movie “Fight Club,” the agency’s alter egos regularly duke it out.  In one corner is the USDA, charged with protecting consumers.  In the other corner is … the USDA, dedicated to helping industry.  Yet when consumer protection and industry promotion go toe-to-toe, the results can be bizarre and dangerous for consumers. 

In my book Meatonomics (Conari Press, 2013), I show how the USDA’s built-in conflicts of interest threaten Americans’ health and well-being through inadequate food safety, misleading product labeling, and confusing or inaccurate nutrition advice.  This article looks at five ways the USDA regularly fails to safeguard consumers and keep us informed.  Regardless of your diet or politics, this routine and risky government bungling is something you cannot afford to ignore. 

800px-Meat_hanging_in_cooler_room-011.      Faulty Food Safety Measures

The USDA is responsible for inspecting meat to ensure it’s safe to eat.  But audits find that misguided USDA inspection efforts permit the regular presence in meat of dangerous toxins or pathogens like arsenic and E. coli, with the latter found only by “happenstance.”

2.      Sketchy Labeling Enforcement

500px-USDA_organic_seal.svgLabeling standards can be misleading and subject to industry influence.  Thus, more than 300 inorganic substances – including artificial colorings and flavorings – find their way into foods certified by the USDA as “organic.”  In one example reported in The Washington Post, staff at the USDA staff decided that baby formula containing synthetic fats could not be called organic because the synthetic fats are often made with hexane, a neurotoxin. However, after an industry lobbyist contacted a USDA deputy administrator to advocate his clients’ position, the agency bureaucrat overruled her staff and allowed the questionable baby food to sport the organic label.

3.      Dietary Advice Brought to You By McDonald’s

McDonald's_-_BarraShoppingIndustry players move around the agency with ease, exerting tremendous influence on nutrition policy.  Case in point: two-thirds of the panelists who drafted the USDA’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans had ties to industry, including McDonald’s, Dannon, and others. As a result of this commercial influence on federal nutritional policy, the Harvard School of Public Health rejects the USDA’s dietary advice as the product of “intense lobbying efforts from a variety of food industries.”

4.      Conflict and Confusion in Nutrition Recommendations

800px-Domino's_Pizza_In_Spring_Hill,FLAThe USDA’s battling campaigns in nutrition and marketing often confuse consumers.  Thus, the USDA’s nutritional arm says we should “ask for … half the cheese” on pizza to reduce our saturated fat intake.  But at the same time, the USDA’s promotional arm helps dairy farmers sell more cheese.  A program under USDA oversight teamed with Domino’s Pizza to create and market a pizza with much more cheese than normal.  With six cheeses on top and two more in the crust, a twelve-inch “Wisconsin” pizza contains 39 grams of saturated fat, roughly double the USDA’s recommended daily saturated fat maximum of 20 grams.

5.      Anything to Sell More Product

800px-2pigsSometimes the agency gets the facts wrong in ways that help industry and put consumers at risk.  During the 2009 swine flu epidemic that killed 12,000 Americans, the pork industry asked the USDA for help diffusing a major sales problem – people were buying less pork because they didn’t want to get sick.  Despite strong evidence that swine flu originated in pigs, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told Americans in a press conference that the disease is unrelated to pigs and would henceforth be called “H1N1 Virus.”  But research published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature a few months later showed – surprise – that swine flu actually started in pigs.

What Can We Do?

800px-Krispy_kreme_assortThe USDA’s heavy conflict of interest in nutritional matters has led to calls for change.  Former U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL) said in 2003 that USDA dietary guidance “probably has more to do with diabetes and obesity than Krispy Kremes.” But Fitzgerald got little traction with his proposal that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services take over USDA’s responsibility for nutritional advice.

American consumers deserve better.  We deserve dietary advice, labeling standards, and food safety programs that are objective and based on science rather than on industry lobbying.  Two in three adult Americans are overweight, and one in three has heart disease (including hypertension, or high blood pressure).  Our government should act to reverse this epidemic of illnesses of indulgence, not help industry sell us even more of the very foods that are hurting us.

Senator Fitzgerald had the right idea, even if he lacked the votes to get it done.  We must keep pushing lawmakers to disentangle the USDA from policy-making in nutrition, labeling and food safety, and leave it to its main goal of helping farmers. And in the meantime, treat dietary advice from the USDA as you would investment advice from a car salesman: with caution.

For more information, get the book Meatonomics.

fishfarm1If you eat seafood, unless you catch it yourself or ask the right questions, the odds are pretty good it comes from a fish farm. The aquaculture industry is like a whale on steroids, growing faster than any other animal agriculture segment and now accounting for half the fish eaten in the U.S. As commercial fishing operations continue to strip the world’s oceans of life, with one-third of fishing stocks collapsed and the rest headed there by mid-century, fish farming is increasingly seen as a way to meet the world’s growing demand.

In my book MeatonomicsI look at the latest data on fish farming and explore whether it’s really the silver bullet to solve the Earth’s food needs.  Can marine farms reliably satisfy the daily seafood cravings of three billion people around the globe? 

This article looks at aquaculture and its long-term effects on people, fish, and other animals. With this industry regularly touted as a paragon of food production, whether you eat seafood or not, you should know these nine key facts about farmed fish.

1.  Farmed fish have dubious nutritional value.

Here’s a frustrating paradox for those who eat fish for their health: the nutritional benefits of fish can be greatly decreased when it’s farmed. Take omega-3 fatty acids. Wild fish get their omega-3’s from aquatic plants. Farmed fish, however, are often fed corn, soy, or other feedstuffs that contain little or no omega-3’s. This unnatural, high-corn diet also means some farmed fish accumulate unhealthy levels of the wrong fatty acids. Further, farmed fish are routinely dosed with antibiotics, which can cause antibiotic-resistant disease in humans.

1453-1248991854OsWo2.  Fish farming robs Peter to pay Paul.

While some farmed fish can live on diets of corn or soy, others need to eat fish – and lots of it. Tuna and salmon, for example, need to eat up to five pounds of fish for each pound of body weight. The result is that prey (fish like anchovies and herring) are being fished to the brink of extinction to feed the world’s fish farms. “We have caught all the big fish and now we are going after their food,” says the non-profit Oceana, which blames aquaculture’s voracious hunger for declines of whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, tuna, bass, salmon, albatross, penguins, and other species.

3.  Fish experience pain and stress.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of many a catch-and-release angler, the latest research shows conclusively that fish experience pain and stress. In one study, fish injected with bee venom engaged in rocking behavior linked to pain and, compared to control groups, reduced their swimming activity, waited three times longer to eat, and had higher breathing rates. Farmed fish are subject to the routine stresses of hyperconfinement throughout their lives, and are typically killed in slow, painful ways like evisceration, starvation, or asphyxiation.

998-12370543041UbT4.  Farmed fish are loaded with disease, and this spreads to wild fish populations.

Farmed fish are packed as tightly as coins in a purse, with twenty-seven adult trout, for example, typically scrunched into a bathtub-sized space. These unnatural conditions give rise to diseases and parasites, which often migrate off the farm and infect wild fish populations. On Canada’s Pacific coast, for example, sea lice infestations are responsible for mass kill-offs of pink salmon that have destroyed 80% of the fish in some local populations. But the damage doesn’t end there, because eagles, bears, orcas, and other predators depend on salmon for their existence. Drops in wild salmon numbers cause these species to decline as well.

5.  Fish farms are rife with toxins, which also damage local ecosystems.

You can’t have diseases and parasites infecting your economic units, so operators fight back by dumping concentrated antibiotics and other chemicals into the water. Such toxins damage local ecosystems in ways we’re just beginning to understand. One study found that a drug used to combat sea lice kills a variety of nontarget marine invertebrates, travels up to half a mile, and persists in the water for hours.

6.  Farmed fish are living in their own feces.

That’s right, fish poop too. Farmed fish waste falls as sediment to the seabed in sufficient quantities to overwhelm and kill marine life in the immediate vicinity and for some distance beyond. It also promotes algal growth, which reduces water’s oxygen content and makes it hard to support life. When the Israeli government learned that algal growth driven by two fish farms in the Red Sea was hurting nearby coral reefs, it shut them down.

7.  Farmed fish are always trying to escape their unpleasant conditions, and who can blame them?

In the North Atlantic region alone, up to two million runaway salmon escape into the wild each year. The result is that at least 20% of supposedly wild salmon caught in the North Atlantic are of farmed origin. Escaped fish breed with wild fish and compromise the gene pool, harming the wild population. Embryonic hybrid salmon, for example, are far less viable than their wild counterparts, and adult hybrid salmon routinely die earlier than their purebred relatives. This pressure on wild populations further hurts predators who rely on fish like bears and orcas.

8.  Also at Work: the Twisted “Jevons Paradox.”

This counterintuitive economic theory says that as production methods grow more efficient, demand for resources actually increases – rather than decreasing, as you might expect. Accordingly, as aquaculture makes fish production increasingly efficient, and fish become more widely available and less expensive, demand increases across the board. This drives more fishing, which hurts wild populations. Thus, as the construction of new salmon hatcheries from 1987 to 1999 drove lower prices and wider availability of salmon, world demand for salmon increased more than fourfold during the period. The net result: fish farming cranks up the pressure on already-depleted populations of wild fish around the world.

9.  When the heavy environmental damage they cause is taken into account, fish farming operations often are found to generate more costs than revenues.

One study found that aquaculture in Sweden’s coastal waters “is not only ecologically but also economically unsustainable.” Another report concluded that fish farming in a Chinese lake is an “economically irrational choice from the perspective of the whole society, with an unequal tradeoff between environmental costs and economic benefits.” Simply put, aquaculture drives heavy ecological harms and these cost society money. In the U.S., fish farming drives hidden costs of roughly $700 million each year – or half the annual production value of fish farming operations.

lookn-at-youNow What?

With its long trail of diseases, chemicals, wastes, and suffering, and the heavy pressure it puts on wild populations through parasites, escapes, and higher demand, the sustainability of fish farms emerges as a fish story. And by the way, farmed or wild, fish are only “healthy” when compared to high-fat foods like red meat. But wild fish is no great nutritional treat either: pound for pound, salmon has just as much cholesterol as ground beef, and virtually all wild fish contains highly-toxic mercury.

Here’s one solution to the farmed fish dilemma: vote with your pocketbook and eat less seafood or give it up completely. Get your omega-3’s from flax, hemp, soy, or walnuts – all without cholesterol or mercury. And just maybe, as George W. Bush hoped in a moment of unintended comedy, “the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”

For more information and additional solutions, get the book Meatonomics.

DAiryCowsAndBarns900-850x400

Are you being manipulated into buying things you don’t want or need? In my book Meatonomics, I show that animal food producers control our everyday food-buying choices with misleading messaging, artificially low prices, and heavy control over legislation and regulation. This producer behavior is simply shocking. The result is that in many respects, we have lost the ability to decide for ourselves what – and how much – to eat. 

By learning just 10 quick facts about this industry and its highly coordinated messaging and manipulation, you can empower yourself to make better-informed choices immediately. You’ll see benefits to your health, your waistline, your ecological footprint, and more.

1. In a creepy, Big-Brotherish tactic straight out of a sci-fi movie, the federal government uses catchy slogans to get people to buy more meat and dairy.

beef_1Beef. It’s what’s for dinner. 
Milk. It does a body good. 

Each year, USDA-managed programs spend $550 million to bombard Americans with slogans like these urging us to buy more animal foods. Although people in every age group already eat more animal protein than recommended, and far more than our forebears did, these promotional programs are shockingly effective at making us buy even more. Each marketing buck spent boosts sales by an average of $8, for an annual total of an extra $4.6 billion in government-backed sales of meat, dairy, and eggs.

2. Americans eat more meat per person than any other people on earth, and we’re paying the price in doctor bills.

At 200 pounds of meat per person per year, our high meat consumption is hurting our national health. Hundreds of clinical studies in the past several decades show that consumption of meat and dairy, especially at the high levels seen in this country, can cause cancerdiabetesheart disease, and a host of other diseases. Thus, Americans have twice the obesity rate, twice the diabetes rate, and nearly three times the cancer rate as the rest of the world. Eating loads of meat isn’t the only reason people develop these diseases, but it’s a major factor.

3. Animal food production is the world’s leading cause of climate change.

That’s right. Forget carbon-belching buses or power plants. Animal food production now surpasses both the transportation industry and electricity generation as the greatest source of greenhouse gases. Yet amazingly, if Americans could just cut back on animal foods by half, the effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be like garaging all U.S. motor vehicles and vessels for as long as we keep our consumption down.

4. There’s no sustainable way to raise animal foods to meet the world’s growing demand.

Two acres of rain forest are cleared each minute to raise cattle or crops to feed them. 35,000 miles of American rivers are polluted with animal waste. We’re watching a real-time, head-on collision between the world’s huge demand for animal foods and the reality of scarce resources. It takes dozens of times more water and five times more land to produce animal protein than equal amounts of plant protein. Unfortunately, even “green” alternatives like raising animals locally, organically, or on pastures can’t overcome the basic math: the resources just don’t exist to keep feeding the world animal foods at the level it wants.

5. A $5 Big Mac would cost $13 if the retail price included hidden expenses that meat producers offload onto society.

mcdonalds-Big-MacAnimal food producers impose $414 billion in hidden costs on American society yearly. These are the bills for healthcare, subsidies, environmental damage, and other items related to producing and consuming meat and dairy. That means that each time McDonald’s sells a Big Mac, the rest of us pay $8 in hidden costs.

6. American governments spend $38 billion each year to subsidize meat and dairy, but only 0.04% of that ($17 million) to subsidize fruits and vegetables.

The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines urge us to eat more fruits and vegetables and less cholesterol-rich food (that is, meat and dairy). Yet like a misguided parent giving a kid cotton candy for dinner, state and federal governments get it backwards by giving buckets of cash to animal agriculture while providing almost no help to those raising fruits and vegetables.

7. Big businesses love farm subsidies. Small farmers and rural Americans hate them.

In the last 15 years, two-thirds of American farmers didn’t receive a single penny from direct subsidies worth over $100 billion – the funds mainly went to big corporations. The subsidy money spurs the growth of factory farms, which are surprisingly bad for local economies (they employ fewer workers per animal than regular farms, and they buy most of their supplies outside the local area). That’s why when pollsters asked Iowans how they feel about farm subsidies, a large majority preferred ending the handouts.

8. Factory fishing ships are exploiting the world’s oceans so aggressively that scientists fear the extinction of all commercially fished species within several decades.

Like an armada bent on victory at any cost, the 23,000 factory ships that patrol the world’s oceans have decimated one-third of the planet’s commercially fished species. They also indiscriminately kill and discard 200 million pounds of non-target species, or bycatch, every day. Because of such colossal destruction and waste, the United Nations says fishing operations are “a net economic loss to society.”

9. Fish farming isn’t the answer.

fishfarm1Sometimes hailed as the future of sustainable food production, fish farming is actually just another form of factory farming. Farmed fish live in the same stressful, tight conditions as land animals, and concentrated waste and chemicals from aquaculture damage local ecosystems. Escapes lead to further problems, as in the North Atlantic region where 20% of supposedly wild salmon are actually of farmed origin. When genes from wild and farmed fish mix, it degrades the wild population.

10. If they treated a dog or cat like that, they’d go to jail.

Industry-backed laws passed in the last 30 years make it legal to do almost anything to a farmed animal. Connecticut, for example, in 1996 legalized “maliciously and intentionally maiming, mutilating, torturing, wounding, or killing an animal” – provided it’s done “while following generally accepted agricultural practices.” Since most states have similar exemptions, farmed animals have almost no protection from inhumane treatment.

What’s a person to do?

Hann_lambVote with your pocketbook. If you’re concerned about the creepy marketing, environmental damage, health risks, economic problems, or ethical issues that plague the meat industry, you can take action immediately. Make a choice to buy less meat, fish, eggs, and dairy – or better yet, give them up completely. It’s one of the most powerful things you can do.

For more information and additional solutions, get the book Meatonomics.

355377_orig

Two acres of rain forest are cleared each minute to raise cattle or crops to feed them. 35,000 miles of American rivers are polluted with animal waste. In the mad race to the dinner plate, the scarce resources needed to produce meat, eggs, fish and dairy simply can’t keep pace with the demand for these foods. Some commentators propose “green” alternatives like raising animals locally, organically, on pastures, or in fish farms. But it’s unclear whether these proposals are really viable or are just so much hot, greenhouse gas wafting into the sky.

This is the second installment in a three-part series which seeks to answer the question: can animal foods be produced sustainably? In the first segment, we learned that determining the carbon effects of local consumption can be about as complex as planning a seven-course meal. Simply put, locally raised animal foods can easily be less carbon-friendly than those from a distant continent, and local consumption thus does not make animal foods sustainable. In the third segment, we learn that fish farming may not be silver bullet of food production to feed the world sustainably.  In this piece, we look at another key issue: whether farmed animals’ carbon footprint can be improved by raising them organically.

Manic for Organic

Is organic food really as good for the environment as we’d like to think? Despite Prince Charles’s claim that organic farming provides “major benefits for wildlife and the wider environment,” a 2006 British government report found no evidence that the environmental impact of organic farming is better than that of conventional methods.[1] In fact, because of large differences in land needs and growth characteristics between organic and inorganic animals, it’s hard to draw conclusions about the environmental benefits of one production method over the other. As Table 1 below shows, considerably more land is required to produce organic animal foods than inorganic—in some cases more than double. This higher land use is associated with higher emissions of harmful substances like ammonia, phosphate equivalents, and carbon dioxide equivalents. Further, denied growth-promoting antibiotics, organic animals grow more slowly—which leads to higher energy use for organic poultry and eggs. Thus, as Table 2 shows, when the overall effects of organic and inorganic animal production are compared, the results are notably mixed.

Table 1
Land Use Needs of Organic and Inorganic Animal Food Production (in acres)[2]

Table 1

Table 2
Organic or Inorganic Production—Which Is Better for the Environment?[3]
table 2

Legend:
O = Organic is better (based on lower use or emission)
I = Inorganic is better (based on lower use or emission)
N = No significant difference

We can see that poultry and eggs are mostly more eco-friendly when raised inorganically, while it’s generally more eco-friendly to raise pigs organically. As for cattle, factors like methane emissions and water use make the comparison more complicated.

it_photo_93667Take methane. Besides figuring prominently in many a fart joke, it’s a highly potent greenhouse gas (although in its natural state, it’s actually odorless). A single pound of it has the same heat-trapping properties as 21 pounds of carbon dioxide.[4] Organic cattle must be grazed for part of their lives, which means that unlike feedlot cattle, they eat grass. However, cattle rely more on intestinal bacteria when digesting grass than grain, and this makes them more flatulent—and methane-productive—when eating grass. The result is that grass-fed, organic cattle generate four times the methane that grain-fed, inorganic cattle do.[5]

Then there are the water issues. On a planet where water is not only the origin of all life but is also the key to its survival, animal agriculture siphons off a hugely disproportionate share of this increasingly scarce resource. It can be hard to picture the quantities of water involved, so consider a few examples. The 4,000 gallons required to produce one hamburger is more than the average native of the Congo uses in a year.[6]

battleship_003And the 3 million gallons used to raise a single, half-ton beef steer would comfortably float a battleship.[7]

Pound for pound, it takes up to one hundred times more water to produce animal protein than grain protein.[8] Organic cattle require 10 percent less water than inorganic but still need 2.7 million gallons each during their lives, enough to fill 130 residential swimming pools. In light of the orders-of-magnitude difference in water needed to raise plant and animal protein, does a 10 percent savings for organic cattle really matter? Looked at another way, if Fred litters ten times a day while Mary litters only nine times, is Mary’s behavior really good for the environment? The value of such comparisons is dubious.

These factors lead to one conclusion: we must treat as highly suspect the claim that organic animal agriculture is sustainable. Organic methods are an environmentally-mixed bag—sometimes slightly better, sometimes a little worse, and often the same as inorganic. But since animal protein takes many times the energy, water, and land to produce as plant protein, any modest gains from raising animals organically are largely irrelevant.[9] Shocked that organic production isn’t the silver bullet of sustainability? Stay tuned. Next time, we’ll look at another favorite of those who advocate “green” animal agriculture: pasture farming. For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).


[1] C. Foster et al., “Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: A Report to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs,” Eldis (2006).

[2] Data expressed in hectares converted to acres. A. G. Williams, E. Audsley, and D. L. Sandars, “Determining the Environmental Burdens and Resource Use in the Production of Agricultural and Horticultural Commodities” (2006), Main Report, UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Research Project IS0205.

[3]Williams, Audsley, and Sandars, “Environmental Burdens in Production of Agricultural Commodities”; David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, Food, Energy, and Society, (Niwot, CO: Colorado University Press, 1996).

[4] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Methane: Science” (2010).

[5] L. A. Harper et al., “Direct Measurements of Methane Emissions from Grazing and Feedlot Cattle,” Journal of Animal Science 77, no. 6 (1999): 1392–1401.

[6] ChartsBin, “Total Water Use per Capita by Country,” accessed December 23, 2012, http://chartsbin.com.

[7] Assuming the animal weighs 1,200 pounds; metric units converted to imperial. T. Oki et al., “Virtual Water Trade to Japan and in the World” (presentation, International Expert Meeting on Virtual Water Trade, Netherlands, 2003).

[8] Pimentel and Pimentel, Food, Energy and Society.

[9] David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Clinical Journal of Nutrition 78, no. (3) (2003): 6605–-35.

picture-143At 200 pounds each per year, Americans eat more meat per capita than any other people in the world. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, they’re catching up with us – and when they do, we’ll need two-thirds more land than exists on the planet to meet the higher demand.  The world’s huge production of meat, eggs, fish and dairy is causing a head-on collision between demand for these items and the reality of scarce resources like land, water, and fossil fuels. This isn’t a future threat; it’s happening in real time, right now. It takes up to one hundred times more water, eleven times more fossil fuels, and five times more land to produce animal protein than equal amounts of plant protein.[1] Further, animal food production is now the planet’s single biggest cause of climate change.[2] The machinery of industrial farming is bursting at the seams, spilling animal emissions and production by-products across all environmental media—air, water, and land. In this three-part series, I explore several popular ideas proposed to address the challenge of producing animal foods sustainably: local consumption, organic production, and fish farming. An in-depth look at these proposals seeks to answer the question: can animal foods be produced sustainably?

Part One: Loco for Local

Sustainability, some insist, requires that we consume food raised locally. Food’s carbon footprint is measured using a technique called “life cycle assessment” (LCA), which examines the carbon impact of every step or component in a food item’s production and consumption. LCA measures water use, harvesting methods, packaging materials, storage and preparation techniques, and other factors. But spoiling the local food movement’s heavy emphasis on what it calls “food miles” is the fact that transportation averages only 11 percent of total carbon footprint and is thus a mere fraction of most edible items’ LCA.[3] By contrast, the act of cooking food typically accounts for 25 percent of its carbon footprint, while production accounts for another 17 percent of the carbon footprint.[4] In other words, a modest efficiency or inefficiency in either production or cooking can easily outweigh transportation’s entire effect.

Hann_lambThe LCA data lead to some startling conclusions about food miles and the merits of local consumption. For example, one study found that it’s more carbon friendly for the British to buy lamb from New Zealand than to buy locally.[5] Lamb production is much more energy efficient in New Zealand than in the UK, in part because British production relies on fossil fuels while New Zealand production uses 64 percent renewable fuels. Thus, British lamb production requires 45,859 megajoules (MJ) of energy per ton of meat, while New Zealand production takes only 8,588 MJ per ton. Even after adding in the 2,030 MJ of energy needed to ship the New Zealand meat to the UK, New Zealand is still the clear winner at only 10,618 MJ for both transport and production—less than one-quarter of the British production requirement. This difference in energy consumption means New Zealand also wins in CO2 output related to lamb production—just 688 kg/ton compared to the UK’s 2,849 kg/ton.[6]

2months-lactation-breeding-1-1In another example of Kiwi production efficiency, the same study found it’s more carbon friendly for Brits to buy their powdered milk from New Zealand instead of locally. New Zealand dairy cows are generally pastured and eat grass, while British cows are mostly confined and eat forage feed like hay and nutritional supplements known as concentrates. The fuel inputs needed to produce the British cows’ forage feed and concentrates lead to major efficiency differences in milk production between the two countries. Thus, it takes 48,368 MJ of energy to produce a ton of powdered milk in the UK, but only 22,912 MJ in New Zealand. Even adding the 2,030 MJ necessary to transport the Kiwi powdered milk to the UK, the total energy used for both production and transport of the New Zealand product is 24,942 MJ—about half that in the UK. Again, New Zealand’s lower energy use means less CO2 output: just 1,423 kg to produce and deliver a ton of powdered milk to the UK, versus the British emission of 2,921 kg of CO2 to produce the same ton of product.[7]

As these examples show, placing too much emphasis on food’s local origin can easily cause one to overlook LCA components that have a greater effect on the environment. Such results led the New Zealand study’s authors to criticize the practice of equating food miles with carbon footprint—a practice they say “ignores the full energy and carbon emissions from production.”[8] The moral here isn’t that we should completely ignore food miles in measuring food’s ecological impact; we just need to exercise more discretion in how much importance we give those miles. As Texas State University professor James McWilliams observes in his book Just Food:

Sure, it feels righteously green to buy a shiny apple at the local farmers’ market. But the savvy consumer must ask the inconvenient questions. If the environment is dry, how much water had to be used to grow that apple? If it’s winter and the climate is cold, was the apple grown in an energy-hogging hothouse? Is the local fish I’m ordering being hunted to extinction? . . . Distance, in other words, is just a minor factor to consider. In overemphasizing food miles, we have missed important opportunities to think more critically about the fuller complexities of food production.[9]

group-of-fruits-and-vegetablesLocal consumption, then, is not the cure-all to solve the sustainability problems of meat and dairy production. If you eat animal foods, to some extent you might help support small farmers by buying locally. But as we’ve seen, the carbon calculations are complicated, and local buying is often not the most eco-friendly way to consume. (The only truly eco-friendly foods, of course, are plants.) In the next installment, we’ll look at organic production as a potential means to address the problem. Stay tuned!  For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).


[1] David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much—and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2013).

[2] Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change Are . . . Cows, Pigs and Chickens?” World Watch (November/December 2009): 10–19.

[3] Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews, “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,” Environmental Science and Technology 42, no. 10 (2008): 3508–13.

[4] Rich Pirog et al., “Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa Perspective on How Far Food Travels, Fuel Usage, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (2001).

[5] Caroline Saunders and Andrew Barber, “Carbon Footprints, Life Cycle Analysis, Food Miles: Global Trade Trends and Market Issues,” Political Science 60, no. 1 (2008): 73–88.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 87.

[9] James McWilliams, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Eat Responsibly (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009), 214.

With a nod to the Harper’s Index, here’s the Meatonomics version of 40 numbers that tell a story. Sources for all figures are cited below. To view or download as a pdf, click here.

Average market value of a cow in the North Central United States : $245

Average cost to raise a cow in that region : $498

Amount US taxpayers spend yearly to subsidize meat and dairy : $38 billion

To subsidize fruits and vegetables : $17 million

US retail price of a pound of chicken in 1935 (adjusted for inflation) : $5.07

In 2011 : $1.34

Pounds of chicken eaten annually per American in 1935 : 9

In 2011 : 56

Factor by which US per-capita consumption of chicken and other meat exceeds world average : 3

By which US incidence of cancer exceeds world average : 3

Portion of US cancer, diabetes and heart disease cases related to meat and dairy consumption : 1/3

Annual cost to treat US cases of these diseases related to meat and dairy consumption : $314 billion

Portion of annual Medicare spending this represents : 3/5

Dietary cholesterol needed by humans, per National Academies’ Institute of Medicine : 0

Daily maximum recommended dietary cholesterol, per USDA (in milligrams) : 300

Milligrams of cholesterol per gram of ground beef : 0.9

Per gram of salmon : 0.9

Revenue collected by US fishing industry per pound of fish caught : $0.59

Portion of this figure funded by taxpayers as subsidies : $0.28

Pounds of dead fish and other animals discarded daily as unintended “bycatch” : 200 million

Portion of the worldwide targeted catch this represents : 2/5

Portion of Earth’s wild fisheries that have collapsed and ceased producing : 1/3

Pounds of wild fish needed to raise one pound of farmed salmon or tuna : 5

Portion of US seafood that comes from fish farms : 1/2

Number of foot-long, farmed trout typically raised in a space the size of a bathtub : 27

Number of pain receptors on the face and head of a trout : 18

Average amount Americans would pay to end inhumane hyper-confinement of pigs : $345

Number of states whose animal cruelty laws do not protect farmed animals : 37

Number of federal anti-cruelty laws that protect farmed animals during their lifetimes : 0

Annual government-managed “checkoff” spending to promote meat and dairy : $557 million

To promote fruits and vegetables : $51 million

Grams of protein in three ounces of canned ham : 18

In three ounces of roasted pumpkin seeds : 27

Average percentage by which a vegan’s blood cholesterol level is lower than an omnivore’s : 25

By which her weight is lower : 18

By which her life expectancy is longer : 13

Human lives that a 50% excise tax on meat and dairy would save yearly : 172,000

Animal lives it would save : 26 billion

Pounds this tax would cut yearly from US carbon-equivalent emissions : 3.4 trillion

Pounds of carbon equivalents emitted yearly from all US motor vehicles and vessels : 3.3 trillion


 SOURCES

Note:  The sources below provide raw data.  For full explanations and detailed calculations, see David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much—and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2013).

Value and cost of a cow:  Sara D. Short, “Characteristics and Production Costs of US Cow-Calf Operations,” USDA Statistical Bulletin 17, no. No. 947-3 (2001) (data for “North Central” region).

Subsidies to meat and dairy: Grey, Clark, Shih and Associates, Limited, “Farming the Mailbox: US Federal and State Subsidies to Agriculture – Study Prepared for Dairy Farmers of Canada” (2010); U. Rashid Sumaila et al., “A Bottom-Up Re-Estimation of Global Fisheries Subsidies,” Journal of Bioeconomics 12 (2010): 201–225; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), “Agriculture and Health Policies in Conflict” (2011).

Subsidies to fruits and vegetables: Iowa Public Interest Research Group, “Junk Food Trumps Fruits and Vegetables in Federal Subsidies,” EcoWatch.

Chicken prices and consumption: US Census Bureau, Statistical Abtracts (1940); US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Average Prices (2011)”; USDA Economic Research Service, “Red Meat and Poultry – Per Capita Availability.”

Per capita meat consumption and cancer incidence by country: ChartsBin, http://chartsbin.com; World Cancer Research Fund International, “Data Comparing More and Less Developed Countries”; American Cancer Society, “Cancer Facts and Figures 2011”; National Cancer Institute, “Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results.”

Disease cases related to meat and dairy consumption: Romaina Iqbal, Sonia Anand, and Stephanie Ounpuu, “Dietary Patterns and the Risk of Acute Myocardial Infarction in 52 Countries: Results of the INTERHEART Study,” Circulation 118, no. (19) (2008): 1929–-37; A. R. P. Walker, “Diet in the Prevention of Cancer: What Are the Chances of Avoidance?” The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health 116, no. 6 (1996): 360–66; Dariush Mozaffarian et al., “Lifestyle Risk Factors and New-Onset Diabetes Mellitus in Older Adults,” Archives of Internal Medicine 169, no. 8 (2009): 798–807.

Costs to treat diseases related to meat and dairy consumption: Paul A. Heidenreich et al., “Forecasting the Future of Cardiovascular Disease in the United States: A Policy Statement from the American Heart Association,” Circulation 123 (2011) 933–-944; American Cancer Society, “Cancer Facts & Figures 2012”; American Diabetes Association, “Economic Costs of Diabetes in the US in 2007,” Diabetes Care 31, no. 3 (2008); US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Diabetes – Success and Opportunities for Population-Based Prevention and Control: At a Glance 2010.”

Medicare spending: US Department of Health and Human Services, “2014 Budget.”

Cholesterol needed and recommended: National Academy of Sciences, Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005); USDA, “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.”

Cholesterol in ground beef and salmon: USDA, “Cholesterol (mg) Content of Selected Foods per Common Measure, Sorted by Nutrient Content,” National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 21 (2008).

Fishing revenue and subsidies: U. Rashid Sumaila et al., “A Bottom-Up Re-Estimation of Global Fisheries Subsidies,” Journal of Bioeconomics 12 (2010): 201–225; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “US Domestic Seafood Landings and Values Increase in 2010” (2011).

Bycatch: R. W. D. Davies et al., “Defining and Estimating Global Marine Fisheries Bycatch,” Marine Policy 33, no. 4 (2009): 661–72; Michael Parfit, “Diminishing Returns,” National Geographic (November 1995).

Collapse of fisheries: Boris Worm, et al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” Science 314, no.: 5800 (2006): 787–-90.

Wild fish fed to farmed fish: Rosamond L. Naylor et al., “Effect of Aquaculture on World Fish Supplies,” Nature 405 (2000): 1017–24.

Farmed fish consumption: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Fishwatch: US Seafood Facts.”

Trout stocking density and pain receptors: Matthias Halwart, Doris Soto, and J. Richard Arthur, eds., Cage Aquaculture: Regional Reviews and Global Overview (technical paper no. 498, UN FAO Fisheries, Rome, 2007); Lynne U. Sneddon, Victoria A. Braithwaite, and Michael J. Gentle, “Do Fishes Have Nociceptors? Evidence for the Evolution of a Vertebrate Sensory System,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 270, no. 1520 (2003): 1115–21.

Willingness to pay to end animal cruelty: F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk, Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 344–45.

Anti-cruelty laws: Cody Carlson, “How State Ag-gag Laws Could Stop Animal-Cruelty Whistleblowers,” The Atlantic (March 25, 2013).

Checkoff spending: Geoffrey S. Becker, “Federal Farm Promotion (‘Check-Off’) Programs,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress (2008) (figure for fruits and vegetables excludes soybeans and sorghum, most of which are fed to farmed animals).

Protein in ham and pumpkin seeds: USDA, “Content of Selected Protein (g) Foods per Common Measure, Sorted Alphabetically,” National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24.

Cholesterol, weight and longevity advantages of vegans: Jack Norris and Ginny Messina, “Disease Markers of Vegetarians” (2009), accessed August 19, 2012, http://www.veganhealth.org (referenced data are from table 1, “Cholesterol in USA Vegans”); S. Tonstad et al., “Type of Vegetarian Diet, Body Weight, and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes,” Diabetes Care 32, no. 5 (2009): 791–96; Gary E. Fraser and David J. Shavlik, “Ten Years of Life – Is It a Matter of Choice?,” Archives of Internal Medicine 161 (2001); US Census Bureau, “Expectation of Life at Birth, and Projections” (2012).

Lives saved by meat tax: humans – “Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2009,” US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Vital Statistics Reports 59, no. 4 (2011) (assumes 44.1% reduction in consumption and corresponding reduction in deaths related to meat and dairy consumption; for details see Simon, Meatonomics); animals – Free from Harm, “59 Billion Land and Sea Animals Killed for Food in the US in 2009” (2011), accessed August 18, 2012, http://freefromharm.org (assumes 44.1% reduction in consumption).

Carbon equivalent emissions saved by meat tax: According to the US EPA, total US carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emissions were 6,821.8 million metric tons (MMT) in 2010. (US EPA, “US Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report,” Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2010 (2012). Researchers estimate that 51% of emissions of CO2 equivalents is attributable to animal agriculture, which represents 3,479.1 MMT of the US total. (Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change Are . . . Cows, Pigs and Chickens?” World Watch (November/December 2009.) The 44.1% of this figure that the tax proposal would eliminate is 1,534 MMT, or 3.4 trillion pounds of CO2 equivalents. That is more than the 1,497 MMT that the US EPA estimates was emitted in 2010 by all US motor vehicles and vessels. (US EPA, “Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” 14, table 3.12; note that MMT and teragrams are equivalent units of measure.)

BM total intervals - wide - text 5

The average retail price of a Big Mac in the United States is $4.56, but that’s just a fraction of the actual cost. When we add in all the hidden, externalized expenses of meat production, the full burden on society is a hefty $12.00 per sandwich. The extra $7.44 above the retail price is borne by American taxpayers and consumers. In other words, rich or poor, omnivore or herbivore, you incur a share of the hidden costs of each and every Big Mac sold in this country.

Curious what you’re paying for? The externalized costs of each burger include:

  • $0.38 for cruelty.  A total of $20.7 billion in cruelty costs is imposed on Americans each year. (Extrapolated from a study in which auction participants bid to end cruel farming practices.)
  • $0.67 in environmental losses.  This is a small piece of the $37.2 billion in annual environmental costs related to U.S. animal food production each year. The figure includes the costs of soil erosion, climate change, damage from pesticides and fertilizers, devaluation of real property, and manure remediation.
  • $0.70 in subsidies.  Toss in a few coins from the $38.4 billion in government subsidies that American taxpayers pay to fund the meat and dairy industries each year.
  • $5.69 in health care costs. The biggest slice of the pie is a chunk of the $314 billion in health care costs incurred by Americans each year to treat those cases of cancer, diabetes heart disease, and food poisoning related to meat and dairy consumption.

With “billions and billions” sold, the social costs add up fast. The total externalized costs of U.S. meat and dairy production are over $414 billion each year. Under a financial burden of such staggering dimensions, the only ones “lovin’ it” are shareholders in the McDonald’s Corporation.

* * *

Source: David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much—and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2013) (costs of fish production excluded).

Preacher

Is animal protein a life-enhancing elixir? From a young age, we’re taught it fosters health, growth, vitality, virility, and sometimes even weight loss. The alternative to getting plenty of it, we’re told, could be protein deficiency. Never mind that the typical American has never had—nor ever will have—protein deficiency and has little idea what its symptoms might be. We’ve heard of it, we’re scared of it, and whatever the heck it is, we don’t want it.

Spurred by the most basic force of meatonomics—the drive to sell more meat and dairy—animal food producers use our protein fears to their advantage. For example, a beef trade group’s website suggests when deciding how much meat to eat, we go beyond the bare minimum needed to “prevent protein deficiency.”[1] Elsewhere on the site, we’re warned:

HEALTH ALERT: Sarcopenia.

Sarcopenia is a condition associated with a loss of muscle mass and strength in older individuals. . . .While there is no single cause, insufficient protein intake may be a key contributor to this condition.[2]

The key phrase here is may be. In fact, the research linking sarcopenia to protein deficiency is spotty and inconclusive. A 2001 study published in The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine found simply, “Decreased physical activity with aging appears to be the key factor involved in producing sarcopenia.”[3]

We’re regularly bombarded with protein messages like these. How accurate are they? What are the health consequences of following them? Because protein is such an important nutrient, and emerging research presents an array of new findings on the subject, it’s worthwhile to assess the protein messages that influence our consumption habits.

Where Do You Get Your Protein?

Here’s something to chew on: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread contains more protein (14 grams) than a McDonald’s hamburger (13 grams). Many consumers think plant foods contain little protein—in any case, not enough to meet our daily needs. But a closer look suggests the animal food industry may be overhyping animal protein in ways that are clinically unsupported.

For humans, the best guidance on protein requirements is contained in a 284-page report produced jointly by the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO).[4] According to this report, an adult needs 0.66 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.[5] For a 170-pound adult, this is about 50.8 grams of protein per day. An omnivore could fill this quota with just one chicken breast and one drumstick per day, although among American consumers, such restraint is rare. Males between twenty and fifty-nine, for example, typically consume more than 100 grams of protein daily—twice the level recommended by WHO.[6]

With 50.8 grams of protein (adjusted by individual bodyweight) as a rough daily target, we can evaluate the meatonomics claim that it’s hard to obtain adequate protein without eating animal foods. Consider these surprising protein equivalents, courtesy of the USDA: a baked potato contains as much protein as a hot dog, 2 ounces of peanuts equals a chicken pot pie, and ounce-for-ounce, roasted pumpkin seeds have more protein than ham. As the table below shows, many plant foods contain protein at levels equal to the same or even larger amounts of animal foods.[7]

Protein Equivalents in Animal and Plant Foods[8]

Protein (g) Animal Food Plant Food
21 Double cheeseburger (w/ condiments) Trail mix (1 cup)
18 Ham (3 oz., extra lean, canned) Pumpkin seeds (2 oz., roasted)
16 Crab meat (3 oz., cooked) Peas (1 cup, split, boiled)
13 Chicken pot pie Peanuts (2 oz., roasted)
9 Turkey (1 patty, breaded, fried) Hummus (1/2 cup)
6 Egg (large, hard-boiled) Pistachios (1 oz., roasted)
5 Frankfurter (beef) Potato (baked)
4 Cheese (1 oz., feta) Grapefruit juice (6 fl. oz., from concentrate)
2 Ice cream (1/2 cup, vanilla) Blackberries (1 cup)
1 Cream cheese (1 tbsp.) Cocoa (1 tbsp., dry, unsweetened)

In fact, every fruit, vegetable, nut, seed, or grain we put in our bodies has protein—in most cases, at surprising levels. You like to kick back with a Budweiser? A can of beer contains 2 grams of protein. A basic salad doesn’t seem hardy enough to add a bit of muscle? A cup of romaine contains a gram of protein. In fact, calorie for calorie, green vegetables like kale, broccoli, and romaine lettuce contain twice as much protein as steak.[9] As one team of experts noted, “It is difficult to obtain a mixed vegetable diet which will produce an appreciable loss of body protein.”[10]

A recent poll found that nearly 16 million Americans are vegetarian (that is, they eat no meat) and of these, nearly 8 million are vegan (that is, they eat no animal products whatsoever).[11] Yet there is no clinical evidence that members of either group suffer from protein deficiency. In fact, a number of commentators note that protein deficiency is largely associated with caloric deficiency, and for anyone consuming sufficient calories, adequate protein is not a concern.[12] In a report that is the basis for the USDA’s protein recommendations, the National Academy of Sciences downplays the risk that people on a plant-based diet lack sufficient dietary protein. According to the National Academy, “available evidence does not support recommending a separate protein requirement for vegetarians.”[13]

Nevertheless, the animal food industry hypes the message that plant protein is lower in quality than animal protein. One industry website advises, “All proteins are not created equal. High-quality animal protein . . . helps fuel a healthy, active lifestyle.”[14] Such claims that animal protein is “high quality” and “healthy” are central to the industry’s protein dogma, and for that reason, they merit a closer look.

Consider the results of a large number of studies on the effect that animal protein has on cancer growth, discussed in the 2004 book The China Study. The main finding from these many studies, according to lead author T. Colin Campbell, is that “nutrients from animal-based foods increased tumor development while nutrients from plant-based foods decreased tumor development.”[15] This remarkable set of studies, funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society, and other organizations, lasted more than nineteen years and spawned more than one hundred scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals.

I asked Gregory Miller of the National Dairy Council about Campbell’s finding that animal protein, particularly the protein casein in milk, promotes cancer. According to Miller, who has a PhD in nutrition, Campbell’s research shows “if you feed [animals] a good healthy diet with a high-quality protein, the cancer thrives, and if you feed them a diet that’s not as good, it doesn’t thrive. It’s about good nutrition.” Yep, you read that right; Miller says animal protein promotes cancer because of its high quality, and plant protein does not promote cancer because of its poor quality. The meat and dairy industries churn out questionable messages like this with the help of a government-managed warchest of $557 million annually. Is it any wonder Americans consume animal protein in such huge quantities?

For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).


[1] Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “High Quality Protein Promotes Optimal Health,” accessed April 24, 2012, http://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com.

[2] Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “Discover the Power of Protein in Lean Beef,” accessed April 24, 2012, http://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com.

[3] J. E. Morley et al., “Sarcopenia,” The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine 137, no. 4 (2001): 231–43, abstract.

[4] World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and United Nations University, “Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition” (2007), accessed November 20, 2011, http://www.who.int.

[5] The USDA also issues recommendations regarding protein consumption, although its guidance is substantially higher. The agency recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram per day, which works out to 61.7 grams for a 170-pound adult or about 20 percent more than UN/WHO. I use the UN/WHO recommendations because they’re more consistent with current research and less likely to be influenced by industry (see chapter 4).

[6] World Health Organization, “Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition” (2007); US Department of Agriculture, “What We Eat in America, NHANES 2007–2008,” accessed November 15, 2011, http://www.ars.usda.gov.

[7] US Department of Agriculture, “Content of Selected Protein (g) Foods per Common Measure, Sorted Alphabetically,” National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24, accessed November 20, 2011, https://www.ars.usda.gov.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Janice Stanger, The Perfect Formula Diet (San Diego: Perfect Planet Solutions, 2009), 34.

[10] U. D. Register and L. M. Sonnenberg, “The Vegetarian Diet. Scientific and Practical Considerations,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 62, no. 3 (1973): 253–61.

[11] A 2011 poll by Harris Interactive found that 5 percent of adult Americans are vegetarian and half of these, or 2.5 percent, are vegan. The US Census Bureau advises that US population is 313.4 million (as of April 25, 2012). The Vegetarian Resource Group, “How Many Adults Are Vegan in the U.S.?” (2011), accessed April 24, 2012, http://www.vrg.org; US Census Bureau, “U.S. and World Population Clocks” (2012), accessed April 25, 2012, http://www.census.gov.

[12] See, for example, T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell, The China Study (Dallas: Ben-Bella Books, 2004).

[13] National Academy of Sciences, Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005): 662.

[14] Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “Powering Up with Protein,” accessed April 24, 2012, http://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com.

[15] Campbell and Campbell, China Study.