One Man’s Meat
Ecological medicine has always been concerned about the environment and its impact on our health.
So I was curious to hear about a recent report by 37 international experts from the Wellcome Trust. These included Dr Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard. This was a culmination of three years work and it recommended changes that they considered not only beneficial for our health but essential to help save the planet.
This report received plenty of publicity in the media and it may be the first time that any major study has made the link has between our health and the health of the planet. They recommended we should cut back on sugar, meat and dairy and increase fruit and vegetables.
Of course, few would disagree with their suggestions to reduce sugar and few would disagree with their suggestion to increase fruit and vegetables. But I suspect many would throw up their hands in horror at the thought of reducing meat and dairy. Do we really need to cut down on these? Are meat and dairy production really threatening the planet? Is this another example of the nanny state? What can we make of it?
We know that meat is not bad in itself. Some Native Americans, with minimal access to fruit and vegetables, lived on meat alone, largely moose. Their health was excellent. True, unlike most of us, they ate organ meat which has a high nutrient concentration. And we can be sure they had no harmful effect on the planet.
But meat production has changed massively and I believe it is not so much meat that is the problem as the way it is being produced. For there is little doubt that meat and dairy production is causing health problems and that it is causing widespread environmental destruction.
The Nurse’s Health study and the Health Professional’s Follow-up study first noted an association between meat consumption and increased mortality from cancer and heart disease and also lower life expectancy. The much bigger NIH-AARP study which followed 545,000 people for 10 years confirmed meat consumption was associated with a lowered life expectancy and with increased mortality from cancer and heart disease.
But we need to look at the bigger picture. There are 70 billion farm animals kept worldwide and two-thirds are factory-farmed (80% in Europe).
These changes started several decades ago when we had what seemed like a good idea. The idea was to breed animals selectively to produce more meat or milk. Perhaps we should have realised the inherent stupidity of this idea but we went ahead anyway and the inevitable happened: the quality of the meat and milk took a nosedive.
We now have to eat 4 factory farmed chickens to obtain the same nutrients that a 1970s chicken would give. The mineral content of meat, milk and eggs has been steadily declining. The amount of essential fats in pasture-fed cattle can be 300 times greater that of factory-fed animals and the beta-carotene levels 700 times greater. Of equal relevance factory-farmed cattle have been found to have 143 residues of drugs and pesticides, 40 of these being carcinogenic. Milk is now largely produced by pregnant cows, greatly increasing concentrations of IgF1, a growth promoter and carcinogen.
For the animals themselves, the change has been a disaster. Factory-farmed animals live in horrendous condition, confined to darkened sheds, hardly able to move. The cruelty is so appalling that these sheds are kept in isolation, well away from prying eyes. Pigs, thought to be as intelligent as dogs, perhaps suffer the most from this forced confinement.
Animals are pushed to their absolute limits, with the aim of producing the maximum quantity of meat and milk. In the past a dairy cow might be expected to produce 1000 litres a year but now a high-yielding cow can produce nearly 10,000 litres a year (ten times what their calves would need) greatly reducing the quality of the milk, but also the lifespan of the cow (from 20 years to 2-3 years). Hens that would normally produce 5-6 eggs a year can now produce 300 a year, reducing their lifespan from 5-8 years to 1- 2 years. Broiler chickens grow to a grotesque size by 7 weeks at which time they are ready for slaughter and over half cannot support their own weight.
But what effect does this have on the environment? By far the most worrying issue is the staggering amount of land needed to produce food for these animals. A third of all agricultural land, an area the size of the EU is now used for animal feed, an amount of land that could feed 4 billion people.
This is now the major reason for deforestation and the major driver for extinction of every other species on the planet which are now disappearing at 1000 time the background rate. All animal species (mammals, birds, reptiles, fish) have halved in number in 40 years. An area of forest the size of New Zealand disappears each year, primarily for land to feed factory-farmed animals.
This land is used to grow wheat, corn and soya. One third of wheat, 50% of corn and 80-90% of soya is being used to feed factory-farmed animals. One third of pelagic fish (such as anchovies and sardines), some 90 billion fish, are sucked out of the oceans each year, ground into fishmeal, and fed to pigs, chicken and farmed fish, destroying whole ecosystems and throwing most seabird populations into sharp decline.
In both in the EU and the USA, sugar, wheat, corn and soy are heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, promoting a system that is damaging to animals, ourselves and the environment and on a scale never seen before.
And there is another major concern. About 80% of the soya is genetically-modified (GM) as is the majority of corn. Great swathes of land in the USA and South America are used for monocultures, with increasingly intense pesticide use (ten-fold increase in ten years), where nothing else can survive, producing a wildlife desert.
And yet we have evidence that rodents fed GM food were unable to reproduce within three generations and had increased rates of breast tumours, kidney and liver disease. Interestingly, in view of the obesity epidemic, rats grew fatter on GM food than those fed non-GM food. We are being fed unlabelled and potentially hazardous GM food, by the back door, through meat and dairy.
It is not just the sheer scale of land being used to feed factory-farmed animals that threatens the planet. Factory farming is also a major contributor to the increasing global water shortage (using one quarter of all fresh water), produces more greenhouse gases than cars, planes and trains put together and squanders 50% of the world’s antibiotics.
And yet chicken and hog farms have been a major source of new infections, including swine flu and bird flu, bringing us perilously close to an age where antibiotic resistant infections become the norm. A large hog farm or poultry plant can produce as much manure as a major city and hog manure is ten times more polluting. The slurry from feeds produce high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, polluting waterways, leading to algal overgrowth, and dead zones downstream where nothing can survive.
And yet it doesn’t need to be like this. It is not meat itself that it is the problem but the insane way it is being produced. Factory-farming is damaging to our health, heartbreakingly cruel for billions of animals and is taking us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. There has to be a better way.
A fascinating study in 2008 showed that animals allowed to freely forage have the highest levels of nutrients, followed by animals on grass, whereas animals fed on grain had the lowest levels of nutrients.
This is telling us something of immense importance. There is also an irony here. Animals know not only what is good for them, but indirectly, what is good for us, if we only let them choose.
Feeding cattle on grass not only benefits the animals and ourselves, but also turns something we cannot use into food.
Cattle fed on grass need forty times less water and produce none of the environmental degradation from large concentrations of manure, the inevitable result of factory-farms. If cows could be fed on grass, and chicken and pigs could forage and use some of the staggering amount of food waste (30-50% of all food), it would be a win-win situation, for us, the animals and the environment.
Where does this leave us all? I believe that for our own health we need to think carefully about both the quantity and more particularly the quality of the meat we eat. Wherever possible, we should look for labels like grass-fed, pasture fed, outdoor-reared (not outdoor-bred) and organic. Every time we make this choice we not only boost our own health, we vote against animal cruelty and we help protect our fragile environment for future generations.