Sustainable diet

July 11th, 2002 § Comments off

In response to my post about disgusting chicken-related issues, Christie asked, “In terms of killing the chickens (organic or otherwise), what would be a more humane way?”

Temple Grandin might be able to tell you. She’s helped American slaughterhouses find more humane ways of killing cattle, pigs, and other livestock, although I’m not sure whether she’s done any research with chickens. You can read more about Grandin and her work if you’re interested; she’s a fascinating person.

Humane slaughter is important, but it’s hardly what concerns me most. Let’s start by adding some historical context to this issue. In most parts of the world, meat was not a central element of the average person’s diet until fairly recently. Harold McGee explains this in his book On Food and Cooking:

Human diet from about A.D. 1400 to 1800 was essentially vegetable, for economic reasons; at that time, agriculture fed from 10 to 20 times the population that could be supported by animals grazing on the same acreage. …In the 17th and 18th centuries, the majority of people on the European continent rarely took more than a quarter of the total calorie intake from meat. Often it was closer to 10%…

Americans today eat an unusually large amount of meat, thanks to our affluence. “With one fifteenth of the world’s population,” according to McGee, “the United States eats one third of the world’s meat.”

This dietary emphasis on meat comes at a steep environmental price. Feeding and watering livestock takes an enormous toll on agricultural resources. In 1997, according to a Cornell University report, the grain used to feed livestock in the United States could feed 800 million people. Alternatively, we could farm less intensively if we ate less meat–a far better idea, since America is losing its irreplaceable topsoil at an unsustainable rate. As the Cornell report notes, “Iowa has lost one-half its topsoil in only 150 years of farming—soil that took thousands of years to form.” If our topsoil disappears, it will become difficult, if not impossible, to grow many crops. Millions would starve.

Our current situation is an anomaly. At some point, all of us will have to stop eating as much meat as we do, not because of ethics or health but as a practical necessity. Our current diet is leading us towards widespread famine.

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