Looking at the Beef in the Vegetarian Argument

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TreeHugger comes down hard on factory farming, supports Meatless Mondays, and keeps questioning how meat can or should be part of a system of sustainable agriculture. Recently, TreeHugger founder Graham Hill asked himself why he still ate meat. And the answer? Vegetarianism seemed a binary, either-or, for-us-or-against us type of argument. But the benefits of less meat seemed clear. Here are the facts as Hill collected them - we invite you to refute the sources.

1. Eating a hamburger a day could increase a person's risk of dying by a third from cancer, heart disease, stroke and the list goes on.

This conclusion comes from the Meat Intake and Mortality study, a prospective (meaning in real time) study that looked at data from over half a million people in a ten-year period between 1995 and 2005. Men eating more than 4.8 ounces of red meat a day had a 30% increased risk of mortality over ten years compared to men eating just .7 ounces; women that ate 4.6 ounces had a 36% increased risk compared to women who ate just .6 ounces. Here's a good summary of the study...what do you think?

2. Billions of extra health care spending can be attributed to our meat eating lifestyles.

This study was from 1992 and published in a 1995 issue of Preventive Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to research on preventive health measures. The researchers estimated the health costs of the nation's current omnivorous diet at $28.6 billion to $61.4 billion a year. This study was controversial, as the physicians that did the study are members of Physicians Committee for Responsbile Medicine, advocates of vegetarianism, and because it was an analysis - so they didn't totally control for all the other factors that may have attributed to subjects' higher medical costs besides meat eating. New York Times article is here. The figures are in 1992 dollars and would be higher today...but does the conclusion hold?

3. Eating meat spews more emissions than our cars, trains, and planes combined.

Seems fairly straightforward. Livestock emissions outweigh emissions from the entire transport sector. That's what the well-know UN study from 2004 concluded. While livestock's share of the carbon emission pie may be disputed a few percentage points back and forth, is there anyone that doubts they are ahead of transport?

4. Pound for pound beef production uses at least 100 times the water of say, lettuce.

We've reported on some of the water footprint figures from WaterFootprint.org, and that represent gallons of water per pound of food. Beef is a big one, that seem clear, but even WaterFootprint says that water used in beef production varies so widely that a range of figures is more accurate. Any iron-clad figures about average water involved in beef production that contradict this?

5. And, beef production emits nearly 100 times more greenhouse gas emissions than growing veggies.

Beef seems to be a climate bomb. In the figures from this report, attributed to Gidon Eshel, the total amount of CO2 associated with a calorie of beef would be 13.82,while the CO2 associated with a calorie of "veggies" would be .14 grams - nearly 100 times more. These figures aren't replicated in other data, however, which may make them suspect. Other figures from the Appropedia web site, originating from the Sopris Foundation, find only a factor of twenty difference in CO2 emissions between beef and veggies. Who is closer?

6. Meat and livestock cause twice the pollution of all industry combined.

This may be too much of a blanket statement...or maybe not. Jeremy Rivkin in Beyond Beef and David Pimental seem to be the two authors gathering the most data on livestock industry pollution, painting a picture of environmental devastation. What do you think?

Photo Shirin K.A. Winiger via flickr.