Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Your meat problem

Why cheese is my guilty pleasure

The average American eats about two hundred pounds of meat every year, and this is a problem for everybody. I've personally been a vegetarian for almost two decades now, but as a rule, I don't tell people they need to become vegetarian themselves. However, what most of us can and should do is cut back on animal-based consumption.

I'm still not saying that you need to become a vegetarian like myself, or go all the way to vegan. It's not a lifestyle that everybody is willing, or able, to embrace. I'm just saying that if you're used to centering every meal around what meat is in it, you should probably take it a little easier. Shy away from large cuts; concentrate on quality, rather than quantity.

My meat-loving friends tell me that with meat, quality makes oh so much of a difference in the pleasure of eating it. A lot of them are fans of pricier grass-fed beef over the cheaper grain-fed beef they find in the market; I wouldn't know myself, but I can say that it makes more economic sense in the long haul. Brings us to our first concrete reason of the day.

Traditionally, cattle-using people have come from areas with soil and climate ill-suited to plants that humans can eat, and while grass grows just fine on land that won't grow wheat, land that can grow feed corn can also grow crops that humans can eat directly. Depending on who you ask, it takes four to six pounds of grain to manufacture a pound of pork, two to two and a half for a pound of chicken, and a whopping seven to thirteen pounds of grain go into each pound of beef (1,2 - plus some hay and other fodder) - naturally, on beef, vegetarian activist groups say sixteen pounds, while industry sales groups claim two pounds, but I trust academic references more than advocacy groups.

A pound of cheese, my personal favorite animal product (since I actually eat it), tends to take about three and a half pounds of grain (plus six pounds of other fodder) to make - not as much as beef, but still plenty. It's simply less efficient, and with food prices spiking, that in and of itself is a problem. (So is fuel ethanol, which is just ill-advised, period, but also competes with food in the arable land market).

This year, I've been following my own advice on cheese - reduce the quantity, focus on quality - and I have to say, life is better that way. And speaking of life being better, excess consumption of meat (especially processed meat) is strongly linked to a wide range of health problems. Most of the people in this country would become healthier by cutting their meat consumption to no more than half of what it is now.

I suppose if fewer agricultural subsidies went to feed grain, the increase in the price of meat might just spur a shift in the American diet, but I have my personal doubts on that account. Consumption patterns are highly social, and it takes a great deal to push consumption patterns around. Then, of course, there's a carbon impact intrinsic to meat that's greater than the carbon impact of vegetables, but you already knew that, right?

So, quality over quantity. Think about it.

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