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Cost of Beef for Health and Habitat

September 21, 1986|Alan B. Durning | Alan B. Durning is a research assistant at Worldwatch Institute in Washington.

WASHINGTON — Citizens of industrial countries eat more beef, pork and poultry than almost any other society in history. That makes livestock production big business. But raising livestock carries high costs not reflected in supermarket prices, costs that farmers pay in soil erosion, water pollution and ground-water depletion. Consumers pay for meat-heavy diets with heart disease, strokes and cancer.

Americans have begun to cut back their meat intake, but not by much. Although McDonald's has opened some salad bars--a sure sign of changing tastes--red-meat consumption in the United States has dropped only 6% since 1977. Americans still eat more beef than any other people in the world, averaging 80 pounds per year, as well as more than 60 pounds each of pork and poultry. Australians follow close behind. Europeans eat considerably less, but still double the world average.

Conclusive evidence from studies around the world correlate heart disease, stroke and cancer with meat-heavy diets. Breast cancer and heart attack rates in Japan have risen as the Japanese have switched from their traditional fish and vegetable diet to high beef consumption. Other research indicates that vegetarians in industrial countries have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, fewer heart attacks, less risk of certain types of cancer and even less diabetes, bone disease and obesity than meat-eaters.

On a global scale, livestock production is as destructive to the environment as meat consumption is to health. Over the last two decades, well over 38,000 square miles--an area larger than Indiana--of Brazil's Amazon Basin have been converted into pasture. The beef raised there is largely exported to industrial countries. Yet the extensive destruction of this fragile rain forest threatens the greatest concentration of species diversity on earth.

Almost half the forests of Central America have been cleared since 1960--again, mostly to raise cattle for beef export. In Botswana, in southern Africa, raising cattle for Western European markets has intensified overgrazing problems and threatened wildebeest migration.

Most of the meat consumed in Western nations, however, comes from domestic feed-lots and factory farms where animals are fed corn, sorghum and soy. In the United States, the average steer grazes for a year before entering the feed lot. Once there, it eats grain--2,750 pounds of it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture--for five months before going to slaughter. Livestock now consume a third of the world's annual grain harvest.

Beyond that, the sum of resources going into beef, pork and poultry production--including feed--is staggering. Raising livestock accounts for half of all water consumed in the United States; a third of North America is grazing land; more than half of the cropland under cultivation grows feed. And perhaps three-quarters of the soil erosion in the United States results from planting feed crops like corn, sorghum and soy.

Irrigation, another indirect cost of livestock production in some areas, is depleting the ground-water under the Great Plains, an area that produces most U.S. feed-lot beef. And while environmentalists and government officials target industries for water-pollution control efforts, feedlots are the source of more than half the toxic organic pollutants in American fresh water.

The average one-pound feed-lot steak costs: five pounds of grain based on government figures; 2,500 gallons of water (mostly through feed-crop irrigation); the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, and about 35 pounds of eroded topsoil.

The list of ills stemming from livestock production is long, but meat production and consumption are not bad in and of themselves. Current problems stem from livestock production methods and the quality of meat produced. Meat has been in the past--and could be in the future--part of a diet that sustains people in good health and replenishes the earth's resource base.

Livestock have been vital to productive farming systems around the world for thousands of years. Raising cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry is a way to turn plants that are not digestible by humans--like grass, shrubs and such crop byproducts as corn and rice stalks-- into nutritious food. Cattle raised entirely on these foods are leaner than their grain-fed cousins, so their meat takes a far lighter toil on human health. But their meat is also less tender and therefore less marketable than the fat-marbled beef Western consumers prefer.

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