Red Meat Gets a Flashing Yellow Light: Putting on the Brakes for a Healthier You, a Healthier Planet, and a Kinder Livestock Policy

Photo by Kyle Mackie on Unsplash

Information does not bring transformation.

I was reminded of this recently when one of my students did a speech about the advantages of a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. And yet, the speaker was the only one in the room who had adopted the vegan lifestyle.

I have been hearing this argument since I was in college, forty years ago. Back then, the main argument was for health reasons. Those who consume red meat will have higher cholesterol and have a greater chance of heart attack or stroke, among other perils like obesity and increased risk of certain cancers.

Now, we have more and greater concerns about a meat-heavy diet.

We have seen videos about the cruelty we inflict on livestock animals. Not only are livestock animals slaughtered at a very young age, but they are kept in overcrowded conditions and often restrained.

Furthermore, we now know that our love of meat is a major contributor to climate change. Livestock animals account for about 14% of our carbon footprint, mainly because of the release of methane into the atmosphere. The fact that we are clearing out trees (more climate damage) to make way for more livestock compounds the matter. And then when you add in the cost of transporting livestock, the energy it takes to slaughter the animals and package the meat, and the energy used to refrigerate and freeze and then transport all that meat, well, you get the picture.

In short, it takes one hundred times more water to produce a pound of grain-fed red beef than it does to produce a pound of wheat. Producing a half-pound burger releases as much greenhouse gas as driving a 3000-pound car ten miles. That’s insanely inefficient.

Thanks to my own research over the years and my students’ speeches, I know all this.

And yet . . . and yet. Damn, that Saturday morning bacon beckons. The weekend breakfast, a habit reinforced over decades, stays with me.

When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to have meat at every single meal: bacon or sausage for breakfast, a baloney sandwich for lunch, and roast beef for dinner. In recent years, I’ve cut back on the red meat, maybe two or three meals a week. I’m killing fewer cows and pigs. However, I have increased my consumption of chicken and turkey — and how we treat industry-raised chickens is criminal.

I still want to give it all up, hopefully soon, but if we all could reduce our meat consumption by 50%, wouldn’t that be a tremendous gain for our health and our planet? Can we do that much?

I don’t know why it is so difficult for us to change our habits, even when we know they are bad. We can watch animal cruelty videos all day long, but the number one motivator to change our diet is usually after we’ve had a health scare. This was the case with former President Bill Clinton, now a full-on vegan.

Food is closely associated with memories for us, and if we like the taste of something, it’s even harder to give it up. And yet we can. I have a sweet tooth that is constant, and yet I know I cannot eat candy in the same quantity I did when I was ten years old. For old times’ sake, I might have a bowl of Apple Jacks once a year, but I do not buy it’s not on my own shelf for daily consumption. Studies have shown that, after a massive campaign about the dangers of soda, our consumption of it has dropped in recent years.

I suggest that we need to re-train our minds the same way around meat. If you love a hamburger, have one once a month. Make it a treat. I will have a steak about once every six weeks, same as a burger.

I also know I am fighting laziness. I don’t like to cook and when I do, it’s the basics — a vegetable, potato or rice, a protein, and a grain. Beans and nuts, good meat replacements, are not my usual go-to’s for meals or snacks. But I must constantly re-train my mind, opt for the better choice when I’m about to eat a snack or a meal.

We often don’t do what is best for ourselves. Perhaps less often do we do what is best for others. The challenge of meat is now on all of us. For the sake of our own health, our planet’s health, and the health of the animals, we have to do this. Now, one meal at a time.