Meat Is Murder -- Or at Least Manslaughter -- at the NYT

January 29th, 2008 2:07 PM

The front of Sunday's Week in Review featured "Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler" by food writer Mark Bittman, which considered the (by his lights) welcome possibility that Americans might be eating far less meat in the near future.

There might be more than a pinch of liberal ideology in Bittman's recipe. Back in May 2004, Bittman expounded on the joys of vegetarianism in phrases that sounded straight out of a PETA pamphlet.

On Sunday he wrote:

"A sea change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store -- something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn't oil.

"It's meat.

"The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally -- like oil -- meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

"Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world's tropical rain forests.

"Just this week, the president of Brazil announced emergency measures to halt the burning and cutting of the country's rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the government says, 1,250 square miles were lost."

Bittman's judgmental attitude shows through:

"Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.

"This will be inconvenient for citizens of wealthier nations, but it could have tragic consequences for those of poorer ones, especially if higher prices for feed divert production away from food crops. The demand for ethanol is already pushing up prices, and explains, in part, the 40 percent rise last year in the food price index calculated by the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization."

We need to go vegetarian because meat is killing us:

"Those grain-fed animals, in turn, are contributing to health problems among the world's wealthier citizens -- heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes. The argument that meat provides useful protein makes sense, if the quantities are small. But the 'you gotta eat meat' claim collapses at American levels. Even if the amount of meat we eat weren't harmful, it's way more than enough.

Bittman welcomes the day when eating meat will be downgraded as a lifestyle choice:

"In fact, Americans are already buying more environmentally friendly products, choosing more sustainably produced meat, eggs and dairy. The number of farmers' markets has more than doubled in the last 10 years or so, and it has escaped no one's notice that the organic food market is growing fast. These all represent products that are more expensive but of higher quality.

"If those trends continue, meat may become a treat rather than a routine. It won't be uncommon, but just as surely as the S.U.V. will yield to the hybrid, the half-pound-a-day meat era will end.

"Maybe that's not such a big deal. 'Who said people had to eat meat three times a day?' asked Mr. Pollan."