Oct 11 2022

How Much Meat Should We Eat?

Published by under General
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This is one of those complex questions that comes up frequently when talking about related issues, and it’s always challenging to give a short answer. Often there are unknown or speculative elements to the analysis, which make it difficult to have an objective or definitive answer. What I would like to do here is mostly frame the relevant considerations and give my current understanding of the evidence, with possible caveats. Obviously this is going to be a quick overview of a lot of complexity – I see it more as a starting point than a firm conclusion.

There are really four questions hiding in this one question about meat consumption, and I will address each separately. These are: health effects, environmental effects, ethical considerations, and local considerations such as cultural tradition.

Starting with the last item first, this can actually be the trickiest to answer. What should be our attitude toward populations with a deep cultural history that includes things like hunting whales or polar bears, using endangered animals parts for folk remedies, or destructive farming practices. Animal rights organizations try to walk a fine line:

“For those of us who are not members of those communities, it is not our role to decry traditional practices that have important cultural, nutritional, and other necessary value, particularly when they are used respectfully and humanely.”

But what about when their practices are not humane? And what is considered respectful? Often such considerations are tainted by a “noble savage” myth that such peoples always live in harmony with nature, but human populations throughout history have generally been disruptive to their environments. There is no perfect answer here. Those from developed nations do have little moral standing to lecture native populations about nature management. Often we are essentially asking them to change their practices to help solve a problem we created. But then again, should we allow whale species to be hunted to extinction because we feel guilty? It’s a no-win scenario. We just have to take a balanced approach that thoughtfully considers many factors, and searches for acceptable alternatives.

Ethical considerations surrounding meat consumption I find to be mostly personal. I think where there is broad consensus, and often regulatory standards, is that animals should be treated humanely. This is where I personally stand. Our goals should be that at no point do animals under our care suffer. Another area of consensus is that we show respect to the animals we are using by minimizing waste. We should not experiment on animals without an adequate scientific rationale. Animals raised for food and raw material should likewise not be wasted.

Where there is disagreement concerns whether or not it is inherently unethical to raise animals at all, or to slaughter them. What kind of life does a domestic cow, for example, deserve? Again, I personally think that if the animals live a life free of suffering or undue stress, and then at one moment their existence simply ends, there is nothing inherently unethical about that. But I respect those who have thoughtful reasons for believing otherwise. I don’t believe they have a sufficient argument to impose those beliefs onto society, however, (or to shame those who have thoughtful reasons for disagreeing with them) and the law should stick to areas of strong consensus.

The health effect of meat eating at this point are fairly clear. A recently published meta-analysis of health risk factors contains a good summary of this evidence. The evidence for a direct vascular or heath risk from eating meat regularly is very low, to the point that there is probably no risk. You have to eat large daily amounts of processed red meat before a risk becomes measurable. There is, however, more evidence for a health risk from eating too few vegetables. That is really the risk of a high-meat diet, those meat calories are displacing vegetable calories. For personal health considerations I think a reasonable summary of the evidence is that people should eat most of their calories from fruits and vegetables with some grains, but also include some meat protein. Meat has some vitamins that are hard to get elsewhere and contain high quality proteins. You can have a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet, but it is challenging, and not possible for some populations. The bottom line is that health were the only consideration, the optimal diet would contain a modest amount of meat.

Finally there are the environmental considerations. This is the most challenging factor to summarize, because there are a lot of moving parts. Raising animals for food does use a lot of land and water, but when integrated into the overall agricultural system there can also be some efficiency gains. Animals are actually a good way to convert non-edible calories into edible calories. Much of the land use is grazing on lands that cannot be used to grow crops. Animals also provide a lot of non-food raw materials for various industries, and we would need to consider where we would source alternative material and at what environmental cost. And animals are responsible for half the fertilizer we use to grow crops. Of course we could have an agricultural system that does not include animals, but that would take a massive reorganization and likely take decades to implement.

Yet again my bottom line take on the totality of evidence is that the optimal system would include some animal husbandry in the overall agricultural system, but less than we have now. There is a sweet spot where available land is used for its optimal purpose, where animal calories are mostly sourced from non-edible sources (not using land that could be used to grow crops for humans), and where reduced demand reduces pressure to maximize meat production at all costs.

As individuals how do we process all this information to make an individual choice about meat consumption? I think there is a range of reasonable choices. Personally I limit my meat consumption to a modest amount, mostly chicken with some fish and rare beef or pork. People is developed nations on average consume too much meat, and would do well to simply reduce that amount and eat more vegetables. Some argue, however, that if our personal goal is to reduce the environmental impact of consuming meat it makes sense to eat no meat, to compensate for those who eat too much, until the overall system is at a more sustainable level. That’s fine, if that is your personal choice, but if we also consider health issues it’s better for everyone to eat less meat rather than no meat.

There is a lot of complexity here, and a lot that reasonable people can disagree about, but I hope this frames the issue well. If there are factors I left out feel free to add them in the comments.


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