Meatless Monday, USDA & NCBA
Near the end of July, 2012 the newsletter of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) included support for Meatless Monday. This support was based on the well-established health concerns regarding meat consumption, the environmental impact of meat production, and its woeful inefficiency (for example, it takes 7 kilograms of grain to make 1 kilogram of beef).
While this might seem like a laudable (or at least harmless thing) the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) took issue with this recommendation. J.D. Alexander, the president of the NCBA, made the following response: “This is truly an awakening statement by USDA, which strongly indicates that USDA does not understand the efforts being made in rural America to produce food and fiber for a growing global population in a very sustainable way. USDA was created to provide a platform to promote and sustain rural America in order to feed the world. This move by USDA should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet.” It was also claimed that the support of Meatless Monday was “a slap in the face of the people who every day are working to make sure we have food on the table to say ‘Don’t eat their product once a week.’ ”
There were also numerous tweets twittered in response to the newsletter. For example, Iowa Representative Steve King responded with “USDA HQ meatless Mondays!! At the Dept. of Agriculture? Heresy! I’m not grazing there. I will have the double rib-eye Mondays instead.”
After these reactions, a USDA spokesperson asserted that the USDA does not support Meatless Monday and that the link to the newsletter had been posted without “proper clearance.”
While this is a fairly minor political dust up, it does raise some interesting concerns. One point of concern is, obviously enough, the factual aspects of the dispute in regards to the claims made in the newsletter and the claims made by the NCBA.
One issue is whether or not meat is a means of producing “food and fiber for a growing global population in a very sustainable way.”
While meat is food and has some fiber, it is clearly not an effective way of providing food and fiber for a growing global population relative to the alternative. After all, it is a matter of fact that meat production is less efficient than growing crops. While the exact ratios vary, producing a kilogram of meat requires far more than one kilogram of feed. As such, a more effective way to feed a growing global population is to grow crops for human consumption rather than feed them to meat animals.
While the meat industry has made efforts to make meat production sustainable, it is clearly not as sustainable as the alternative. After all, meat production is far more resource intensive than growing crops for human consumption and it also does more environmental damage. This is not to say that non-meat agriculture does not have its own problems. However, given that producing a kilogram of meat requires creating multiple kilograms of feed, it is simply a matter of math that meat production is not as sustainable as the alternatives. While it could be sustained, the cost of doing so will be far higher than the alternatives. There is also the obvious concern about the waste products of the animals—waste products that often end up contaminating water and food. While non-meat agriculture does produce contaminates (mainly from pesticides and fertilizers), meat production produces far more because the animals require feed crops that produce contaminants and the animals also produce their own contaminants.
As such, the idea that meat production is a sustainable means for feeding a growing global population seems to be in error. If the goal is to feed a growing global population in a sustainable manner, then meat production is not a very good means by which to achieve that goal.
Of course, there is also the economic concern. The meat industry employs people and also is a big money maker for the agribusinesses. Obviously enough, advocating that people go meatless on Mondays could result in slightly lower sales of meat, thus costing the meat industry some of its profits. As such, a utilitarian argument could be made against the USDA’s apparent initial support of Meatless Monday in particular and Meatless Monday in general. After all, if people eat less meat, then there will be less income for the meat industry which will in turn harm those who do the actual work. There is also the fact that the USDA has as one of its missions to keep American agriculture in business. As such, supporting Meatless Monday would seem to run afoul of the USDA’s mission and this could be regarded as an immoral action.
There is, of course, an obvious reply to this concern. While advocating Meatless Monday does involve urging people to consume less meat, it is not the same thing as advocating “Mealless Monday” in which people eat nothing. As such, if someone is not eating a steak or pork chop on a given Monday, they will be eating something else, thus supporting some other agricultural industry (perhaps the very same companies that also own the meat industry). As such, supporting Meatless Monday seems consistent with the USDA’s mission. After all, their mission is not limited to supporting only the meat industry, but American agriculture. As such, the NCBA does not have a legitimate basis for their complaint. In fact, Meatless Monday could be seen not as an attack on the meat industry, but as supporting every other agricultural industry—and just for one day. So, perhaps it would be wiser for the meat industry folks to not see Meatless Monday as a day without meat, but rather in context: one meatless day in a week with six days of meat.
Interestingly, to criticize the USDA for the Meatless Monday incident because of its mission to support American agriculture is to ignore the fact that the USDA is not a one mission organization. That is, it does not exist solely to ensure that the meat industry makes money. After all, it is also supposed to “to end hunger and improve health in the United States.” Since the USDA exists for this purpose, the people in the USDA would seem to be remiss in their duties if they failed to act in ways consistent with these ends. There is also the fact that ending hunger and improving health certainly appear to be laudable moral and practical goals, if only on purely utilitarian grounds. That is, there will be greater happiness if hunger is reduced and health is increased.
As far as reducing hunger goes, the fact that meat requires vastly more resources to produce than the alternatives shows that meat is hardly an effective way to reduce hunger. Given the resources available, it is simply not possible to produce enough meat to eliminate hunger. As such, the mission of ending hunger is better served by reducing meat production in favor of producing alternatives that are less resource intense.
While I love meat, I love truth more and hence I have to accept the evidence that meat is not very healthy. While it has long been known that excessive meat consumption is unhealthy, even small amounts of red meat present a health risk. WebMD, which is hardly a hotbed of liberal veganism, presents a balanced look at the health concerns regarding red meat. While it is noted that red meat is very protein dense, it is also noted that the consumption of red meat is a causal factor in heart disease and studies also link it to other health problems, such as colorectal cancer. Naturally, those in the meat industry dispute these findings. While the fact that the meat industry is clearly biased does not prove that they are in error, this bias does reduce their credibility considerably. In contrast, the scientists conducting the studies do not seem to have a general financial stake in showing that red meat is linked to health problems and this (and the fact that they are scientists) increases their credibility. There is also the fact the majority of the studies do show a link. As Dr. Sinha of the National Cancer Institute correctly says, “If there are 20 studies that say one thing and two studies that say the other thing, you believe the 20 studies.” This is good critical thinking: when it comes to truth, one goes with the weight of the evidence, not with how one feels or how much money is at stake.
Because of my love of meat, I would like these studies to be wrong. I would, of course, prefer to believe that meat is healthy and that I could have meat as often as I like (which would be three times a day, seven days a week). However, what I would like is not the same thing as what is true. In my own case, I had to change my diet because of health concerns. Despite running 50+ miles a week and working out a great deal, my blood pressure and cholesterol became matters of concern some years ago. After changing my diet, my blood pressure dropped and my good cholesterol increased—which is consisting with general findings (after all, my individual story is just an anecdote, albeit a decent example of Mill’s method of difference). As such, advocating Meatless Monday is perfectly in accord with the USDA’s mission of improving health.
To head off the obvious straw man attacks, I am not advocating that people eliminate all meat from their diets (although that would be an excellent idea in terms of health and ethics). Rather, I am saying that I agree with the USDA’s apparent original endorsement of Meatless Monday. Reducing meat consumption would help improve health and would also help the non-meat producing aspects of American agriculture. It would also be better for the environment. It would, of course, not be ideal for folks in the meat industry—but they are not the only people who matter and, as noted above, Meatless Monday is not Meatless Everyday.