A Philosopher's Blog

Meatless Monday, USDA & NCBA

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 10, 2012
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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.

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33 Responses

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  1. flonky (fitocracy) said, on August 10, 2012 at 6:49 am

    Yeah, the science is pretty undeniable. For me, the most damning statistic is that while we provide enough food for 11 billion people (in terms of grains etc), about a billion of the 7 billion are malnourished because so much of that food goes towards meat production. It’s depressing, but also completely understandable. Eating meat is natural for us, literally.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 10, 2012 at 11:17 am

      Americans and other Westerners are sometimes both obese and malnourished, in part thanks to the way the subsidies work. That is, junk is cheaper than healthy foods.

      • flonky (fitocracy) said, on August 10, 2012 at 12:01 pm

        Oh, sorry, I meant malnourished as in the low-calorie type.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on August 10, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Mike, all studies are not created equal. In particular, in nutrition observational studies (nutritional epidemiology) are particularly unreliable, and many epidemiologists regard them as pseudoscience.

    The studies you want to pay attention to are “randomized-controlled trials.” These are the real deal. Here is a recent example testing various diets:

    http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=205916

    In this example, over the two year period of the trial, the people who ate a meaty, low carb diet were found to be healthier than the folks eating a low fat diet.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 10, 2012 at 4:44 pm

      Two concerns.
      1. The study is from 2007, which is only sort of recent.
      2. The study is rather specialized. It is not comparing diet, but speciality diets. For example, the study is focusing on the Atkins diet.

      I do know about assessing studies and experiments in terms of the basic critical methodology-that is something I teach. :)

      A friend of mine who is completing her PhD in exercise physiology and also completing the requirements for being a licensed dietician insists that eating plants is healthier and points to stacks of journal articles in her fields as evidence.

      • T. J. Babson said, on August 10, 2012 at 5:33 pm

        Mike, I’ll bet you $1 that in 5 years the conventional wisdom will have changed and everyone will “know” that a low carb diet of meat, eggs, green veggies, etc. is best.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 11, 2012 at 10:26 am

          I do expect that the guidelines will change. One thing about knowing the history of science is that I know that the best science of any time has many things wrong with it. However, the best science of a time is the most rational thing to believe at that time. Similarly, I know that most of my beliefs about reality are false-but I do not know which ones.

          When it comes to eating, I take the best studies of the day as being the foundation for good decision making. However, I mainly base my diet on two other factors:
          1. Experience
          2. Human biology and evolutionary/designed history. To be specific, we either evolved or were designed as omnivores that consume a mix of foods. Presumably, either we were selected or designed for this and hence that diet is probably what we are optimized for. I also tend to favor natural foods over processed food.

          Did I mention that I love bacon?

  3. magus71 said, on August 10, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    The biggest issue I have with the studies Mike has posted on meat consumption is that they are like most studies on diet’s effects on health: They usually don’t tell us what else the person eats. For instance, there are studies that show that people who consume a lot of meat are prone to certain diseases. Unfortunately what these studies do not show is that the people eating the most meat are eating the most of everything else, too. High amounts of consumed carbs a long with lots of meat is no better than just high carbs. A person can eat a lot of meat and be on a high carb diet.

    Gary Taubes makes it quite simple and it’s maddening as to why people can’t put two and two together. Carbohydrates make blood insulin go up. Chronically high insulin is at the heart of many modern diseases and fast aging. A human body falls apart when it is exposed to too much insulin over a long period of time.

    From the research I’ve done, it seems to go like this: Carbs have a place, especially in high intensity exercise. Low carbo-hydrate (not high protein) contributes to longevity, while moderate to high carb diets contribute to athletic ability and fertility. This is the case in many animals other than humans. For low intensity exercise and day to day activities, fat is the most efficient fuel, which is why we actually burn more body fat walking than we do running moderate distances: While walking the body never accesses much of the glycogen (made from carbohydrate), it just draws off body fat.

    So, 150 or fewer grams of carbs on days with little or no intense exercise. 200-300 on days of or prior to intense workouts or competitions. If a person is intent on losing weight and improving health profiles, stick to 150 grams of carbs or less almost every day until goals are met.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 11, 2012 at 10:31 am

      Good points. One flaw with studies (in contrast with controlled experiments) is that those conducting the study end up with the experimental group self-exposing (or being exposed in a non-experimental way). As such, there can be other factors that influence the outcome. Another point of concern is that studies are sometimes too small to be representative of the general population.

      It is also a good idea to be wary of studies funded or conducted by people who are biased. For example, a study run by vegetarians who advocate their lifestyle runs the risk of being biased.

  4. magus71 said, on August 10, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    By the way Mike, there are so many errors in thinking in this article, it’s tough to think of where to begin in a critique. So I’ll just start in the beginning.

    First, of course it takes more grain to produce an equal weight in meat: Meat has more energy per ounce and is a much more complete food than grain. Especially when we consider that cows are more effective at using grains than are humans, since humans cannot use fiber for energy and also cannot access anything encapsulated in fiber unless the fiber is broken.

    Grain contains no fat, which is essential to human survival. A person will live just fine on two fatty steaks a day, but he would die young if you gave him only 7 times the steaks’ weight in grain.

    “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.”

    Again, food weight does not measure the energy it contains for living creatures.

    And you make one of your usual errors, in essentially asserting that certain issues are axiomatic, when they are not. The issues are still very much in question, but they lead toward a reduction in carbohydrate being more healthy than a reduction in fat.

    While I think you indeed like eating meat, I also think you feel guilty about it. You cherry pick studies that fit your meat guilt complex’s desires.

    I’m betting the times your cholesterol and blood pressure went up, your weight also went up. Am I correct?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 11, 2012 at 10:44 am

      I checked with Florence, who is an expert on physiology and nutrition (she just conducted an extensive study on diet at FSU). According to her, grains do contain fats (albeit small amounts). Also, a person would be better off living on grain than just meat (although both would be inferior to a balanced diet). Whole grains contain more nutritional value than red meat.

      As far as energy goes, using protein for energy is inefficient and is typically a last resort for the body. Some meat energy lies not in the meat, but in the fat. However, meat fat has been linked to health problems.

      Actually, my weight has been consistent. Back when I was competing in martial arts, I hit 185, but since then I’ve been at 175, which is better for running.

      • magus71 said, on August 11, 2012 at 10:49 am

        Isn’t Florence a Seventh Day Adventist?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 11, 2012 at 11:00 am

          Quite so. So, she sees my favorites (pork and lobster) as unclean. Plus, she definitely thinks that meat is unhealthy. While she is cruelly biased against the deliciousness of pork, she does have the data to back up her claims.

          Naturally, I do want her to be wrong about the meat I love to eat, but what is true and what one wants are not the same.

          Interestingly, studies of 7th Day Adventists show that they enjoy longer than average lifespans and those that follow a low or no meat diet apparently do the best. Two of my relatives are 7th Day adventists and they were still out biking around town in their 70s. Of course, my dad is not a vegetarian and he is still out shooting turkeys in the face and he is 72.

          • magus71 said, on August 11, 2012 at 11:06 am

            Yes they do enjoy longer life spans. Because they don’t smoke and tend to have better social/ family support–which is linked to loner life. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the family notification process was not complete.Same in Mormons, who eat plenty of meat but don’t smoke and have tight family/religious relations.

            Remember too, that carbohydrate consumption goes up in the poor, who live much shorter lives. They also smoke more.

            • magus71 said, on August 11, 2012 at 11:07 am

              loner=longer

            • magus71 said, on August 11, 2012 at 11:08 am

              Somehow a paste ended up in this:” He spoke on condition of anonymity because the family notification process was not complete.”

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 11, 2012 at 4:44 pm

              High carbs, lots of processed foods and such tend to be what poor people eat. Farm subsidies make this food very cheap. It would be better to subsidize healthier fare, at least if we are going to subsidize food.

          • magus71 said, on August 11, 2012 at 11:09 am

            “While she is cruelly biased against the deliciousness of pork, she does have the data to back up her claims.”

            I have data to back up she’s wrong and exhibiting bias.

  5. magus71 said, on August 10, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Luxembourg eats the most meat per person in the world. It has one of the lowest heart disease rates in the world. India eats the least and all of its cause of death profiles are worse than Luxembourg’s. Luxembourg has far less cancer and heart disease than India. Not cherry-picking data either. I’m merely taking the taking that eats the most meat and comparing it to the one that eats the least. If there were an obvious correlation between meat and early death, and vegetables and long life, you’d think it’d be evident here. Other nations that eat meat regularly, like Spain, France, and Italy, have low rates of heart disease. The countries that eat the most bread, seem to have the most. Am exception is Russia, which has the highest rate of smoking tobacco.

    http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/country-health-profile/india

    Luxembourg overall is one of the healthiest nations in the world, India’s health problems are devastating. Heart disease is very high. Smoking is the biggest factor in heart disease on a national level.

  6. magus71 said, on August 13, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    It doesn’t get much more credible than The Lancet. In this study, only low cholesterol is associated with higher mortality.

    http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673601055532/abstract

    It’s very telling how the scientists conclude this write-up:

    “We have been unable to explain our results.”

    If the findings had shown higher blood cholesterol levels correlated with increased mortality, they would not have included that statement.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 13, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      Interesting. But there are two factors to keep in mind. First, it is a single study. Second, the study was about elderly people and they could differ in important ways from the non-elderly. That is, the results might not extend beyond the age of the population studied.

  7. [...] Meatless Monday, USDA & NCBA (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) Share this:TwitterFacebookMoreStumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

    • magus71 said, on August 17, 2012 at 9:07 am

      Japan has one of the highest stroke rates in the world. They don’t eat that much red meat.

      http://stroke.ahajournals.org/content/28/7/1507.full

      “Asians, specifically Chinese and Japanese, have high stroke incidence rates.18 Stroke incidence and mortality rates in Japan were very high for most of this century and exceeded those for heart disease. As in the United States, stroke death rates in Japan have fallen dramatically since World War II. In recent years stroke incidence rates in Japanese men in Hawaii were similar to those of white Americans and between the rates of Japanese men in Japan and in California.”

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm

        The inference pattern you seem to be using is:

        X occurs at a high rate in population P
        Y occurs at a low rate in population P.
        Therefore Y is not a cause of X.

        However, it could be the case that Y does cause X, but that there are other factors that also cause X and these factors could be present at a high rate in Japanese society (such as stress).

        For example,

        Cancer occurs at a high rate in the United States.
        Exposure to uranium occurs at a low rate in the United States.
        Therefore, exposure to uranium does not cause cancer.

        • magus71 said, on August 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm

          Mike,

          You make my point. I fully acknowledge that there are a lot of factors involved. I posted that because the person who linked to your article runs a blog that is anti-red meat etc. and had an article out that says that red meat consumption leads to higher stroke rates. This person does not see to understand the principle you stated. I posted my link to show that clearly there are other things that can increase stroke rate and other diseases. I also made my post about Luxembourg for the same reasons.

          The best diet studies are those that show what happens at a cellular level. Scientists do not argue whether elevated levels of insulin in the blood stream are good or bad. It is axiomatic in the medical world that this is bad. There is only one macro-nutrient that increases insulin: Carbohydrate. Therefore, it is logical to assume that controlling carbohydrate intake will have positive effects. And in fact we know this is true, at least about insulin levels. People who live longest tend to have the lowest fasting insulin levels. This means that they are insulin sensitive. We become insulin insensitive when we eat too much carbohydrate for years on end and exercise too little. That’s my simple stance.

          • magus71 said, on August 17, 2012 at 6:27 pm

            I didnt post that link to show that red meat does anything, because the anti-red meat poster did not really show if red meat is good or bad either.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 18, 2012 at 6:06 pm

            Well, strokes can be caused by many factors.

            Showing that people have strokes with low red-meat consumption shows that high meat consumption is not a necessary condition for a stroke. However, it does not show that it is not a contributory cause. Also, as you note, high meat consumption might correlate with higher rates of strokes, but a causal mechanism must be shown. The evidence seems to be that there is, but as you have noted a serious culprit seems to be the fat. So, a person would be better off eating lean meats than fatty meats.

            One concern I did not raise, but seems worth considering, is that game meat (that is, from deer and such) seems healthier than farmed meat. While there are differences between the species, there is also the matter of the chemicals and such that farmed meats are exposed to. I do wonder how much of the health problems are due not to the meat, but to what is “contaminating” the meat.

            As always, we agree on the basic truth: exercise is good.

            • magus71 said, on August 19, 2012 at 7:47 am

              “but a causal mechanism must be shown.”

              Exactly.

  8. magus71 said, on August 17, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    By the way, the next time I go for an Army physical, I will post my results; I’ll even scan in copies of my lipid counts, blood pressure etc. My views on diet and exercise are pretty clear from my blog. Unless I am a mutant, what I do seems to be very healthy.

  9. World Food Day « UUCIF Social Justice said, on October 16, 2012 at 10:19 am

    [...] Meatless Monday, USDA & NCBA (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) [...]


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