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Tom and vegetarians can agree on one thing: The environmental costs of meat production need to be addressed

A couple of months back, I was engaged in one of my semi-regular exchanges with members of the I-don't-eat-meat-so-neither-should-you crowd, some of whom are reasonable, and some of whom are not. As the arc neared its conclusion, I received an e-mail from an old friend, Doug Biggers.

For those of you who don't recognize the name, Doug founded this publication and kept it going through some very lean years through sheer force of will. He and I had very little in common except an appreciation for what the Weekly was and what it could become. He often told me that he didn't "get" my writing, but he allowed me free rein, and I did my best for him.

In the e-mail, Doug took me to task for a couple of things I had written and then directed me to an article that had appeared in The New York Times ( www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html ). Several other people also wrote to recommend the article, "Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler," by Mark Bittman, and now I'm recommending it to you as well. At the end of the piece, there's a disclaimer that says that Mark Bittman "is not a vegetarian." I'll take the Times at its word, but, boy, he sure writes with the cocksure smugness of a vegetarian.

Nevertheless, his article is an eye-opener. It paints a grim picture of livestock production and how the voracious appetite (no pun intended) for meat in developing countries is having an adverse impact on the environment. According to Bittman, "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 forest."

He passes along oft-repeated Internet staples as to how much land is used, directly and indirectly, in livestock production, and how much greenhouse gas is produced by these operations. Those figures are open to debate, but what isn't is that the practice of using of grain to fatten beef is highly inefficient and wasteful, and needs to be severely curtailed.

Anywhere from two to five times as much grain is needed to produce the same amount of calories from livestock as would have been produced through the consumption of the grain itself. In a world where perhaps one in seven is hungry and/or malnourished, this is not simply inefficient; it's wrong.

The problem derives from the fact that cows' stomachs are much better at digesting grass than grain. (More on this later.) But grain fattens them up faster, so it becomes better business to remove them from their natural environment and herd them into feed lots. (On a small positive note, at least American cattle producers don't feed their cattle animal byproducts, a practice that led to the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease, in England in the 1990s.) It should also be noted that pigs and chickens are much more efficient at processing grain than are cattle.

To his credit, Bittman does not call for a complete end to meat consumption, but rather a decrease in the amount that is consumed and a change in the manner in which it is produced. I agree with just about every one of his recommendations. We should end subsidies for huge livestock factories. We should institute stricter standards on what cattle are fed and what they're injected with (steroids and antibiotics), and we should ban the use of cloning altogether. We should make much more efficient use of animal waste (several countries, including the U.S., are using pig waste to generate electricity, just like in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome).

Not that Bittman doesn't take the occasional detour into numbers trickery. While he readily admits that the average per-capita consumption of meat by Americans--about 8 ounces per person per day--has basically remained unchanged over the past several decades, he also writes that "at about 5 percent of the world's population, we 'process' ... more than 15 percent of the world's total (meat)." Why should that be surprising? India has nearly four times the population--more than a billion people--almost none of whom eat meat. That statistical discrepancy has to be made up somewhere.

A couple of weeks after the Times piece appeared, there was a front-page article in The Arizona Republic on how some Arizona cattle ranchers are going back to the old way of raising cattle, feeding them nothing but grass in an environmentally friendly manner on self-sustaining small ranches, and finding a growing market of consumers willing to pay more for beef that is natural and chemical-free. I would certainly pay more for such beef, but as I've mentioned before, I eat almost no beef. My problem has always been with people who want to tell me what and how much I should eat.

While I will never buy into the hooey that a vegetarian diet is somehow healthier than a balanced diet that includes reasonable amounts of meat, fish and dairy products, that doesn't mean that I agree with everything that is going on in that industry. Meat-eaters don't need to be healed, but our environment does, and addressing the explosive growth of livestock production is a good a place to start. On this, my vegetarian friends and I will probably agree.

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