Bacon is delicious. I know it, you know it, even the pigs probably know it. Despite its tastiness, however, eating meat is bad for the environment and human health and causes billions of animals to suffer needlessly.
Albert Einstein once said, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet,” and he was right. This is especially true today as mechanized industrial farming has become the norm for poultry and swine production, and cattle feedlots have increased drastically in size and number.
Livestock agriculture is the leading cause of soil and water pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This is due in part to over fertilization of food crops — there is simply too much excrement and not enough land to absorb it without causing massive runoff into the water table. Waste from processing facilities, like Tyson’s meatpacking plants, adds to the problem. A U.N. report also identified factory farms as the leading cause of anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions, more so than all modes of transportation combined. Simply put, our environment was not meant to handle the massive amounts of waste produced by industrial livestock operations or the fossil fuel emissions required to ship meat from rural communities to cities.
Industrial livestock operations also pose a large risk to human health. Keeping large numbers of animals in confined buildings is a recipe for infectious diseases and forces farmers to administer subtherapeutic antibiotics to stave off infection. This means animals get medicine before they’re even sick, and it is one of the greatest contributors to antibiotic resistance. Lack of genetic diversity in factory farms makes the spread of disease that much easier — we raise the fattest, meatiest animals and that means only a small gene pool.
Jeremy Bentham, a founder of moral utilitarianism, put it succinctly when he said, “The question is not ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?'” Pigs, chickens and cattle feel pain the same way we do. Their nervous systems make debeaking and tail docking, quite regular practices, as painful for them as it would be for us. More than 10 billion animals die every year to put meat on our tables, and they all suffer. Most pigs and chickens never see the light of day or feel fresh air on their faces. Rationality requires consistency — if you wouldn’t treat a pet this way, why is it permissible to torture and kill other animals? This is especially poignant for pigs, many of which are more intelligent and personable than the average dog. Is your ham sandwich really worth this suffering?
Lastly, choosing a plant-based diet over meat can help alleviate global famine pressures. Anyone who passed Biology 198 knows the “Rule of 10″ — animal flesh only gives us 10 percent of the energy the animal consumed. Massive amounts of grain go to feed livestock when that grain could be feeding starving humans. Limited arable land means there is a direct trade-off between crops for animal feed and crops for human consumption.
A vegetarian diet is ideal, but not your only option. If you just can’t stand to give up your BLT, make an effort to buy meat from local farmers. Ask your grocery store if it buys locally, and if not, why not? Small farms that spurn industrial methods do exist, though they are quickly dwindling. The best way to transition away from industrial farming is to vote with your pocketbook: Create a demand, and the supply will follow.
I might not have answered all your questions, and, possibly, I raised even more. For further reading on the issue, I would highly recommend “The Meat You Eat,” a 2004 book by Ken Midkiff.
More and more people are becoming enlightened and choosing a meat-free or reduced-meat diet. Shouldn’t you take it upon yourself to find out why?
Beth Mendenhall is a senior in political science and philosophy. Send comments to [email protected]