Dave Steele: Meat just doesn't cut it in today's environment

By Dave Steele

There’s little doubt about it. Humans evolved as omnivores. The shapes of our teeth, the lengths of our intestines, and a wealth of fossil evidence (arrowheads, butchered animal bones, et cetera) all point to an omnivorous past.

Natural selection favoured meat eating because it allowed our ancestors to survive where edible plant supplies were in short supply. Our forebears could flourish on fruits and grains and berries when those were plentiful and switch to meat when edible plants were scarce. Had early humans not led omnivorous lives, they almost certainly would have died out.

But that was then. This is now.

In the past, humans were few and far between. The pressure we exerted on the world around us was slight. Today, with our population approaching seven billion, the pressures we exert are enormous. No longer a boon to humanity, our hunger for meat has become the single biggest contributor to planetary degradation. Be it global warming, fossil-fuel depletion, water depletion or desertification, meat consumption is a prime factor in the problem. And meat takes food out of the mouths of the hungry.

On today’s factory farms, it takes 2.4 pounds of dry corn, soy, and oats to produce a pound of chicken; eight to 10 pounds of similar feed is required for every pound of beef. According to Cornell University’s David Pimentel, nearly 800 million people could fill their stomachs for a year on the grain fed to U.S. animals alone. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

According to Pimentel’s careful reckoning, modern western diets could not exist at all were it not for the enormous amount of fossil fuels we pour into them. Just getting nitrogen into our fertilizers takes the equivalent of nearly one million barrels of oil each day. Add in the other components—the pesticides, the herbicides, the combines, the tractors, and all the rest—and the numbers become astronomical. As Pimentel shows, the way we raise meat, it takes some 28 calories of fossil fuel input to generate one calorie of food value. Even modern lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, he warns, can’t be maintained in our world without excessive amounts of oil and gas.

Meat production accelerates global warming, too. All those burned fossil fuels have to go somewhere. Worse, our cows and sheep and other ruminants emit methane as they digest their feed. Together, Canada’s 10 million cows release the methane equivalent of a half ton of CO2 for every man, woman, and child in the country. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture is responsible for a bigger share of global warming than all of the cars and trucks and ships and planes in the world combined!

And animal agriculture emits other pollutants, too. Nearly three-quarters of North American ammonia emissions are due directly or indirectly to animal farming. Manure contaminates our ground water. The Worldwatch Institute reports that farm animals in the United States generate 130 times more bodily waste than humans.

Animal agriculture destroys land and habitat, too. Raising livestock and the soybeans to feed them is easily the biggest contributor to rainforest destruction. More than two acres of tropical rainforest are cleared per second to graze or feed farm animals. Around the world, tens of billions of tons of topsoil are lost each year to cultivation of animal feed crops.

Fish are no solution either. We’ve mined the oceans so badly that almost all of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline. Hunting? Sorry. All of North America’s wildlife would be wiped out were we to satisfy our current hunger for meat that way.

In the past, the meat eating was a boon to us. But today, the opposite is true. Natural selection operates on the here and now. If we don’t curtail our consumption of meat and eggs and milk and cheese, natural selection will eventually work in the strongest way against our meat-eating habits.

But we’re lucky. We evolved as omnivores. We can choose what we eat. Plants or animals.

Choose plants. There’s an awful lot at stake.

Dave Steele is the vice president of Earthsave Canada.




Jan 21, 2009 at 3:26pm

What a great article! I choose plants. They're better for me, they're better for the planet, and there's no animal suffering.


Jan 21, 2009 at 3:55pm

OK Mr. Steele give me one example of a large industrialized culture that is existing without endemic malnutrition that is not at least supplementing their vegetarian diet with plenty of animal protein of some kind.
Where you are going to get all the natural fertilizers you need for all these crops? Human feces?
The large scale plant farming necessary would also have serious ecological repercussions.


Jan 21, 2009 at 5:25pm

Dear Casman55,
Your first question is a strawman argument. No large industrialized culture has ever attempted to go collectively vegetarian. So we have no successes or failures to measure against.

Your second question answers itself. The land used to feed animals can be used to feed people instead, with surplus food to spare.

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Jan 21, 2009 at 7:26pm

I predict meat eaters will become increasingly twitchy as the cost of their poison goes through the roof in years to come. This problem will eventually sort itself out as the longevity rates of meat eaters keeps declining. More and more of these semiconscious throwbacks will succumb to disease (think: ecoli/madcow etc etc) while the rest age ever more rapidly due to the chemicals in their chosen "comfort" food.
Darwin was right..people who make stupid and willfully ignorant choices will eventually die off and their progeny will either smarten up or lead the kind of lives that Thomas Hobbes wrote about.

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Jan 21, 2009 at 8:12pm

Good luck trying to convince an entire population to become vegetarian. It's completely unrealistic. I think a better solution would be to go back to local, small farms. It's the large international food companies that are doing the most damage to our environment, and providing poor-quality food as well.

Small, organic farms that raise livestock and chickens humanely and cleanly could dramatically reduce the waste and pollution. This would naturally raise the cost of animal protein which would deter people from eating as much. Kind of like what happened when gas prices were so high.

Better nutritional education for the public would also help.

And once again I see the usual suspects here passing judgement on those who chose a different diet then their own. That kind of small-minded rhetoric isn't going to convince anyone to see your point of view. No one.


Jan 21, 2009 at 8:30pm

Dear Trent,
No large industrialized culture has done it because it's not viable.
The low grade feed that domestic animals eat is not a viable replacement. Have you ever considered how many pounds of corn or grain it would take to grow a pound of human?
The reason people keep trying to sneak animal protein into cattle and chicken feed is because it is much a more efficient.
The planet cannot sustain 7 billion plant eating people either.
A mix of vegetable and animal food can be produced locally year round in the Canadian climate. A nutritious plant diet cannot.
As for disease from food the most recent is scare is from tainted peanuts and quite few people have have been poisoned by spinach and lettuce over the years too.
The answer is in population control, better distribution of wealth and food, more local food production and common sense.


Jan 21, 2009 at 9:01pm

Pearls before swine. Personally I don't give a hoot if people keep eating themselves to death. Part of me is considering buying lots of stock in funeral homes and the other part of me is laughing my tush off. I'm closer to 60 than 50 and after 29 years of not eating meat and 34 years of martial arts I'm able to date really hot 20 somethings and wake up happy virtually every day. Keep scarfing down the Maple Leaf mystery meats and the Big Macs....do us all a favour and make sure you supersize everything....the sooner your type becomes extinct the sooner we can truly heal the planet and start anew.

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Jan 22, 2009 at 1:03am

Great article and glad to see it in a mainstream publication. Raising plants for direct human consumption rather than raising plants and then feeding it to animals and then consuming them is obviously way more efficient and logical for feeding us hungry and many humans on the planet.

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Jan 22, 2009 at 1:26am

"the sooner your type becomes extinct the sooner we can truly heal the planet and start anew."

It doesn't matter how valid either life choice is, wishing death to other people is probably the most despicable thing you can do. By speaking like an ignorant teenager, what you actually accomplished was making people believe that vegetarians care more about feeling superior to others than actually reducing their impact on the planet.

I can't think of something more pathetic than a vegetarian barbecue. Tasteless tofu dogs, bland veggie burgers, with a side of veggies and dip. Think of all the dishes that cheese makes possible, nachos, pizza, without it, italian food would become a thing of legend.

Dave Steele, Vice President of "Earthsave Canada", doesn't once mention the suffering animals endure for our survival and quality of life, isn't that the bottom line?

The pollution caused by the live stock industry is not a valid argument because you would then need to shut, down, everything. No cars, No planes, everything runs on fossil fuel at some capacity. That's not the industry's fault, that's our government for allowing patents to destroy the possibility of advancement in technology, which of course extends to the issue of global warming.

Blaming the meat industry for global warming is like blaming Penthouse for child molesters, or Led Zeppelin for a rise in opiate production, or Led Zeppelin for sending troops to Afghanistan to ensure a rise in opiate production.
You should blame yourself for actually believing you ever lived in a democracy.

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Jan 22, 2009 at 6:52am

Dear sleepswithangels,
Is the reason you date 20 somethings because you eat plants or because you are shallow and unable to relate to women close to your own age?

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