Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
Albert Einstein’s 1915 Theory of Relativity posited the existence of Black Holes. It took 104 years for science to prove him right, when the Event Horizon Telescope finally found - and photographed - one earlier this year. Just six years following his seminal theory, Einstein made the opening statement of this post, proving himself prescient yet again, long before a trifecta of post-war prosperity, technological innovation and consolidation of the world’s food supply transformed cattle into a weapon of mass destruction.
The ubiquity of meat in the human diet presages two independent crises that share an underlying cause: human illness and terrestrial suffocation. Let’s look at how each is critically linked to near- and long-term human survival.
It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef - a single, sixteen-ounce steak. To put this in perspective, the embodied water in that steak is equivalent to the amount that an average American family uses in an entire week, with Americans using more water than anyone else. In China, the same water would support a family for a month, while in India, it would last for two.
Since each 1,200 lb. steer produces roughly 490 lbs. of boneless, trimmed beef, it follows that each cow requires an astounding 882,000 gallons of water to bring it to market - and your dinner plate. That amount of water would supply eight American families, 32 Chinese ones, or 64 Indian ones for an entire year. Given that there are 1.5 billion cattle worldwide, the embodied water use of the cattle industry exceeds the global household water consumption of every human on Earth, several times over.
Why is this important?
Less than 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh, and only 30% of that is available to us, in surface water and aquifers. While surface water is renewed annually, aquifers take 20,000 years to charge. Food production uses both of these resources, unsustainably. When a water ecosystem has been depleted beyond its ability to recharge, it’s called ‘closed’. According to the International Water Management Institute, the primary water systems for the world’s most populous countries have mostly ‘closed’, including the Colorado River in the United States, the Indus River in southern Asia, and the Yellow River in China. In all, 1.5 billion people rely on depleted agricultural ecosystems to stay alive. The IWMI cites dietary changes as one of the five ways in which a growing water crisis can be alleviated.
Agriculture uses 92% of the world’s fresh water. Ninety-two percent. One third of that goes to livestock, while 55% of that total is expressly used for beef production. That means cattle alone soak up one sixth of the world’s water, which is 1,600 times more water than we drink. To simply switch from eating beef to pork, mutton, chicken or fish would be to solve one sixth of the world’s agricultural water problem. More acutely, a switch away from land meat altogether - to a fish-and-plant-based diet - would reverse one third of the problem.
To illustrate the agricultural water problem, let’s (re)visit the story of Saudi Arabia, which I covered in Week 15.
The American Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) published an article in April 2015 on the disappearance of water in the Kingdom. In the 1970's, wealthy landowners convinced the king to let them pump the country's 20,000-year old aquifer - one that appears in multiple biblical references - to make Saudi Arabia 'wheat-independent', which they argued would create food security. Saudi Arabia went on to become the world's sixth largest producer of wheat, the majority of which it exported, since production far exceeded demand. In just 40 years, the aquifer has been drained, and a body of water the size of Lake Erie - one that took the equivalent of 800 human generations to create - is essentially gone. Today, the Kingdom currently imports 80% of its food, and wheat production has ground to a halt.
California pumps water to nine million acres of farmland each year, according to the report - second only to Nebraska. And the source? Aquifers. According to both CIR and thinkprogress.org, 65% of California's food production system is fed by aquifers today - aquifers that, like those of Saudi Arabia, are being depleted as quickly. NASA hydrologist Jay Famiglietti wrote last year in the LA Times that California has "only about one year left of water supply in its reservoirs," and that its backup - groundwater - is "rapidly disappearing".
As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in 1798’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”
Deforestation, Methane and Greenhouse Gases
The Climate Institute says that cattle ranching is responsible for nearly 70% of deforestation in the Amazon, against just 2-3% for logging, at the pace of 50 acres per hour. Trees sequester carbon. When they are felled, they release their carbon into the atmosphere. The CI states that deforestation is responsible for 25% of the world’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) production. If 70% of this is due to cattle, it means that 17% of total GHG caused by deforestation is due to cattle ranching.
In addition to deforestation, cattle contribute directly to the production of GHG, via methane - or ‘cow farts’. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says that cows produce an additional 10% of the world’s combined GHG when they fart. If you’re keeping tally, deforestation due to cattle ranching (17%) + cattle-produced methane (10%) + combined impact of cattle feed production (+/-5%) means that the cattle industry is responsible for roughly one third (33%) of total global greenhouse gases.
Few people would argue the negative impact of deforestation and methane production on GHG. The problems are due to lack of awareness of what is causing it, and a lack of ability to translate a warming planet with its impact on our individual lives. It all seems too abstract in terms of time and scale. Regardless, we all feel the impacts daily. In addition to food and water scarcity, we are experiencing catastrophic phenomena at unprecedented rates. The earth has warmed 1.8 degrees over pre-industrial levels in the past 150 years. Most science algorithms predict that the Earth will warm 5-6 degrees by the end of the century - ten times faster than previous ice age freeze-thaw cycles. A 5-6 degree increase in the Earth’s temperature “is enough to wipe out most life on the planet”, according to AI simulations at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Already, the impacts are being felt. In 2018 alone, violent storms killed or displaced over 30 million people. Climate change is already contributing to species collapse (polar bears; coral reefs; fish; bees…). Wildfires have wiped out 6.2 million acres (an area larger than Massachusetts) in the past 10 years, 90% of which is caused by man. The list goes on.
We are endangering human lives at our own hand.
Human Health and Meat Consumption
The second lens through which we can look at the impact of eating beef (or any other meat) is that of its direct effect on human health. Since ‘we are what we eat’, the impacts of meat consumption are more immediately understood in our bodies and lives.
Let’s start with the conclusion, before we unpack the underlying causes. Citing global meta-analyses, the NCBI - the US Government’s National Research Institute, states bluntly,
“the long-term consumption of increasing amounts of red meat and particularly of processed meat is associated with an increased risk of total mortality, cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes, in both men and women. The association persists after inclusion of known confounding factors, such as age, race, BMI, history, smoking, blood pressure, lipids, physical activity and multiple nutritional parameters in multivariate analysis.”
The Journal of Internal Medicine (JIM) - one of the most scientific, independent bodies for fact-based research - lists the impact of red meat consumption to various modern diseases based on a compilation of broad-based, peer-reviewed research and meta-analyses. The consumption of red meat increases a broad cross-section of health risks over those of non-red meat eaters, as follows:
100g (one third of the average daily US intake) of unprocessed meat (burgers, steaks) increases risk of: stroke: 11%; breast cancer: 11%; cardiovascular mortality: 15%; colorectal cancer: 17%; and 19% for prostate cancer.
50g (just one fifth of the average daily US intake) of processed meat (hot dogs, cold cuts, bacon) increases risk of: stroke: 13%; breast cancer: 11%; cardiovascular mortality: 24%; colorectal cancer: 18%; prostate cancer: 4%; pancreatic cancer: 19%; and 32% for diabetes.
The average American consumed 270g of meat daily - or a record 222 lbs per capita, in 2018.
Finally, it’s worth looking at a few less commonly considered health factors and their association with red meat consumption.
According to the JIM, red meat’s saturated fat leads to an increase in insulin resistance. In addition, AGEs (advanced glycation end-products) are produced during cooking of red meat, and increase risk of progression to Type 2 diabetes, C-reactive proteins, oxidative stress and inflammation. Furthermore, the haeme iron in red meat, which is more bioavailable than other forms of plant-based iron, inhibits insulin binding, leading to insulin resistance, and damages pancreatic β‐cells. Further still, nitrites in red meat - especially processed, but present in both - are toxic to pancreatic β‐cells, decrease insulin secretion and increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes. And finally, the phosphatidylcholine and L‐carnitine present in red meat have been reported to be associated with metabolic disorders and chronic heart disease.
On the flip side, unprocessed beef is a good source of Vitamin B12, the energy source Creatine, the antioxidant Carnosine, Vitamin D3, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, and the sulfur compound Taurine - all of which are found only in animal products. Beef also provides a significant amount of complete, high-quality protein. And as we always advocate, moderation should be our operative nutritional principle, in addition to arming yourself with the facts.
And so, since no single exposure to a ‘natural’ food - meat included - should unduly increase the risks we’ve outlined beyond what is reasonable, the occasional steak or burger won’t drive ours and the Earth’s health to the brink.
But unless we find other ways to bolster terrerstrial and human health in view of forceful evidence about how red meat consumption is driving harm to both, we can - and should - make some reasonable adjustments to our behavior patterns to everyone’s benefit, our own as much as any.
First, if it’s red meat you want, choose pork or lamb, which have significantly less impact on potable water, greenhouse gas production and deforestation. Again, the cessation of beef consumption alone would eliminate one third of the cause for global warming. There’s an interesting carbon footprint calculator related to food consumption here.
If you are wiling to forego red meat, but still want to exercise your inner carnivore, consider chicken, whose adverse impacts are a fraction of those caused by the farming and ingestion of red meat. Just make sure you cook it extremely well. In dietary analyses, between 80% and 100% of raw supermarket chicken tests positive for salmonella or campylobacter, leading to 76 million food-borne illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, annually. In Week 4, we covered the underlying reason behind this: 95% of all eggs sold in the US are from chickens raised in so-called battery cages that provide 67 square inches of floor space per bird - roughly the size of an iPad - leading to those maladies and a need for significant antibiotic countermeasures.
Better still, opt for fish - the healthy ones, as rigorously monitored by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide. Many species of sustainably managed cold water fish populations - like Alaskan salmon species Coho and Sockeye - are excellent sources of complete protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and Vitamins B12 and D3. Wild populations eat what Nature intended them to, and the best-managed wild populations are free of contaminants that besiege farmed terrestrial and marine animals globally.
If you are going to continue eating beef (or other red meats), limit your intake. Americans eat an average of 60 lbs of beef per year, 50 lbs of pork, yet almost no lamb or veal (+/- 2 lbs per year), which translates to 5 oz. of red meat per day - 20% more than we consumed 100 years ago. Chicken consumption has increased sixfold in the same period, which now matches beef consumption. If we aggregate all forms of animal protein intake, including fish and eggs, Americans consume over 230 lbs of animal protein per year, which translates to 10 oz. per day, which tops global lists. Developing nations, by contrast, consume just five percent of the meat that Americans do. 10 oz. of meat translates to 70g of beef protein, 80g of chicken protein, or 50-85g of fish protein, depending on the species. Ignoring the fact that we ingest protein from many others sources daily, the average American over-consumes protein, since the WHO recommends 0.36 g per lb of body weight, or 50-60g for a typical adult.
Regardless of whether or not you continue to consume meat - or how much, processed meat poses a major health threat, and is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the WHO. Harvard Medical School’s publishing arm warns Americans to avoid processed meats in general, citing a 42% increase in risk of heart disease, and a 19% increase in risk of diabetes, for each daily serving consumed. They conclude that “the best sources of protein are fish, beans, nuts and poultry."“
I, for one, follow their advice. You may want to, as well.
The bottom line? If you care about the environment, but not your body, there’s astounding evidence about Big Beef’s enormous negative impact on the Earth, and many of the primary resources that support our continued existence: water, air quality, a climate in balance and arable land. If you care about your body, but not the environment, then you should replace beef with foods that support your health without unduly increasing your risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other life-threatening modern maladies. And if you care about both your short-term health (body) and long-term health (planet), then we hope you now have a pretty clear idea what you can do to improve both.