OPINION: Meat is not killing the planet

A person holds up a steak shaped like meat.
(Yasmin Elqutami • The Student Life)

Meat is not killing the planet.

My lunch habits are not destroying the planet, people.

However, meat is still being blamed for a host of environmental issues ranging from climate change to famine.

What this means is that when the good students at the 5Cs go to the dining halls every day, if they eat a delicious meal with meat, as is often the case, then they are actually destroying the planet and causing the deaths of millions, if not billions, of people.

I resent my fellow students’ good characters being impugned in such a way.

This would be fine, of course, if eating meat really was horrible, but once again these anti-meat arguments are faulty.

Take the “meat causes climate change” argument, one that has been backed by media sources citing a United Nations climate change report calling for reductions in meat in diets. According to such sources, dramatic reductions in eating meat are needed to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than the infamous two degrees Celsius limit. Stop eating meat, these media outlets warn, or face cataclysmic consequences.

However, if one takes a look at the actual research that inspired these dire articles, one sees a fuller picture. According to research, livestock contributes approximately 14.5 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, fossil fuel emissions (from automobiles, electrical power and other modern needs) contribute to about three-quarters of total U.S. anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

I fear that focusing on meat detracts from the main issue. The use of fossil fuels, which is encouraged by government subsidies that make clean energy less competitive, is a much greater problem that needs all of our attention. Telling people to change their diets, to change something so integral to people’s daily lives and culture, will instead discourage or even antagonize people against climate reform, as they may come to see it as being too intrusive in daily life.

In other words, while we should make changes to our diets if possible (eat more salad, less beef), replacing fossil fuels with clean, sustainable energy will go furthest in mediating the climate crisis.

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But climate change is not the only thing that meat is being blamed for.

Enter philanthropist Philip Wollen, who believes that meat consumption is not only cruel, but also greatly harmful to human lives as well. 

At a debate, he made this now well-known claim, “I see poor countries who sell their grain to the West while their own children starve in their arms. And the West feeds it to livestock. So we can eat a steak? Am I the only one who sees this as a crime? Believe me, every morsel of meat we eat is slapping the tear-stained face of a hungry child.”

Now, this is a powerful argument that tugs at the heartstrings, making the listener feel terrible about glutting themselves at the expense of the lives of children. The problem is that world hunger is not the result of there being not enough food in the world, but because of other factors such as war and poverty.

According to the Global Hunger Index, the hungriest country in the world is the Central African Republic, a country that is in the thralls of a vicious genocidal civil war. It seems that, according to Wollen, the children of the CAR are hungry because agribusiness is carting off most of their grain to feed the cattle of the global North. It is much more likely, however, that war has destroyed many Central Africans’ homes and crops, thus causing mass starvation while making it unsafe for humanitarian workers to provide aid. War is the cause of Central Africans’ despair, not meat.

But perhaps I’m being disingenuous; maybe Wollen is not referring to an extreme example such as the CAR. He may be thinking of India, which is (mostly) not at war. Leaving places like Kashmir aside, India is relatively peaceful. Yet according to its GHI score, it is one of the hungriest countries in the world (ranked 102nd out of 117 qualifying countries), causing the situation there to be declared as “serious.”

Now, the factors causing this are diverse and varied, but key ones include rampant poverty, limited government services and in some regions, drought. 

Let’s focus on the government for a moment. State failures such as a scandal in which the Indian government neglected 67,000 tonnes of grain, badly storing it and allowing it to rot, are examples of root causes of the hunger crisis. 

In other words, it’s not that there isn’t enough food in India — it’s that it is being poorly managed. 

As such, the death of the meat industry, while in theory would free up a lot of farmland that used to produce grain for livestock, would not solve the hunger crisis in places like India. Until government institutions are improved and poverty is crushed, hunger will still remain a large issue — even in places like America, where poverty is responsible for the hunger of millions of children, not meat. 

To make true, lasting change, we must pursue solutions that get at the heart of issue, not chase after simple fixes that only ameliorate things a little bit.

John Gibson PO ’22 is a history major from Kayenta, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. He should probably think about eating a salad in the near future.

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