Here’s an interesting news item I rediscovered in the NYtimes today: raising animals for meat releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than does the entire travel industry combined. This is based on research conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. I’m sure some of my regular readers will take issue with this, but it is kind of intriguing. Add to that the growing evidence that vegetarianism is a pretty healthy diet (possibly not the healthiest – a small amount of meat may actually be slightly healthier; see references below) and the connection to IQ (though not causal) and things are looking up for vegetarianism. Maybe this is just confirmation bias, as we all have a tendency to look for evidence to support the things we believe/want to believe. But some of this is also pretty good science. Anyway, here are the references:

  • Cho, Eunyoung, Wendy Y. Chen, David J. Hunter, Meir J. Stampfer, Graham A. Colditz, Susan E. Hankinson, et al. 2006. “Red Meat Intake and Risk of Breast Cancer Among Premenopausal Women.” Archives of Internal Medicine 166(20).
  • Gale, Catharine R, Ian J Deary, Ingrid Schoon, and G David Batty. 2007. “IQ in childhood and vegetarianism in adulthood: 1970 British cohort study.” BMJ 334(7587):245.
  • Spencer, E.A., P.N. Appleby, G.K. Davey, and T.J. Key. 2003. “Diet and body mass index in 38000 EPIC-Oxford meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans.” International Journal for Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders 27(6):728-34.
  • Steinfeld, Henning, Pierre Gerber, Tom Wassenaar, Vincent Castel, Mauricio Rosales, Cees de Haan, et al. 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

13 Replies to “vegetarianism and the environment?”

  1. Interesting, thanks. When people ask, I’ve always told them that I’m a vegetarian for three reasons: 1) health, 2) environment, and 3) animal cruelty (factory farming). I used to have many good stats about the environmental angle memorized, but I long ago stopped trying to proselytize. ;-)

  2. Interesting! Since was Bacon not healthy. I can feel the grease lubing up my arteries when I eat it, helping me to be swifter on my feet. I like bacon, so there is NO possible way it couldn’t be really, really good for me. It just isn’t so. You must own a Veggie Farm, and you want me to stop eating yummy Bacon and Hot dogs so I will buy your Peas. You left winged Lettuce Ass Face! (Yep, both, Lettuce and Ass.) What is this quackery you speak of? Hopefully I portrayed my sarcasm sufficiently.
    That is an interesting note on CO2 emissions. Who’d have thunk it?

  3. Hi Dave. Yeah, I’m not much into proselytizing for vegetarianism anymore. I just was surprised by the CO2 connection and thought I’d post the others while I was at it. Debi and I have even taken to eating meat when nothing else is available – it won’t kill us (in small portions and right away ;) ).

    Hey Brad… Very little smells as appetizing to me as cooking bacon! And very little feels as uncomfortable as a stomach full of greasy bacon – life just isn’t fair ! ;)

    We lettuce ass faces usually take affront when people call us lettuce ass faces, but not this lettuce ass face. I wear my lettuce badge proudly on my ass! ;)

    I was surprised by the meat CO2 connection myself. Not sure what to think of that. Intriguing stuff. Loved the pictures of Spike, the kids going to school, and especially the video of Benny running from Spike – hilarious!

  4. Here’s some food (har! har!) for thought:

    There have been no documented vegetarian hunter-gathering societies. Furthermore, animal domestication happened along side plant domestication. The interesting thing from a social evolution standpoint, furthermore, is that the societies that had both a breadth of domesticated plants as well as animals (even those not used for food, like horses) seemed to more easily triumph (for whatever violent reason) over those that didn’t.

    The point being is that animal domestication (and in turn, animal consumption) in the past provided an evolutionary advantage. Even within the last 500 years, we see how the conquistadors easily conquered the New World because they had accidental germ warfare (a consequence of living in close proximity to animals) and cavalry.

    So the question needs to be asked, is an omnivorous diet still an evolutionary advantage? Or, is it like religion, another concept that granted a past evolutionary advantage, but now does more harm than good (in the opinion of an Evil Atheist Conspirator like myself).

  5. Oh yeah, forgot to tie it back to environmentalism. Anyway, animals were domesticated for reasons beyond simply consumption. In addition to providing clothing (leather, wool, etc.) in many parts of the world they still exist as a common form of transportation and source of labor. This study lumps all these uses in the same category and labels them damaging to the environment.

    Note to self: Buy Ariaal nomads dune buggies to replace their camels. It’ll save the environment! :-)

  6. Hi Dean,

    As always, you are a dependable skeptical source, though with a twist this time… (and, yes, I think that is a great thing!).

    I think that’s an interesting idea, that perhaps the utility of meat consumption in evolutionary terms is no longer advantageous. I hadn’t thought of that. Certainly there were advantages to meat consumption in the past – it is, after all, a high concentration of energy and protein in a relatively small package. It’s evolutionary advantages make perfect sense to me.

    The issue you raise, though, is very intriguing – in a time when people in the developed world (the undeveloped and developing world are another story) have food surpluses, is meat even necessary? The survival of vegetarians would seem to indicate that it isn’t, but at less than 10% of the population, that can’t be said for certain either. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we are beyond ever consuming meat again as a species; that is contingent upon continued food surpluses, of course. Perhaps that is the direction evolution will turn – intriguing indeed.

    As per your follow-up, you again make a great point – the practicality of replacing the camels of nomads with dune buggies is a great illustration of how ridding the world of domesticated animals isn’t going to happen tomorrow or any time soon. I’m not even sure I’d want that – I still use eggs when cooking and eat quite a bit of cheese. I have yet to find suitable plant-based alternatives (soy cheese basically sucks). Granted, at this point I’m not really arguing for the scientific evidence but simply expressing my opinions based on my current habits and behaviors.

    Like I noted in my response to Dave, I’m no longer a vegetarian evangelist. I don’t eat meat at home, but when traveling or visiting someone else’s home (yes, this is a recent change), I don’t make a fuss about eating meat. We are, after all, omnivores. Our offspring may be another story, but until then, I think a convincing argument can be made that a mostly vegetarian diet with small amounts of meat is really the ideal diet.

    Good to hear from you!

  7. how much energy does it take to track and kill an animal and then lug all those pounds somewhere versus picking some food up off the ground?…think about it…..go take anthro. 101 and stop reading so many jared diamond books. the ideal diet is whatever makes you happy.

  8. seriously, you guys need to go take anthro 101 and stop reading so many jared diamond books. as for diet – eat whatever makes you happy.

  9. I don’t quite get the ad hominem attack. Trust me when I say I have more than a passing understanding of anthropology. However, that being said, historically, it was _eventually_ advantageous to domesticate animals for food, transportation, clothing, hunting, companionship, grain protection, etc.

    Is it possible that some people routinely forget just how many things animals do for us besides act as food?

  10. Tell me one good thing animals do for us aside from roll over and die so we can eat them? Nothing. Well, other than be in some movies. Do they perform surgery? No! Do they drive you to the store? No! Do they iron your clothes? No! Do they help you apply make up? No! Do they cook yummy food? No! Do they help pick out new cars? No! Do they take, an active, part in Fantasy Football? No! Do they type 90 WPM? No! (Well, maybe some, I haven’t checked my references. Some birds do amazing, useless, things.) Do they fix potholes? No! Do they draw cool maps? No! Do they help blind people get around? N…..Wait a minute, they do. Okay, that’s one. Do they pull wagons? N….Shit, that’s two. Do they bread chicken for you at KFC? No! Do they help you when Billy falls in the well? N….Damn it, that’s three. Do they fly airplanes? No! Do they tend your kids while you’re out with hookers? They can, but not very well! Can they help sniff out bombs? N…God Damn it. That’s four.
    Oh hell, let’s keep animals around I guess. But they are still good to eat. Since when has a cucumber helped a blind person?
    This thinking has made me hungry I’m going to go have a BBB (Bacon Bacon Bacon) Sandwich.

  11. Wow, quite a storm I’ve stirred up here. Maybe I should blog about vegetarianism more often ;)

    Erik’s comments are intriguing – killing an animal and lugging it back to your home does take a lot of energy compared to picking up food off the ground. This assumes, of course, that you have the option. I believe early human social groups were “hunter and gatherer” not “hunter or gatherer”. Ergo, a combination is probably best (why else would they do it, huh?; how sociobiological of me…). And, technically, our digestive system is designed to accommodate both. But the question is – which is more practical in terms of energy input vs. energy output. Given the higher concentration of energy in meat, it’s probably pretty close to a toss up. However, meat is also protein rich and has B12, an essential vitamin that is hard to find in non-animal based products. In short, meat is a good source of nutrition and it is hard to argue with that.

    As per anthropology 101, I’m not exactly sure what that has to do with anything. Dean’s a master’s educated sociologist and well read beyond that; I have a PhD in sociology and have taken several anthropology courses. I’m not quite sure I see the relevance. Ce la vie ;)

    As for eating whatever makes us happy… I wish I could, but then I’d be a typical American and be obese! Arghh! So, I’ll only eat a little of what makes me happy, and the rest will be good but nutritious.

    As for keeping animals around, I’m cool with that. As an animal, I’d like to stick around. I’m sure I’m useful for something… At least, I like to think I am. After all, I am just a Sociologist ;) A sociologist craving a BBB sandwich (veggie bacon, veggie bologna, and veggie barbecue sauce) – yum!

  12. you don’t see the relevance because you don’t want to. It’s beyond sociology. Seriously go read a anthro 101 text book after all the biology stuff – everything we’re arguing is all there. it’s what they argue about – it’s their areas of expertise (see below).

    credentials mean nothing. the most well rounded educated people (nons) don’t have degrees – they’re pointless unless you want to teach or not get a job (me) – plus, nons don’t get pigeonholed into one area of expertise at the expense of way more applicable knowledge that directly relates to their area – but educated folks ignore it/or refuse to acknowledge it because it doesn’t fall under their area of expertise (like donkeys with blinders – look at the carrot).

    go read the no child left behind act – highly educated folks are the perfect example of why it doesn’t work (solely concentrating on teaching only math and science do not make a well educated person – you need all that other crap too).

    read more books.

    bring it!

  13. It finally dawned on me who you are, Erik – hadn’t seen you on the blog in eons! Good to see you around.

    I absolutely agree that credentials don’t make someone an expert in all fields. But they do mean something. What that something means varies from credential to credential, but, generally speaking, they mean that the individual with the credential is an expert in the field of the credential. Beyond the field of the credential, they aren’t necessarily experts, though there can be substantial overlap.

    For instance, anthropology and sociology have substantial overlap, especially today as anthropology branches out to cultural anthropology and the study of modern life (it is basically sociology with a different name). I just met an anthropologist who was studying modern medical care with an applied focus – the approach is identical to what sociologists, public health experts, policy analysts, and epidemiologists would do. Where sociology and anthropology really differ is in studying ancient societies. As a sociologist I claim very little expertise there. But when it comes to modern society, well…

    So, how is anthropology relevant? I don’t have an anthropology textbook on hand, but I’m not sure it is required if I have someone willing to explain its relevance – assuming you are. Please – explain!

    I think I’m also going to have to disagree with something you are implying here, though I’m not certain you are (so clarify for me if I’ve got this wrong). It seems as though you are saying that specializing is a problem. I can’t agree with that. I do think everyone should have a good liberal arts education (I’m teaching at a liberal arts university), but without specialists, we wouldn’t advance knowledge at the current rate we are. Certainly there is a place for generalists who cross disciplinary boundaries, but there is a much greater need for specialists who push their discipline’s boundaries a bit further with each advance. Without highly specialized knowledge and training there is no way we would be debating this online – unless you happen to have the technical know-how to build the internet while simultaneously being an expert in anthropology, parenting, and every other area. I couldn’t do it. The Division of Labor in Society is a necessary component of modernization – without it we would all be farming our own fields, gathering our own food, and hunting for our own animal skins. Given your background training, I would be surprised if you disagreed with this.

    Finally, I wish I could read more books. I read a peer-reviewed article a day, two newspapers, and still average about a book a month (on top of the textbooks I read). That’s about as good as I can do right now.

    Good to have you around ;) How are the little girl and the wife?

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