According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, per capita beef consumption peaked in 1975 at more than 88 pounds per person annually, but the average American still ate 64 pounds of cow flesh in 2008. Factors such as increased chicken consumption and the rising popularity of vegetarianism and veganism may explain the decrease in beef consumption.
The reasons for not eating beef or eating less beef involve animal protection issues, environmental issues and health issues.
Beef and Animal Rights
Raising and slaughtering animals for food is antithetical to animal rights, because cows have a right to be free of human use and exploitation. Animal rights is not about how well the cows are treated or how humanely they are slaughtered, but about not exploiting cows for human purposes. To animal rights activists, "humane slaughter" is an oxymoron. For those who believe that animals should not be used for food, veganism is the only answer.
Beef and Animal Welfare
People who believe in animal welfare believe that using animals is morally acceptable as long as they are treated humanely while they are alive and slaughtered humanely.
In the United States, 97% of the cattle raised for beef are raised on feedlots. In a feedlot, a large number of cows are kept confined in a large pen. Instead of their natural diet of grass, the cattle are fed a diet of grains, which causes them to gain weight quickly. The crowded pens are also thick with manure and foster the spread of diseases. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Alberta, Canada cautions feedlot managers:
The major objective is to get the cattle onto a high-energy diet within 21 days which will result in rapid growth as soon as possible. During this time the manager must minimize the morbidity and mortality associated with acute respiratory disease, along with some other common infections such as hemophilus septicemia, and digestive diseases associated with adjustments to high-energy diets.
Given the crowding, health problems and suffering of the cattle, it would be hard for one to say the cows are treated well prior to slaughter. While some believe that grass-fed beef is the solution, the evironmental problems are worse with grass-fed beef, as explained below.
Beef and the Environment
Animal agriculture is inherently inefficient, and cattle are no exception. It takes 10-16 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef. This means it takes many times more resources to feed a person who eats meat compared to a vegan, and those resources include land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, seeds, and fuel. The United Nations has found that "Livestock now use 30 per cent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 per cent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock." The fertilizer runoff pollutes waterways, causing algae blooms which killed fish.
Cattle and other livestock are also a notorious source of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Manure disposal is also an issue. According to the USDA, "A typical 1,000-head beef feedlot produces up to 280 tons of manure in just one week."
Grassfed beef require even more resources than feedlot beef because the cows are spread out more and require more land. If the cows are eating wild grasses, they may require less in terms of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, but they destroy wild habitats and displace more wildlife. They eat more because they expend more energy roaming about. In the American West, wild horses are rounded up because they compete with cattle, and the Amazon rainforests are now being destroyed and clearcut to create grazing lands for grassfed beef. Grassfed cattle also grow more slowly than cattle raised on grains, and therefore produce more methane and manure in their lifetimes.
Beef and Human Health
Beef is high in cholesterol and saturated fat, which increases risks for obesity, heart disease, stroke and other health problems. Even so-called "lean" ground beef is high in fat. Also, studies have shown that a diet high in animal products increases risks for cancers, and one study found that a vegan diet stops and even reverses prostate cancer. Another study found that red meat consumption increases the risk of dying prematurely from heart disease and cancer.
The American Dietetic Association supports vegan diets, and states that a vegetarian or vegan diet "may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."
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