Mr. Green's May 1, 2007, Mailbag Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers
Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail email@example.com.
To BP or Not to BP?
Hey Mr. Green,
If BP is your "best" choice for gasoline brands, you must have your head in the oil sands. Its high-risk industrial operations in Texas City killed 15 workers and injured 180 in 2005. Does BP contribute to Sierra?--Konrad in Park Ridge, Illinois
I'm well aware of this inexcusable slaughter of petroleum workers, which was mentioned--along with plenty of other black marks on the company's record--in the Sierra report ("Pick Your Poison") that put BP in the "top of the barrel" category. That's why I said picking a better oil company was about as dicey as dancing with Vice President Dick Cheney on an oil slick.
These are huge and complex companies, and a large number of factors informed our analysis. Yes, more than a dozen BP employees died in that Texas City incident, but many people have been--or will be--killed because of global warming, as it causes the spread of tropical diseases and increases the intensity of storms. In contrast to BP, which has long acknowledged that something has to be done about global warming, ExxonMobil refused to even admit that climate change was happening until this February. Before that, Exxon had been very active--and successful--in debunking global warming, thereby forcing a delay in doing anything about it.
It's downright grisly and depressing to try and weigh the fatalities, pollution, and other ills caused by one petroleum provider against another's. Which is why we need to greatly step up the development of less homicidal and less ecocidal forms of energy.
The Hidden Costs of Illumination
Hey Mr. Green,
Your response to Ruth about turning off the lights when leaving a room left out a critical part of any rigorous economic analysis. The costs should also include the emissions created by generating the energy. I realize the term cost-benefit analysis is used loosely, but as an environmental economist, I cringe to think that the Sierra Club, of all organizations, is willing to accede to anyone that the cost of energy is only dollars out of your own pocket.
--Kirsten in Pacific Grove, California
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I rarely have enough space in Sierra to address all the relevant issues, but I wish I had mentioned these hidden, or "externalized," costs. When we keep our lights burning--or engage in any other use of fossil fuels--we all pay hidden costs for repairing the environmental damage caused by coal-fired power plants and for providing medical care for those whose health has been harmed by these plants' emissions.
Half-Baked Ideas About Vegetarianism?
Hey Mr. Green,
"Eco-idiot" may be a little strong, but you could use some help with reality. In your tirade "Food for Thought on Meat," you made some unfounded assertions and passed along some half-baked ideas.
Whether cows are eating grains or grass, raising cattle still requires huge tracts of land, which must remain in a totally unnatural state. Just because we have historically allowed cows to decimate natural ecosystems is no reason to continue. If everyone ate only organic, vegan food, we would use many times less land and natural resources to feed our burgeoning population.
I'd also like to remind you that not one cow was in North America when all the deep, rich topsoil we once had was being produced by composting vegetation. The occasional and widely dispersed animal droppings were only incidental to topsoil virility. Manure from cows or any other species, while hastening decomposition, is not necessary to produce bountiful food crops.
You perpetuate the fallacy that we humans somehow need huge amounts of "complete" protein. This simply is not true. Human milk is about 5 percent protein, and this adequately provides all we need during the most explosive growth stage of our lives. There is plenty of protein in plant-based foods, and eating a wide variety of almost any of them will provide more than enough essential amino acids for superior health. If this weren't true, then how would we be getting adequate protein from vegan farm animals?
While meat does contain vitamin B12, it's hardly the only source. B12 is produced by hundreds of bacteria and was found readily in nature. It was in our drinking water before we chlorinated it. We could find it in crop topsoil, but most topsoil is now sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. It used to grow plentifully around our teeth and gums, but now we brush with caustic chemicals. We eliminated most natural sources of B12 and now must rely on supplements, fortified foods, or on a totally unnatural source: animal products.
To say that man has "evolved" to eat meat is absurd. If we had evolved to eat meat, we would be able to outrun our prey, sink our teeth into its neck, crush its larynx, tear it to shreds with our teeth and nails, and gobble down huge chunks of meat--raw, not cooked! Instead, humans are on the menu for carnivores, not ordering from it. We were, and are, small, and our teeth and jaws are malformed to eat meat. However, as we left our tropical birthplace, we probably found a precious source of dense calories in scavenged animal carcasses. Since we couldn't find plant foods year-round as we began to colonize the rest of the world, we had to rely on animal protein for survival.
But leaving that charged debate aside, evidence shows that animal protein, in and of itself, is carcinogenic to the human body. Day after day, reputable research comes out demonstrating the benefits of a plant-based diet. If you want the utterly convincing and captivating details, just check out the book The China Study. The author, T. Colin Campbell, who has a PhD from Cornell University, was born and raised on a dairy farm. He wrote his dissertation on how to increase the productivity of dairy cows. As a young man, he even ridiculed vegetarians. But over the past three decades, he has overseen one of the largest and longest studies on diet and disease in the entire world, and it has changed his opinion dramatically. As a result, he and his entire family have gone vegan.
Campbell's work is so impeccable that England's prestigious Oxford University has signed on to his research. The China Study repeatedly shows how animal protein, saturated fat, and cholesterol cause disease in humans, while fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients from plants protect and heal our bodies.
I'm with you on paying more per pound for meat, but the best way to achieve that would be to remove all the subsidies that animal agribusiness enjoys. Doing so would make animal products prohibitively expensive for most people and drastically reduce the consumption of these unhealthy and unsustainable foods. A nice secondary benefit is that we would go a long way in solving the healthcare crisis our country faces.
I don't think anyone would disagree that everyone should try to live a more compassionate lifestyle. Vegetarians clearly do a far better job of it than meat eaters. The closer and sooner we begin to live in our true herbivorous ecological niche, the more sustainable and peaceful our entire planet will be.
--James in Madison Heights, Michigan
I appreciate hearing from folks like you because I'd like to advance the meat-eating debate beyond the polarization between vegetarians and omnivores and look for ways of feeding ourselves that do the least environmental harm. Obviously, the way meat is raised today does a lot of damage. But this does not mean that a total exclusion of meat from our diet is necessarily best for the planet. Different agronomic strategies are needed for different areas. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of food production.
I don't think what I wrote is exactly a "tirade," since I didn't say anything like "vegetarians must die" or "meat eaters of the world, arise and slaughter." I merely attempted to explain my doubts about various criticisms of meat production and consumption, while also sorting through some of the "meatier" cultural and agronomic questions.
The problem with the idea that cows decimate natural ecosystems is not that they are intrinsically harmful to the environment or that land must remain in a totally unnatural state for them to exist. After all, the Great Plains and other areas of the United States were for thousands of years vast grazing areas for bison, bovids that are so closely related to cattle that the two animals can interbreed. Estimates of the buffalo population before colonial invasion of the plains run from 30 million to 60 million. So the problem with cattle is not with the species itself, but the method used to raise them. Yes, cattle are now largely managed as sedentary creatures, which severely stresses (even ruins) the land. But cattle can be raised with strategies that mimic the migrations of buffalo, and there are some interesting experiments in such "rotational grazing" that put far less stress on the land than conventional practices do.
Plowing land to raise corn, wheat, and soybeans can actually subvert nature in a far more dangerous manner than grazing. Clearly, the most "natural" condition of much prairieland is to be grazed, as it was for millennia, not plowed, cultivated, and irrigated as so much of it is today, or tilled into the conditions that triggered the dust bowl. The prairie Indians lived on this grazing economy, harvesting bison and other animals and combining this practice with the cultivation of (far smaller quantities of) corn, squash, and beans.
Some people even dream of a "buffalo commons," where the plains would be restored and the buffalo population would rise to its "natural" precolonial levels. Of course, it would take a very long time to achieve this, but it would result in far less land under cultivation, with buffalo becoming a valuable food source. (For more on this possibility, read the Lawrence Journal-World article "'Buffalo Commons' Idea Gets Second Look." Anyone who's interested in learning more about prairie ecology should also read Richard Manning's book Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie.)
As the prairie coevolved with buffalo, various birds and plants adapted to bovid activity. And though manure is not absolutely necessary for crop production, those millions of buffalo ensured there was plenty of it around in the precolonial era, and to this day it is a very useful tool for sustainable farming and maintaining soil fertility while also serving as an alternative to chemical fertilizers.
If ecologically managed, cattle could be part of a naturally grazed landscape, as were buffalo. The same is true of other species. Deer, for example, are now back up to their precolonial numbers. In Minnesota alone, 200,000 are harvested each year and eaten--providing, by my quick calculation, five days' worth of the recommended allowance of protein for each Minnesotan! This benefits both people and wildlife habitat because too many deer can cause a lot of environmental damage by overbrowsing forests. Using hunting as a method of population control is especially important where there are few natural predators.
I must also disagree with your interpretation of our evolution as eaters. We are omnivores. We are emphatically not small, but one of the bigger mammals around. Just because we aren't physically equipped to be predators doesn't mean we haven't undergone evolutionary changes to adapt to eating meat. You actually support this idea with the theory that we probably started our meat-eating evolution as scavengers, gnawing on carcasses abandoned by real predators (which may explain some people's predilection for foul-smelling cheeses). Humans are very effective predators because they are able to use their complex brains, languages, and social skills to engage in tool making, hunting, and using fire. These skills have allowed us to compensate for our lack of specialized tooth-and-claw equipment. This is basic anthropology.
There is also a fair amount of evidence that humans had already begun to adapt to an omnivorous diet before leaving Africa. Moreover, the "tropical homeland" thesis makes it difficult to explain why people native to many tropical areas around the world thrive as omnivores.
Changes in teeth, jaw structure, and the digestive tract have made us more adapted to meat consumption than our hominid cousins. Knife marks on animal bones, the proximity of slain animals to human remains, and hunting tools are a few of the archaeological pieces of evidence for early omnivorous habits. Some scientists also cite our superior ability to metabolize fat in comparison with other hominids as possible evidence of evolutionary changes that amplified our tendencies to use meat as a food source. There is even a theory that increased meat in diets fostered the growth of larger human brains, because brain development is dependent on lipids (a.k.a. fats and oils).
Remember too that evolution means change. Even if our African ancestors ate only plants, that doesn't prove we are by nature vegetarian. Like any other animal, we have evolved to adapt to changing diets, so it is risky to assume that the daily fare of a hominid 4 million years ago is best for us today. Consider the very recent finds of hunting tools made around 45,000 years ago in Russia. Descendants of these hunters surely had ample time to genetically adapt to a more meat-inclusive diet. Not that changes would have to be terribly drastic anyway, given that our closest relatives, chimps, are, like us, omnivores that will eat meat, though it is not the principle item in their diet.
Evolution works on us humans just as it does on other species, and it appears that the genetics and dietary habits of populations have been fine-tuned to adapt to local food sources. Some of our genetic adaptations to food are fairly recent, like lactose tolerance, which apparently came into existence around 8,000 years ago. (Although millions of people are still lactose intolerant.) Why Some Like It Hot, by Gary Paul Nabhan, is a fascinating, accessible book on genetic adaptations to diet.
On to the health questions. In mentioning vitamin B12, I was countering claims that meat "uses up" vitamins and leave us with less than what was in the animal's feed. There are other important trace elements in meat, and I should have noted that organ meats contain large amounts of vitamins such as A and D. As far as teeth and gums go, I rather like to have mine healthy, even if it means sacrificing their ability to brew up B12.
In talking about "complete" protein, I mean all the essential amino acids at recommended daily allowances, not some sort of protein glut. No, we don't have to eat meat to get complete protein, because you can combine the amino acids in various plant foods to get it. But meat is a compact way to obtain it, as it has more protein per pound than grains do. Of course mother's milk has a low percentage of protein because it is a liquid. But if you'd ever nursed, or observed the process, you'd see that what milk lacks in concentration, it readily compensates for in volume. The percent of protein in this context is irrelevant.
And yes, many farm animals are vegans. But this is precisely one of the strongest arguments for raising livestock, since animals are able to convert material inedible to humans into food that we can consume.
When it comes to studies like Campbell's, there are so many variables that it is well-nigh impossible to reach a definite conclusion. Certainly fiber, plant material, and phytonutrients are essential, but they're not precluded by a diet that includes meat. Moreover, even if an elevated rate of cancer among meat eaters exists, it's very hard to sort out whether it's the meat itself or some combination of the many toxic chemicals that have made their way into the food chain.
If meat were as intrinsically harmful as some believe, we could expect that far greater differences in life expectancy would be found between omnivores and vegetarians. And even this comparison is fraught with variables that make it difficult to "prove" anything. Even if vegetarians have greater longevity, it would be very hard to determine how many months or years they gain by abstaining from meat, since vegetarians tend to be more health conscious in general than omnivores. Further complicating things are differences in community background, income level, healthcare quality, method of preparing meat, and other social considerations.
Overconsumption of meat is not the only, or even the main, thing that's killing us. A diet that lacks vegetables while being crammed full of sugar, trans fats, carbohydrates, additives, and refined and junk foods is lethal. Combine that with smoking, stress, lack of exercise, lack of community, and poor healthcare, and it's doubly so. As long as people are being force-fed such massive volumes of all this crap, it's untenable to lay too much blame on meat per se. There's a vast industry built on destructive eating habits that "adds value" to a product by refining, processing, packaging, and relentlessly marketing it. That's why the farmer's share of every retail food dollar has fallen from 50 percent in 1950 to 20 percent today.
I do believe that Americans consume more protein than they need. According to my calculations, our meat consumption alone is enough to provide all the protein we need. Add to that dairy, fish, nuts, beans, and grains, and you can see that we have abundant protein. But that is one of the very facts that ought to spur us to explore the combination of agronomic techniques that will give us adequate diets with maximum environmental sustainability. If we look at the situation this way, we might conclude that, for example, consuming 75 percent less meat would be ideal. But until we seriously and holistically examine what is most sustainable for a given region--both for our diets and the natural world--we don't really know.
Far east of the prairie, for example, after wheat farming depleted the New England landscape in the mid-19th century, farmers switched to dairy to lessen the burden on the soil and regenerate it. Wheat farming then moved west, and Wisconsin, now know as "America's dairyland," was a major wheat producer. But as they witnessed soil depletion there, too, agricultural reformers such as W. D. Hoard, who had (like wheat) migrated from New England, began to advocate a switch from "the plow to the cow."
They realized that, in the particular conditions of Wisconsin, animal agriculture, with its ability to cycle nutrients and its use of pasture and silage, could help save the soil. It also meant an increase in agricultural efficiency, as waste dairy products like whey could be fed to hogs, and the calves of dairy cattle could be grown as beef. (In order for a dairy cow to produce milk, it must have a calf every year. Obviously the male calves, and many of the females, cannot be used as milk cows, so the logical use of this resource is as beef.)
Moreover, many parts of the Midwest where corn and soybeans are grown consist of wetlands that were drained or walled off with levees to make farming possible. In terms of wetland ecology, these are sacrificial zones for agriculture, whether they feed vegetarians or carnivores.
Likewise, subsidies benefit sugar, cotton, soybean, corn, rice, and yes, tobacco farmers at least as much as "animal agribusiness." Direct subsidies to livestock growers are smaller, though Western ranchers do benefit from federal water projects and cheap fees for federal grazing land. Livestock farmers also benefit indirectly from irrigated alfalfa and from subsidies for grain and soybeans fed to animals. If subsidies were removed, they would have to be replaced by a pricing system that gives farmers a fair return on their labor and investment, which is rarely the case, except for sporadic booms that punctuate a long-term bust.
But even if subsidies were abolished, I'm not at all sure that meat would suddenly become unaffordable to most people. Subsidies are said to encourage overproduction, but so do low prices, because a farmer makes up in volume what is lacking in price. (Subsidies were initiated as part of an attempt to reduce this price-dropping surplus.) Subsidies on corn, for example, have averaged about 44 cents per bushel, or less than a penny a pound, over the past ten years. So you have to wonder if eliminating them would have as big an effect on our farming and diet as is often claimed.
Even assuming it takes ten pounds of corn to make a pound of meat, would an additional ten cents per pound really put retail meat prices out of reach? According to some opponents of subsidies, it would lead to a drop in exports, but if that left more corn on the U.S. market, domestic prices would probably drop again, and the cheaper feed might trigger a new increase in livestock volume. These questions are too complicated for me to answer, and I would be surprised if economists agree about the possible consequences.
As I see it, ethanol and biodiesel might turn out to be a graver threat to the environment than livestock production. While a switch from feeding pigs to feeding SUVs might help unclog some arteries, it would greatly increase the demand for corn and soybeans. Already there is talk about taking land out of conservation programs, where it's left fallow, and putting it back under cultivation for ethanol. In this scenario, farms would lose the agronomic benefit of animals and become even more dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to optimize biofuel yields.
When it comes to the more philosophical questions, I honestly don't detect much excess virtue and compassion in vegetarians or lack of it in omnivores. Let's face it: Each camp has its fair share of ornery characters all over the world. I do think there is a clear correlation between vegetarianism and heightened political and environmental awareness, but to attribute these attitudes to vegetarianism is a logical fallacy. It's more likely that the consciousness led to the vegetarianism, not vice versa.
Finally, the biological fact is that harm happens to creatures whether we slit their throats in a slaughterhouse, drive them out of their burrows to certain death when we plow up a field for wheat, or drain the swamp where they happily swam and nested in order to grow soybeans.
Our sheer survival demands the sacrifice of other organisms, just as the survival of animals in the natural world demands it. This sort of harm is unavoidable. But there is a huge amount of avoidable harm in the way we now raise farm animals in massive livestock factories. It is not the way traditional farmers raised their livestock, with care for the health of animals and a sense of empathy with them. Not only did the farmer have a basic economic interest in keeping his or her animals healthy, but also working with them, feeding and watering them, and being alert to their discomforts, joys, and personal quirks gave the farmer a relationship with the animals that was not all that different from a pet owner's affection for his or her dog or cat.
In some peasant communities, people even lived with livestock because they helped heat dwellings in cold weather. (Old sayings like "Happy as a pig in shit" or "Enough to make an old sow eat her pigs" derive from a way of living with animals that is fast disappearing.) Only a fairly hard-hearted character would fail to develop feelings for fellow creatures that literally ensured his or her survival.
Under Pressure in Berkeley, California (a.k.a. Mr. Green)
Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra magazine. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.
Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at sierraclub.org/mrgreen.
Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.