(Photos courtesy of PETA)
Every five years the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a government-appointed group of top nutrition experts, lays the scientific groundwork for new national dietary guidelines and makes recommendations to the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments. Because a draft of the Committee's new guidelines calls for consumption of more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods based on environmental implications, Congress immediately directed the Obama administration to ignore recommendations that ventured into the realm of "agricultural production practices and environmental factors," claiming that those issues are not within the committee's expertise.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., board-certified specialist in Sports Dietetics and director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research and encourages higher standards of ethics, disagrees. "The committee should consider sustainability. It is their job to look at all the science and make recommendations."
What's the beef?
Although the battle is playing out on a national stage, albeit behind closed doors because Congress issued a gag order to Committee members, the effects will be felt in Indiana, long known as an agricultural state.
Seemingly not worried about the Committee's recommendations, Joe Moore, executive vice president of the Indiana Beef Cattle Association, is nevertheless angry, charging that there is "not one business person, nutritionist or doctor on the committee. They're all academics and they have agendas; most are anti-meat. That's been brought forth in this."
On the contrary, PCRM president Neal Barnard, M.D., fires back with claims of conflict of interest for six of the 11 committee members, citing evidence of financial ties to the meat, dairy or egg industries. "Having advisors tied to the meat or dairy industries is as inappropriate as letting tobacco companies decide our standards for air quality."
Moore, who "vehemently disagrees" with the Committee's recommendations, accuses the "academics [of] trying to turn the ship" through "group think."
Levin is thankful that the DGAC contains academics instead of lobbyists or industry-funded researchers with any agenda. "That's the whole point of it being a transparent committee selection process. It wasn't always like that."
Arguing that the DGAC was "only supposed to consider the nutritional value of food, not sustainability of the environment," Moore insists that the recommendations go against "30 years of peer-reviewed science. It's crap. A plant-based diet doesn't meet science; it's only opinion. Lean meat is a valuable part of any healthy diet. Congress told the Ag Secretary the Committee should only consider nutrition – the extraneous crap should be ignored. They just want millions of dollars in funding to go study their new food requirements."
Dietary requirements have been firmly established by reputable groups, such as the American Dietetic Association, which states that "appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."
Vegetarian diets are proven to provide several health advantages, including lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower cancer rates.
The China-Cornell-Oxford Project, aka the China Study, the largest comprehensive study of human nutrition ever conducted, presented groundbreaking results. Supported by a partnership between Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, the China Study recommends a plant-based diet for best long-term health. "People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest. There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants."
A whole-food, plant-based diet provides protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. It reduces incidents of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and bone, kidney, eye and brain diseases.
Considered "bullet-proof," the 20-year China Study included extensive testing that resulted in 8,000 statistically significant associations between diet and disease. The study discovered links between nutrition and carcinogens. Findings from the China Study indicate that animal protein promotes the growth of cancer. Almost one-third of Americans over age 20 are obese. One out of 13 has diabetes. Heart disease kills one out of three. Many of these health issues can be prevented – and some reversed – by a plant-based diet.
Similarly, the Harvard Health Professionals follow-up study monitored more than 37,000 men and more than 83,000 women for nearly 3 million "person-years." It found that consumption of red meat was associated with an increased risk of premature mortality from cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Many physicians and researchers, such as Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D. at the Cleveland Clinic, and Dr. Dean Ornish, Harvard Medical School graduate, have found that a plant-based diet can stop the progression of heart disease. Chronic diseases also can often be prevented or reversed by eating a plant-based diet, providing tremendous savings. Currently, more than 75 percent of the $2.8 trillion annual health care cost is spent to treat chronic disease.
Robert Ostfeld, M.D., director of the Cardiac Wellness Program and associate professor of Clinical Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, says a whole-food, plant-based diet provides the best health benefits without the side effects of medications to treat chronic disease.
"There is no need to consume meat," Levin concludes. "There is no protein or amino acid that can't be gotten from plants. Calcium is readily available in beans and greens. Vegetables have a lot of protein; it's very difficult to under-consume protein. In fact, it's twice as absorbable: 60 percent vs. 30 percent in milk."
"The facts speak for themselves," adds Kim Ferraro, Hoosier Environmental Council senior staff attorney. "This 'need for meat' is just corporate brainwashing. How many more studies do we need from credible, academic institutions?"
Sticking to the diet
The fact that meat is not good for humans may be indisputable, but many people find it tough to stick to a plant-based diet. "We eat too much meat," Ferraro continues, "because food speaks to many aspects of our lives." What was once a delicacy due to price is now an everyday staple – which is the crux of the problem. "If everyone in the world ate like we do, we'd need eight planets to sustain it."
The USDA has been tracking Americans' food intake since 1909. Between then and 2007, the average American's meat intake increased from 124 pounds per year to more than 200 pounds. Cheese intake rose from less than 4 pounds to nearly 33 pounds per year.
Despite Moore's claims that the demand for beef has "never been higher" even while prices also have never been higher, the recent trend appears to indicate a decline in overall meat consumption.
"Prices are up; people are eating less," explains Tom Hertel, an economist at Purdue University. "People respond to prices. Total consumption is falling 10 percent."
Americans consume more meat when it's cheap and convenient, Levin says. Fast food and pizza delivery play a role, but she points out that the government encourages people to consume more beef, cheese and pork.
The USDA admits that prices and availability are influenced by federal agricultural support policies. Levin calls them "checkoff programs" – contracts to put more cheese on burgers, for example. "Daily farmers pay a fee to the program, which then creates campaigns like 'got milk?' – generic promotions that benefit the farmers," she elaborates. "The USDA is behind the scenes with Domino's to figure out where they can put more cheese."
This type of marketing manipulates the trends. Even more serious is the controversy it raises: why is the USDA involved in creating guidelines? This organization was created to get people to eat more meat, then it was tasked with creating dietary guidelines. "It's a huge conflict of interest," Levin states.
Indiana ranks 27th in cattle production with approximately 800,000 head of cattle. The Hoosier state is 5th in the country for commercial hog slaughter, up from 7.7 million in 2007 to 8.5 million in 2012. Americans eat 100 million chickens per hour because they think it's healthier, Levin adds.
Food production uses half of all land where vegetation can grow. Because farming is the biggest source of greenhouse gases, Timothy Searchinger, a researcher with Princeton University and the World Resources Institute, an environmental group, told NPR that dietary recommendations have to consider environmental impact.
As part of a paper he's preparing for the National Academy of Science, Hertel compares four resources: land, irrigation water, GHG and nitrogen. He says dairy, poultry, pork and eggs are "in the same ballpark" when it comes to resources used, but beef is "off the charts." One pound of beef takes seven pounds of feed, compared with three pounds for pork and two pounds for poultry. Beef uses 1.6 cubic meters of irrigation water per mega calorie; most farmed animals use 0.2.
The 2014 documentary Cowspiracy points out that the water footprint of animal husbandry is greater than that of other activities. Animal agriculture in the U.S. uses 34 trillion gallons of water a year, or one-third of all fresh water. It is also the biggest user of water and the number one water polluter. One pound of beef requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce; one gallon of milk, 1,000 gallons of water; one pound of cheese, 900 gallons.
Animal ag also uses 45 percent of all land and is the leading cause of resource degradation. It is responsible for 91 percent of Amazon rain forest destruction and is the leading cause of species destruction, ocean dead zones (from run-off) and habitat destruction. One acre of rainforest is cleared every second for grazing farmed animals; already 136 million acres have been lost to cows and soy production. One-third of the land is becoming desert due to farmed animal grazing.
Hertel explains that increased demand for meat encourages farmers to clear forests and plow up grasslands. "Conversion of land for agriculture has become a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in recent decades."
In 2009 the Worldwatch Institute, an independent environmental research institute, estimated that animal agriculture is responsible for 51 percent of climate change (producing 32.6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually), compared with transportation at 13 percent.
Simply put, it is the number one contributor to human-caused climate change. "Raising and killing animals for food is killing the planet," states Demosthenes Maratos, with The Sustainable Institute, in Cowspiracy.
"Beef is more resource-intensive," Hertel recaps. "The animals are not as efficient at converting [grain into food]."
Moore objects, stating that "cattle eat food we can't, like soy and corn stalks, and turn plants into food. They eat plants so I don't have to."
He says US beef producers do "the best job of anyone in the world: 20 percent of farmers in the US feed 80 percent of the world." He also says cattle numbers are on the way up, quoting State Board of Health figures of 20,000 Indiana locations registered as having a cow. "We are not destroying the environment through animal ag."
However, the animal ag industry is responsible for 15 percent of total global carbon emissions; approximately two-thirds of that is the result of beef production.
The other white meat
Cattle are grazers who live outside, Moore says in defense of his industry. "The other production method is CAFOs, where you put things in a barn and confine them to a small space. It's a totally different industry. Animal activists decry CAFOs; they look at beef as a good thing."
CAFOs are concentrated animal feeding operations. Indiana has more than 1,800 CAFOs and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management receives 60-70 new applications each year, primarily because small-scale livestock farming is not cost-efficient and row crops are too expensive.
Noting that "any type of product that uses natural resources has an environmental impact," Josh Trenary, executive director of the Indiana Pork Producers Association, a non-profit group representing 3,000 hog farmers and a power lobby, says that of the total crop land acres available, regulated animal ag uses only 3.6 percent.
People express concern when they see the large barns, Trenary acknowledges. "We hear 'there are too many pigs in Indiana,'" he says, adding that the CAFO system allows farmers to "decrease their environmental footprint" by housing "animals and manure on one site."
It's part of the "improved efficiency" of the industry, along with reduction of crops consumed due to genetic improvements in feed rations, he explains. Comparing 1959 with 2009, for each pound of pork produced, 78 percent less land and 42 percent less water is needed. "If the pork industry makes animals more efficient, it uses fewer resources," Trenary says.
"We are feeding and housing more efficiently," he continues. "If the public wants a product using resources efficiently, we do a good job of that. We work to provide a safe, lean protein source at a low cost while minimizing the environmental footprint."
He justifies the use of "deep pit storage" of effluent under the barns and says it is pumped out and land-applied as nutrient fertilizer. "You can't get any more sustainable than that cycle."
However, Ferraro says the manure is not good for fertilizer due to the way it's collected and stored. She draws attention to the sheer amount produced, estimating that farmed animals produce 17 times the amount of waste as humans produce. Cowspiracy's numbers are even higher, claiming cows alone produce 130 times more than humans.
Factory vs. family farming
One development that has exacerbated the problem is the transfer from traditional farming — family-owned with diversity of animals and crops sold to local consumers — to an industrialized system: the monoculture that is factory farming, where farms specialize in one thing, crop or animal.
"People aren't farmers anymore," says Ferraro. "They're contract managers. Outside corporations like Perdue control meat production, price and how animals are raised and slaughtered."
In Indiana, she says, 80 percent of all farmed animals are in nearly 2,000 confined feeding operations "because of outside influence to get big or get out. To make up for prices, they must mass produce."
One of the many issues with these large farms is animal overcrowding, which often leads to illness. "The problem is that animals are given prophylactic antibiotics (to prevent sickness) because of confinement and worry of illness," Ferraro says. "That produces resistance in humans and gets into the water."
Studies link antibody resistance to eating meat, and early puberty in girls to growth hormones used in animal ag. Levin says that many are treated with the same drugs used for humans; 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to farmed animals. "Why do they need antibiotics? The conditions are filthy."
Overcrowding and filthy conditions are breeding grounds for Escherichia coli bacteria. A USDA study found that E. coli can be spread from factory farms to plant farms via air, contaminating vegetables grown for human consumption. The CDC explains that E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and other conditions.
Trenary said the CDC study claims about antibiotic resistance have been discredited and that one third of the antibiotics sold for animals are not used in human medicine. Furthermore, he references FDA guidance documents 209 and 213. The first phases out use of growth hormones and limits use of antibiotics for the pig's health; the second provides procedures for phasing out growth hormones.
Because "all slaughterhouses are federally inspected every hour they're open if they ship out of state," Trenary believes there is no misuse of medicines.
Ferraro says the answer is "to raise animals in ways that benefit them, the land and the community: sustainable farming." The HEC promotes legislation to incentivize sustainable farming because it believes that sustainable techniques such as free-ranging should be incorporated to work with the environment in order to protect air, soil, water, food, animals and people from harmful chemicals, pesticides and large manure lagoons that breed disease. These practices also increase the quality of life for animals, farmers and their neighbors.
Moore calls sustainable ag a "dangerous word" and says it has "no definition; it's not possible to define. It's a political word people use to hammer what they don't agree with. It doesn't mean anything. We've been raising cattle the same way for 250 years and we can keep on for 250 more; that's sustainable."
The generally accepted definition of sustainable ag integrates three goals: stewardship of the environment for its long-term health; economic profitability; and social and economic equity – or quality of life for farmers. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California Davis defines it clearly. "Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore, stewardship of both natural and human resources is of prime importance."
For Jim Benham, president of the Indiana Farmers Union, a producer-driven membership organization with the primary goal of sustaining family farms and strengthening rural Indiana, that means ensuring that small farms remain viable and figuring out a fair way to treat animals. "We have a moral obligation to treat them with respect and give them a great life."
It starts with improving the environment by building up the soil without chemicals. Soil health has declined. "We have raped the ground of everything it has," he says, blaming the problem on the need to "produce more, more, more." For example, seeds are now infused with insecticide to guarantee more yield per acre.
That model is counter-productive. Mass production drives down prices, so farmers turn to whatever makes the most money. "We're growing corn and soybeans [for animal consumption] on ground that should be pasture," Benham says. "It's a battle for the dollar, not a question of what you want to do. We must figure out how farmers can make a decent living."
He says there were a lot more farmers in the early 1900s because the return on investment on a farm matched that in a city. According to USDA findings, he says, today's farmers are at 30 percent parity. His concern is that current pricing and eating habits are not allowing people to make enough per acre to live. "We need to get back to a time when 160 acres of diversified farming was enough to make a living."
He believes that factory farms and lack of representation for rural areas has changed our way of life. Of Indiana's 50 state senators, 35 come from 10 counties – all urban. But 15 of 82 counties are rural and, he says, not represented, which means farmers can't make changes. "We lost the balance of urban and rural that our government was created to protect."
Farmers need to make a living, but Benham says all the politicians want to hear is that we can feed people cheaply. "You have three things: price, quality and time. But you can only have two at once. What does the public want? What is the public willing to pay for?"
Paying it forward
Contemplating the environmental impact of what we eat is a new development, Hertel believes. "Consumers do a lot of things that aren't good for the environment, like driving," he reasons. "If our national goal was to minimize our environmental footprint, we would ask everyone to walk or bicycle to work, cease the use of air conditioners, and become vegetarians." Knowing that it is not possible for scientists to dictate human behavior, he says an economist's response is to tax these items to influence behavior.
In a paper he's preparing, Hertel writes: "The combination of high conversion rates from crops to livestock products and extremely rapid growth in consumer demand for meat, milk and eggs in developing countries has placed an increased burden on the planet's resources." He adds that "the heavy reliance on beef represents a misallocation of resources, given the large environmental footprint of these beef-derived calories."
Beef cattle release methane and require a lot of land, both for grazing and for growing crops to feed them. "Viewed through this economic lens, the problem with the current set of consumer choices is that the market price for beef — and many other products — does not reflect some of these environmental costs," Hertel writes.
"The economic logic of the situation is that we need to account for these externalities," he explains. "It's a compelling case to tax environmental 'bads.'" Taxation across the board would be incentive to change behavior. "Don't tell people what to eat, just make sure they're paying the full cost. The beef industry would feel it."
The bottom line & the solution
But while Hertel sees this as an opportunity for the animal agriculture industry and government to subsidize technology that would reduce emissions, not everyone is satisfied with merely taxing behavior that puts our planet in jeopardy.
Cowspiracy gave us the solution to climate change: stop eating animals. No other lifestyle choice has as far-reaching and profound effect on the planet. "This is a 'humans eating animals issue,'" states producer/director Kip Andersen.
Each year approximately 10 billion farmed animals are killed, according to an analysis of USDA reports by the nonprofit Farm Animal Rights Movement. Before they're killed, they consume seven times as much grain as the human population; more than half of U.S. grain and legumes, and 40 percent of world grain, are fed to farmed animals. Farmed animals use 30 percent of all land worldwide and are the reason for deforestation; 70 percent of forests in the Amazon are now used for grazing.
The ultimate goal resulting from U.N. climate negotiations in Peru is to stabilize GHG at a level that keeps global warming below 2 degrees C (3.6 F), compared with pre-industrial times. According to "Approaches to defining a planetary boundary for biodiversity" by an international team of 18 experts with the Stockholm Resilience Center, climate change and high rates of extinction of animals and plants are pushing the Earth into a danger zone for humanity.
Having identified a set of boundaries beyond which anthropogenic change will put the Earth system outside a safe operating space for humanity, the group expressed alarm about clearance of forests and pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers. "Four boundaries are assessed to have been crossed, placing humanity in a danger zone," read a statement of the study in the journal Science. Those four are climate change, species loss, land-use change and fertilizer pollution.
And yet, climate change continues to accelerate and GHG emissions have increased since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1992. The animal ag industry produces more GHG emissions than all forms of transportation combined.
The recent landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that dietary change can "substantially lower" emissions. Not only can a vegan diet achieve rapid reductions in GHGs, it can also reverse the ongoing world food and water crises.
The population in 1812 was 1 billion. In 1912 it was 1.5 billion. By 2012 it had jumped to 7 billion. There are an estimated 70 billion farmed animals. Due to dramatic increases in population and the resultant increased demand for meat, farmed animal populations are projected to double between 2006 and 2050. Meat consumption is expected to rise 75 percent by 2050, dairy by 65 percent, but cereals only 40 percent. As early as 2020, the people in China are predicted to eat 20 million tons of meat and dairy a year.
How do we feed billions of people? asks Stephen Wells, executive director of Animal Legal Defense Fund. "What we choose to eat has a greater impact on the environment and the lives of other animals than any other choice we make. More than 55 billion land animals are slaughtered each year around the world. More than a quarter of the land on our planet is taken up by animal agriculture. One-third of the Earth's land is used to grow feed for these animals."
Eating plants, rather than the animals that consume plants, would dramatically reduce the amount of land needed to grow crops, use only a fraction of the amount of water, and result in less pollution – specifically, GHG. "Discussing dietary habits makes people understandably uncomfortable," Wells writes, "but we cannot afford to ignore uncomfortable realities."
According to peer-reviewed studies, if this trend is not radically changed, agricultural emissions will take up the entire world carbon budget by 2050, meaning that every other sector, including energy, industry and transportation could not contribute any carbon – a virtual impossibility. Dietary change is essential to contain global warming.
An academic paper titled "Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States" by Gidon Eshela, Alon Sheponb, Tamar Makovc and Ron Milob states: "Livestock-based food production is an important and pervasive way humans impact the environment. It is the key land user and source of water pollution by nutrient overabundance. It also competes with biodiversity, and promotes species extinctions. Empowering consumers to make choices that mitigate some of these impacts through devising and disseminating numerically sound information is thus a key socio-environmental priority." The paper demonstrates how minimizing beef consumption mitigates the environmental costs of diet most effectively.
Similarly, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization states that "an effective strategy must involve replacing livestock products with better alternatives, rather than substituting one meat product with another that has a somewhat lower carbon footprint."
But there is no national or global plan to achieve that.
"We can prove the bad effects of factory farming, but what are we willing to do about it?" Benham asks.
Advocates of alternatives to animal products base their arguments on nutrition and health, compassion for animals or environmental issues. Their arguments have been largely ignored. Consumption of animals has continued and even increased, causing some to doubt that change will ever occur.
"Indiana is an ag state," Ferraro reflects. "The corporate giants co-opted government to implement policies that benefit them. That's why the push for ag-gag legislation." But changes are happening, she insists. "With the obesity epidemic and people caring about animals and the environment, it's coming to a head. There is greater awareness, thanks to social media and undercover investigations by animal rights groups. People are starting to rise up and apply pressure for policy change and personal change. There is cause for hope."
That hope comes tinged with caution. Moore vows to work with legislators as he prepares for the comment period on the DGAC's report. "Expect a lot of outcry on what the Committee advises. It's never been done before."
It's never been done before because powerful lobbyists from the animal ag industry, including the Farm Bureau, fight government mandates to reduce production while simultaneously appealing directly to consumers and leaders in the food industry to maintain – and increase – demand. Ferraro notes that the Farm Bureau paid for outside law firms to fight every case against the ag industry the HEC brought. (Representatives of the Farm Bureau failed to return multiple invitations to be interviewed for this article.)
Levin doubts the DGAC's report will go much farther because the USDA can reject it. "[The USDA] will never say eat less meat. They may say eat less saturated fat, but they won't say eat less meat or dairy. It's coded, and Americans don't understand what they're really saying."
Despite the challenge of standing up to lobbyists in an era when journalists and environmentalists who speak out are being sued and even killed, Levin says with the evidence mounting, "it's going to get harder for lobbyists to pay anyone, especially scientists, to sacrifice his or her reputation by claiming meat isn't harmful to human health or the environment."
Although she believes the ag industry will continue to "do its best to hide the facts or pretend evidence doesn't exist" as long as they can afford to, she says that "anyone who profits from meat sales is going to need expensive lobbyists who are willing to pretend that the preponderance of science doesn't show the benefits of plant-based diets."
Everybody cares about something, Ferraro says. "We try to reach people who are moved by animal suffering. For those who don't care about animals, we reach them on environmental, personal health or water issues."
It's a slow effort at education, but Ferraro believes they are making a difference. "More people are making different choices." It will get worse before it gets better, she warns, but it will get there.
There are so many reasons to get there, Levin adds: the environment, nutrition, ethics. "What people eat is relevant to everyone. The message is not mixed; there's so much evidence. Whatever tactic it takes to get people to this place. All roads lead to this place."