(THE STAR) - On the surface, it would appear that a vegetarian diet can lead to a longer life and a reduced incidence of certain diseases – at least, it seems that plant fibre plays a significant part in promoting a smoothly functioning intestinal system which is critical for good health.
However, the definition of vegetarian used is as per most scientific dietary studies – it includes the occasional consumption of animal and/or fish proteins.
The total exclusion of meat from the diet can be regarded as mildly nutrition-deficient – but it is also generally not life-threatening.
The main risk of excluding meat is a lower intake of certain compounds found in meat – including Vitamin B12 (cobalamin), creatine, carnosine, Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), certain Omega-3 fatty acids (eg. docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA), heme-iron, taurine, et cetera.
It is feasible to replace or augment some of these nutrients from plant-based foods; for example, Vitamin B12 is also present in seaweed and fermented soy beans, and DHA can be synthesised by the body from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in some seeds.
But some meat nutrients are not present in any plants – they include creatine, carnosine, heme-iron, taurine, et cetera, which are compounds that can affect health, stamina and general well-being in subtle ways.
Despite the meat industry’s constant insinuations about how much everyone needs animal protein, the fact is that growing children require rather more meat protein than adults.
Severe protein deficiency is manifested by diseases such as marasmus and kwashiorkor, normally found only in countries prone to famines, and these diseases tend to affect children rather more than adults.
The truth is that most broiler chickens in the UK never see a blade of grass in all their sad, appalling lives – and great efforts are made by the industry to prevent people from knowing such facts.
In modern societies, practically any ordinary adult diet, vegetarian or meat-based, will normally include adequate protein. As such, protein-deficiency diseases are really rare even if meat is wholly excluded from the diet and protein deficiency in civilised countries is usually linked to eating disorders rather than food itself.
Anyway, there are now very good reasons to consider eating more vegetables and less meat – in fact, perhaps restricting meat to only a few portions a week. These reasons are not necessarily wholly to do with nutritional considerations but also relate to evolutionary, environmental, ecological and perhaps humane reasons.
Are We Eating Too Much Meat?
A question posed earlier is whether modern humans are eating too much meat. The answer, emphatically, is YES.
By comparison, the consumption of meat by our Palaeolithic ancestors would have been highly irregular and probably restricted to smaller quantities.
There were several reasons for this: it is not usual to hunt and kill large animals every day, so meat would be generally be sourced from small animals and birds which needed to be shared between many people.
Hunting was not always successful every day either. There was no refrigeration so meat would spoil quickly. Even after humans took to animal husbandry, it was still not feasible to eat meat every day because breeding animals was a slow process due to gestation and animal growth rates.
Feeding livestock was also very resource-intensive – all this meant that animals were usually consumed only at special occasions, with plant-based foods eaten at other times.
Human digestive systems have evolved to cope with this irregular meat environment – our intestines may well evolve further in the future, but at present, the length and configuration of our intestines indicate that human digestive systems are attuned to extracting as much nutrients as possible from both plants and meat.
In modern societies, none of the above limitations about the availability of meat apply, mainly because people nowadays do not raise their own animals but rely on huge industrial producers to provide meat, trucked in vast quantities via refrigerated containers to food factories, supermarkets and butchers.
This means that ordinary people can now eat meat at every meal, every day – and very often many people do exactly that. This additional intake of meat has already affected the development of modern humans who are generally bigger than earlier generations – but it also very likely contributed to modern syndromes such as obesity, diabetes and gastrointestinal problems.
The global consumption of meat is still growing every year – as countries prosper, citizens can afford to eat more meat, and that is precisely what they do.
In 2014, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) estimated that Americans ate 90kg of meat each on average while the rest of the world averaged 34kg each. By 2024, Americans are projected to eat 94.1kg of meat a year and the rest of the world 35.5kg each.
Producing such prodigious quantities of meat means that at any point in time there are around 20 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cows, 1 billion pigs and 1 billion sheep being farmed on Earth – and the numbers are increasing by over 25 million animals per year.
The problem is not only that we have so many animals, but we have to feed, house and care for all these animals to ensure the continued supply of meat at current volumes.
This leads to an even greater problem. An example, using statistics from the USDA Census of Agriculture for 2012, shows that the US has 370 million hactares of farmland, where over 45 per cent (168 million hactares) is used for grazing pasture or livestock facilities, leaving just below 43 per cent (390 million acres) for croplands – though only 315 million acres of croplands are actually harvested.
Of the crops produced, the top three most commonly grown crops are corn, soybeans and forage for animals (accounting for over 67 per cent of all harvested croplands) – and 36 per cent of the corn, 70 per cent of the soybeans and 100 per cent of the forage are used to feed animals, with the remaining used to produce biofuels or for human consumption.
The USDA statistics indicate that the overwhelming use of US farmland is for the production of meat (including providing feed for meat production), and this pattern of land usage for meat production is more or less repeated globally across other agricultural countries.
If meat production is as energy efficient as growing crops, then there probably would not be a problem, or at least it would be less of a problem.
However, meat is notoriously inefficient to produce as a food. According to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia, it takes over 2kg of feed to produce a kilo of chicken or pork, 4-6kg for a kilo of lamb and 5-20kg for a kilo of beef (depending on the method used to raise cattle).
Translated into calories, it works out that for every 1,000 calories we feed livestock, we get back only 120 calories of meat from chickens, 100 calories from pork and only 30 calories from beef.
What is even gloomier are the statistics about the greenhouse gases produced by livestock: 3.7kg of gases for each kilo of chicken, 24kg of gases for a kilo of pork and up to a staggering 1,000kg of greenhouse gases per kilo of beef.
In calorific terms, producing meat like beef is like having 33 people do the job of one person with everyone simultaneously farting non-stop.
The reason for the huge production of gases by cattle is because they are ruminants with multiple stomachs that digest the cellulose in their plant feed via various kinds of bacteria – and a by-product of this bacterial digestion process is prodigious amounts of methane and other noxious gases.
There are also curious, somewhat arbitrary assessments of the amount of water needed for meat production.
It is estimated that each kilo of pork requires around 6,000 litres of water, a kilo of lamb needs over 10,000 litres and a kilo of beef uses over 15,000 litres.
However, these amounts of water often appear to refer mainly to rain water, probably used to irrigate pastures, so the environmental impact may be limited unless it is water extracted from underground sources such as wells and aquifers. Also run-offs from cleaning animal compounds are known to contribute to contamination of land, rivers and underground water resources.
Why We Love Meat
The high desirability of meat is linked to our evolutionary roots – meat is a very efficient way of acquiring proteins, fats, calories and other nutrients, some of which are not available from plants.
Also, without meat, humans would not be able to discuss topics like vegetarianism today because the evolution of human brains depended enormously on the energy and nutrients derived from cooked meat.
Therefore, throughout our entire evolutionary history, humans had expended a lot of resources to ensure a supply of meat – and our digestive tract is clear evidence of our ability to digest meat efficiently along with other foods.
This past dependence on meat nutrition is probably a significant factor why many humans still generally prefer to eat meat even though other nourishing non-meat options are now available.
One factor may also be the versatility of meat in terms of cooking and preparation. There are countless ways to enhance the taste of meat – a piece of pork can be grilled, fried, boiled, roasted, slow-cooked, usually while infused with spices, mixed with other foods, drenched in sauces, et cetera.
By comparison, the range of options for cooking vegetables is usually much more restricted – as such, becoming fully vegetarian will probably never be an option for me, especially as it is also very difficult to find a red wine to match a plate of boiled vegetables.
Additionally, there is also overwhelming evidence that our preference of meat is actively encouraged by a food industry which seem intent on keeping everyone eating as much meat as possible – while at the same time keeping disturbing facts about the production, slaughtering and nutritional quality of meat far away from the public.
A Depressing Pause
A prosaic but somewhat unsettling event some years ago made me pause for thought. I was on my way home after work and had stopped at a little supermarket near the station – in there I came across a pack of six raw chicken drumsticks for sale for £1 (S$1.6). It was not a special offer, it was not a discounted deal – it was just the normal price of battery-farmed chickens and it was simply horrifying to realise that three chickens were killed and their meat offered for so little.
Even more sickening was that the producer had sold the meat to the supermarket for just pennies. It made me consider the conditions in which chickens must have been raised and killed to justify the economics of supplying meat at such low prices.
It was not a happy thought, subsequently confirmed by some rather depressing research.
If you are squeamish, you might want to skip over the next bits for they are about broiler chicken farming in Britain. Broiler chickens are raised in cramped conditions, where it is common to have over 20,000 chickens in relatively small warehouses – space is at a premium so each chicken has less space than a sheet of A4 paper in which to live, and it is true that they will have more space in a kitchen oven than they would have had all their lives.
Selective breeding over many years means that these chickens grow very quickly in terms of flesh and weight which results in their puny legs being unable to support their bloated bodies – this leads to frightful injuries and deformities.
Being crowded in such confined spaces and in close proximity to so many other chickens mean that diseases can spread very quickly – and this is handled by the wholesale use of antibiotics which are mixed in with their food, and this is a root cause why certain human bacterial diseases can now no longer be treated by antibiotics.
If they live long enough, chickens in such a hostile environment would probably develop severe psychological issues but at least they are usually killed by the time they are less than seven weeks old, even though the slaughtering methods are disturbingly barbaric.
I can continue with other deeply troubling facts about industrial chicken farming – and also about how the public is often duped by glossy advertising and pictures of chickens running around on grass.
The plight of other livestock raised for wholesale meat production is not better at all – this is simply because meat production is a business and when money is involved, efficiencies of scale are important to maximise profits and therefore animal welfare is a very low consideration, if it is considered at all.
The miseries do not stop at the farms – just very recently, in September 2017, the EU revised their regulations for the transportation of animals for slaughter when it was found that cattle, pigs, poultry and lambs were routinely dying during long-distance trips between EU countries. The animals were dying because of the lack of food and water, and stress due to the severely cramped transport conditions and inadequate ventilation.
If you are now feeling a little sombre, the final part discusses whether modern food is even real food, and what can be done which might help everyone and perhaps our planet too.