Have you ever heard of Vaclav Smil? He is a thinker of thoughts, and I first ran into his ideas watching the fascinating documentary “Surviving Progress“, where he was one of many philosophizing about progress and talking about how people might survive into the future. He is once again peaking my interest in a paper he wrote in 2014 “Eating Meat:Constants and Changes.”
Eating meat has been an important component of human evolution and rising meat consumption has made a major contribution to improved nutrition. Expanding the current practices of meat production would worsen its already considerable environmental consequences but more environmentally sensitive ways of meat production are possible. Although they could not match the current levels of meat supply, they could provide nutritionally adequate levels worldwide. This would mean a break with historical trends but such a shift is already underway in many affluent countries and demographic and economic factors are likely to strengthen it in decades ahead.
In the paper he lays out the known quantities of meat being produced in the world, he notes the damage being done by expanding meat production by so much, and by raising the meat on crops grown specifically for that purpose (corn and soy) instead of letting the animals forage naturally like has been done for all of history. He says that expected increases in meat consumption will not be possible using the current methods, and after analyzing the situation he estimates that we will all have to actually eat less meat going forward in order to reduce the rate of climate changing gasses being produced to raise meat the way that we do in the US.
I am not as smart as Dr. Smil, but having read the entire piece he misses a couple of very important details about meat and America.
We waste one third of it. By ‘we’ I do not mean me, but our society. I waste almost zero meat in my household. I will bet that you waste almost zero meat in your household as well. If one third of all of the meat produced in the US is being thrown away, my guess is that it is happening in the McDonalds of the world. When I say McDonalds I mean all of the restaurants that will cook food for people that have not yet arrived, and when the crowds don’t materialize, will throw that prepared food in the trash.
Here are some statistics, provided by the Washington Post, that try to quantify our food waste in dollars:
Each year, about 40 percent of all food in the United States goes uneaten. It’s just tossed out or left to rot. And that’s a fairly large waste of resources. All that freshwater and land, all that fertilizer and energy — for nothing. By one recent estimate, Americans are squandering the equivalent of $165 billion each year by rubbishing so much food.
The portion of that 40% uneaten statistic that is restaurant waste:
In restaurants, a good chunk of food is lost in the kitchen. And, on average, diners leave about 17 percent of their food uneaten. The report notes that portion sizes are a big reason for this, as portions have ballooned in the past 30 years. Restaurants also try to keep more food than they need on hand to make sure that everything on the menu is available. What’s more, chain restaurants have inflexible rules that require perfectly good food to be tossed. McDonald’s, for instance, requires fries to be thrown out after seven minutes. About one-tenth of fast food gets junked this way.
Good for you that you don’t try to ‘clean your plate’ when you buy a super-size meal…but having all of that food ready for you to buy it, and then throwing it away the second you don’t, is obviously very wasteful in every resource that is involved, meat, vegetable and energy.
The explosion of meat production has direct proportionality to the explosion of fast food eateries. McDonalds created the market for fast meat, for grain fed meat, for industrial meat. The food production system has warped to meet this demand.
When Smil opines that we may all need to curb our meat consumption, in my opinion it would be a fabulous place to start if we curbed our wasteful habits. It would literally be like cutting our eating in half if we just stopped throwing it all away.
Here are the things that are wasted when we make meat that is destined for the landfill:
1. All of the land that is currently being used for no other purpose than to raise corn and soy to be fed to beef could be cut 50%, thus cutting all of the waste inherent in the farming of these crops. There are huge piles of corn all over Iowa that will not fit in the silos, left to rot each year. That would be cut in half if we cut the need for cattle feed.
2. Not having so much land dedicated to one crop would restore the habitat for the use of crops that actually would sustain butterflies and bees.
3. The oil and energy to put the crop in, harvest it, transport it, mill it for silage.
4. The animals…
5. Energy preparing food just to have it wasted.
6. The energy carrying it to the landfill
7. The biomass that is now rotting in a landfill instead of being returned to the soil where we could use it again to make crops.
The point of the paper was that the only practical way that we can produce meat going forward is for the developed nations to eat less of it. We can’t shift from industrial meat production to local meat production and keep on eating at the current rate. This is true, but if we all started eating local meats then the waste drops to almost nothing. The grocer would be getting meat locally, or we would once again go to a local butcher (more likely) and there would not be as much waste.
There is a very uneven distribution of desirable parts on a food animal. Each chicken has two wings, two drumsticks, two thighs, two breast, one neck, one back. When you buy a bag of five pounds of wings that leaves a whole bunch of chicken. When you buy tenderloin of beef there is a lot of hearts and lungs and tongues that are not used. A local butcher can actually help a great deal in selling and using all of the pieces and parts of the animal. It is the way it was done before we went to industrial production and distribution.
In the end, though, I don’t see any reason for me to eat anything but meat. I can get it locally, I can prepare it, I don’t waste it. If it is more expensive up front, it will save me on my co-pay for diabetes drugs, statins, and blood pressure medicine in the future. If the whole world can’t do that instantly it doesn’t affect my situation. My family is eating fat and protein. We aren’t supplementing our diet with empty carbs or processed foods. Our health is excellent and will stay that way. We waste very little food. I think if you started doing it, too, there is room on this here bandwagon for you and yours. If people get on gradually, then we can get off of industrial meats at a rate that will enhance the system, making it correspond with the needs of the planet and the people. A fella can dream…