Meat-free advocates preaching a misleading message

Published 20140318

Apparently, next week has been declared meat-free week, and all Australians are invited to participate. Exactly why is not clear, because all the claimed benefits of going meat free for a week are not based on science or logic, and the main motivation seems to be a thinly disguised campaign to end livestock farming.

The meat-free week campaign has being given a free-kick in the Fairfax media, with an opinion piece by Paula Goodyer urging all Australians to join in, and donate the money they save to Bowel Cancer Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Voiceless, the animal protection organisation.

The concept of having ‘meat-free Mondays’ or going without meat for a period originated in the USA (where else?) some year ago, driven largely by animal welfare activists who believed that adding a health and environmental angle to their vegetarian evangelising might attract more people to their cause.

Exactly why those who prefer a vegetarian diet feel the need to evangelise so ardently to their fellow omnivores about the merits of going meatless is unclear – perhaps it has a parallel in monastic traditions of fasting and denial, and the need to preach to others about the afterlife benefits in order to convince yourself of the righteousness of your current decision to suffer deprivation.

If people decide for whatever reason to become vegetarian, then that is their choice and most meat eaters accept that decision without lecturing and preaching those who make that decision. It is a great pity that the small number of activist vegetarians don’t adopt the same approach.

The unfortunate thing about this campaign is that all three stated benefits (health, environment and animal welfare) associated with abandoning the consumption of meat for a week will not be attained, and much of the supporting information is simply wrong.

The health ‘reason’ is perhaps the most interesting. The “meat free” advocates would have people believe that consuming any type of meat adds to disease risk including cancer and heart disease, but the science is much less clear. Organisations, such as the Cancer Council and the Harvard Medical School are guarded in their attribution of an association between red meat consumption and colon cancer, with recommendations that moderate and balanced food intakes – including lean meat – combined with regular exercise are the best ways to avoid increased risks of disease. The Scientific American recently reported that new research is suggesting that consumption of heavily processed red meats may have an association with increased colon cancer risk (suggesting the chemicals used as meat preservatives may be the critical factor), rather than meat consumption per se. When it comes to heart disease, no lesser an authority than the CSIRO has waded into this argument, highlighting that while excessive consumption of animal fats has been found to be associated with heart disease, eating lean red meat is both a good source of protein, energy and minerals, but has also been shown to be associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. None of the research identifies any associations (let alone cause-effect relationships) between consumption of white meats and increased cancer risk. 

Taking all this into account, there is no doubt that there are health benefits in eating a bit less and exercising a bit more, but the impact of going without meat for a week on lifetime disease or health risk would be precisely nil.

The claimed environmental benefits of avoiding meat consumption are perhaps the most misleading of all the reasons for supporting a meat-free week. Most of the statistics about the impact of meat production on the environment are based on a partial accounting method that ignores large parts of the natural carbon cycle (in the case of greenhouse emissions), or make simplistic assumptions (water use), without accounting for water that becomes runoff or infiltrates the soil under pastures, and without using the same accounting methodology when comparing the amount of water used to make other products. 

They also fail to recognise that meat products are much more energy and nutrient dense than grain or plant products, and therefore comparisons involving a standard weight of a specific food are particularly misleading. They also fail to recognise the high levels of food waste associated with plant products compared to meat products. Perhaps most misleading of all is the failure to recognise that pasture and range fed grazing animals harvest water and carbon that would otherwise be unavailable for human consumption or use.

The animal welfare benefits that are claimed to be associated with a meat-free diet are highly contentious, and are based on some very subjective assessments of what is ‘better’ for animals. The underlying presumption in much of the discussion is that all animals produced for meat are grown in ‘factory farms’ and that these are inherently cruel and inevitably result in animal mistreatment. This is clearly not the case – particularly in Australia where pasture-fed, free range production of red meat is the norm. Even in the case of more intensive production systems for pork and poultry, the risk of animals suffering due to disease, injury or death by predation or exposure are much lower in these so-called factory farms that in the ‘natural’ environment.

The assumption that all farming is cruel to animals also conveniently ignores the fact that when it comes to incidents of animal cruelty, by far the greatest number of animal cruelty complaints and problems involve domestic pets (see the annual RSPCA statistics here). In fact the RSPCA annually ‘euthanases’ over 50,000 domestic pets which have been badly mistreated each year, a far greater source of obvious animal cruelty than farming. In fact if animal activists were honest in their advocacy, the first thing they would do is call for the banning of all domestic pets, or at least a strict licensing arrangement for all pet owners.

Australian farm animal welfare standards are some of the highest in the world, with practices banned here that are routine in overseas locations – many of which are the origin of meat products exported to Australia that consumers seem quite happy to eat. Going without meat for a week might disadvantage Australian livestock farmers slightly (although given strong export demand this is unlikely) but would do absolutely nothing to change animal welfare standards internationally, in the nations where most meat production occurs.

In fact the best way to improve overall farm animal welfare standards is actually to support the Australian livestock industries by eating Australian produced meat. And based on the research and information available, eating Australian meat is also likely to provide health and environmental benefits as well. Not quite the message the ‘meat-free’ evangelists would have people hear!
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