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Ronnie Cummins: Are Compulsive Meat-Eaters Damaging Their Health & the Health of the Planet?

We are what we eat, not only in terms of our health, but also the impact of our food choices on the environment. Regarding our health, the facts are clear, as any nutritionist will tell you. Most Americans are damaging their health and increasing their chances of getting cancer and heart disease by over-consuming meat and animal products, while under-consuming healthy and nutritious whole foods--fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. As health-minded consumers understand, if you are going to eat meat, consume it in moderate quantities, and limit your intake to organic products coming from healthy animals that are grass-fed and raised humanely on appropriately-scaled farms and ranches.

If we need a reminder of just how important it is to raise farm animals humanely and naturally, keep in mind that the bird flu pandemic, looming ominously on the horizon, is a direct result of raising larger and larger numbers of poultry under unhealthy and inhumane conditions, whereby several hundred chickens, for example, are routinely crammed into manure-saturated eight by eight foot cages on poultry farms across China and Asia. Living in filthy conditions, reared on contaminated animal feed, laced with dioxin residues, antibiotics, and slaughterhouse wastes; these animals are a biological time bomb, waiting to explode.

On the environmental and climate change front, the facts are equally clear. Unless the United States and other nations drastically reduce the amount of our climate destabilizing greenhouse gases by at least 75% over the next decade, our children and grandchildren will be condemned to living in a chaotic and dangerous world, where food and energy shortages will become the norm.

To avoid climate chaos, Americans must change our lifestyles and diets. We must begin to "power down" our consumption of fossil fuels and energy intensive products, and decrease our consumption of meat and animal products (especially non-organic products), along with highly processed and packaged convenience foods transported over long distances.

In the U.S. today approximately 25% of all climate destabilizing greenhouse gases come from energy-intensive, industrial style agriculture and food processing, along with long-distance food transportation. The average food item in a U.S grocery store has traveled between 1500 (produce) and 3500 miles (beef and many processed foods). A major factor in our energy intensive farming system is the enormous overproduction and consumption of meat and dairy products, including the billions of pounds of soybeans and corn that are fed to these animals every year. On a conventional farm, it takes between 2.2 and 20 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat (beef averages seven pounds), as well as 12,500 gallons of water. American livestock consume more grain than all of the humans on earth combined.

A recent study by the University of Chicago found that meat and animal products account for a full 28% of energy use in U.S. agriculture. In addition belching and flatulence from our billions of cattle, pigs, and chickens is a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Sixteen percent of all methane gas emitted in the world comes from livestock. Manure runoff from animal feedlots, now the dominant form of meat production in the U.S., is a major source of groundwater pollution.

Organic farms worldwide use approximately 50% less petroleum derived fuel and inputs than conventional farms, and the healthy soil and pastures on these farms absorb and store greenhouse gases, rather than release them into the atmosphere. We need to begin today to vote with our knives and forks to improve our health, and to stabilize the climate for our children and grandchildren. Eating locally and regionally produced organic products and avoiding factory-farmed meat is a good first step.