One of my favorite vloggers, Hank Green, recently made a video about, among other things, a tick whose bite causes a severe allergy to red meat. I’d read about it before, and it’s fucking terrifying–the reaction doesn’t happen immediately, so people go into anaphylactic shock out of the blue, and it can take some time to figure out the cause.
Hank, a devoted environmentalist, proposes a question: if you could cause a global pandemic of this allergy, thereby ensuring that no one could eat red meat, would you?
NO NO NO, Hank. Just no.
I know that Hank doesn’t actually want to release these ticks upon the world. I know he’s just trying to get a discussion started about meat and the environment.
But it’s still so, so, so not ok. For many reasons.
1.) Anaphylactic shock is not a laughing matter. It’s pretty callous to joke about subjecting the entire world to the possibility of it. Actually, it’s pretty callous to joke about infecting the world with any kind of disease, even one that would be supposedly good for the environment.
2.) If you were to infect the entire world with the disease, how would you warn everyone in time? How would you account for the likelihood that some people wouldn’t get the news before eating a hamburger, or that some might eat contaminated food and get sick? How would you account for the very good chance that you would be directly responsible for killing people?
3.) Even aside from the problem of, you know, killing people, getting rid of all red meat would be a terrible idea. Red meat is an important source of iron for people, especially women, who are anemic. It’s a source of protein for people who may be allergic or intolerant to other forms of protein. Also, some people’s bodies just function best when they eat red meat. Yours may not, but you don’t get to make that choice for other people.
4.) Getting rid of red meat would also mean getting rid of a significant number of foods that have cultural, religious, and familial significance for people around the globe. For example, I’m Jewish. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two traditional Jewish foods made with beef: pastrami sandwiches and brisket. Sure, not all Jews like them. I’m not a big brisket fan myself (although I do love a good pastrami sandwich…or pastrami and eggs….yum). But suddenly getting rid of them would not be ok. Similarly, many Christians eat ham on Christmas. Many Catholics eat fish on Friday, in contrast to eating meat the rest of the week. Food has meaning. Cutting out most of an entire food group–rather than promoting a more ethical way of making it–would cause harm to many people.
5.) As many of the other commenters on the video pointed out, getting rid of red meat would add extra strain to the poultry and fish industries, both of which already have many troubles–from the poor treatment of poultry workers to overfishing of the oceans.
6.) Yes, we in the West should eat less meat (on the population, not individual, level): we need to leave some for the developing world! And yes, large-scale factory farming is bad for people, animals, and the environment. But a world without meat would be equally unsustainable. As Craig Fear points out in his wonderful piece about why it’s ethical to eat meat:
[W]hen you look at the issue of growing food sustainably, animals are absolutely necessary. For example, manure is nature’s fertilizer and promotes soil integrity. Fossil-fuel based fertilizers promote soil erosion. They have given us vast fields of corn, soybeans and wheat, much of which goes into the processed, nutrient-deficient, lifeless food that fills our supermarket shelves.
Joel Salatin says, “There’s no system in nature that does not have an animal component as a recycling agent. Doesn’t exist. Fruits and vegetables do best if there is some animal component with them – chickens or a side shed with rabbits. Manure is magic.”
Yup, gross as it may sound, animal poop is ecologically necessary. It’s true that not all animals are made of red meat–chickens aren’t, and I’m not sure whether rabbits are. But different animals do best in different areas, and there are some places where cows or other red-meaty-creatures are the easiest animals to raise.
Furthermore, many animals are efficient converters of scrubby vegetation to a usable form of protein for humans. This has served countless cultures in areas of the globe without tillable soil. Sometimes I think we forget this in soil-rich America.
I’m pretty sure cows are a main example of this. They can eat grass in all sorts of places that would otherwise be unusable.
In conclusion: Bad Hank, no pandemic.
Different people have different nutritional needs. You don’t get to make those choices for anyone but yourself.
Factory farming is shitty for the environment. Small, local, mixed-use farms are environmentally sustainable, provide jobs, produce more food per unit of land*, and also produce more nutritious food. And they’ll be a really good thing to have when we run out of oil and can’t ship our food thousands of miles anymore.
*source: Deep Economy