Strong opinions, weakly held

The implications of eating meat

Today’s New York Times op-ed page features a piece by Nicolette Hahn Niman, wife of the founder of Niman Ranch, one of the big names in sustainable livestock. Her goal is to push back against the argument that to be an environmentalist you have to stop eating meat in general, and beef in particular. Her argument is, in short, that the real problem is eating food (meat or vegetable) that’s not sustainably raised is the real problem when it comes to climate change.

For the past few months, I’ve definitely tried to cut back on the red meat. Industrial agriculture is cruel to animals and terrible for the environment, and eating beef is bad for your health, regardless. I haven’t cut it out completely because I love beef, but I have tried to be significantly more thoughtful about when I eat it. This piece argues that you don’t have to feel especially guilty for the occasional steak indulgence.


  1. There remains an interesting, and I believe untested / unanswered, question as to whether any beef, or just corn fed (which is all of industrially produced beef) is actually bad for your health.

  2. The taking of innocent lives (whether raised “sustainably” or not) invariably supports the notion that “might makes right”. I applaud your awareness of the horror that is associated with factory farming, I urge you to continue examining the notion that killing simply because you can is a poor guide to behavior.

    Each farm animal had a mother, has attachments to others, can feel pain, fear and terror.

    For an extensively researched information source, you might read: “An Unnatural Order: Why We Are Destroying the Planet and Each Other” by Jim Mason.

    PS….the foods we eat are primarily driven by habit….there are many excellent (and tasty) dishes that do not involve the death of other animals.



  3. Suffice it to say that the moral weight of eating meat has not gone unexplored on my part.

  4. When I was a kid we raised various livestock, goats, ducks, and sheep. The goats were family, treated like dogs, we drank the milk but there’s no way we’d have eaten them. The ducks froze one winter, so we ate them. The sheep?

    Yeah, carrots are smarter than sheep. I decided before my teen years that if I had no ethical qualms eating vegetables, sheep weren’t an issue.

    But to the environmental point, I think it’s fairly well established that if you have < 2 kids then there’s pretty much no change in your lifestyle that’ll have as much impact as not putting that extra offspring on the planet, except perhaps for working with other people’s kids to raise them to an economic level where they feel that their best chance for passing on their genes is having one kid and doing everything they can to make that kid successful, rather than squeezing out as many as they can and hoping one makes it.

    Barring a cultural change, as we’re seeing in countries with a high enough general standard of living, populations will expand until there’s a collapse. Sustainable agriculture is a great start, but unless we quell population pressures it’s just going to continue to be under attack.

  5. “Barring a cultural change, as we’re seeing in countries with a high enough general standard of living, populations will expand until there’s a collapse.”

    What, like in Japan? Population growth rate -0.02%? Right.

  6. Yeah, my impression is that population growth slows as income rises, pretty much across the board.

  7. Jacob, exactly: Countries with a high enough general standard of living level off and start to shrink.

  8. I’m sure you’ve tried it, but buffalo is a decent beef substitute. Grass fed, great nutrition/fat ratio, and tasty.

  9. Oh, just to further elaborate on my response to Jacob: The last two centuries or so have been quite an anomaly in human history. Many cultures, in fact often the same one over and over again, have grown to the limits of their environment and died back.

    Good arguments have been made that the only reason the current situation is still growing is that the Brits figured out how to use coal, which let that resulting economy grow ’til oil became a dominant source, but if we don’t figure out the successor to that before those sources run out… well… back to agriculture.

    Frank, good suggestion! The farms local to me don’t have buffalo, so far as I know, though.

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