When reading a recent Foreign Policy article, I was reminded of the growing movement toward vegetarianism and away from meat or animal food products. I was also reminded of the nutritional falsehoods being touted in this campaign.
There are three essential lines of argument against eating meat, all of which are discussed in the linked article above.
First, meat is bad for a human's health. Second, the meat industry emits a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is contributing to climate change. Third, killing animals for food is immoral in and of itself.
I disagree with the third issue philosophically. (Although the manner in which many animals are farmed is horrid.) But animal rights is a much more murky issue and I'll leave it alone for now.
The second premise is accurate; the livestock sector accounts for 18% of GHG emissions. But saying just this misses some nuance within the meat industry. Beef and pork are not equal to poultry, some fish, and other sources of protein relative to GHG emissions. According to one study (page 6), poultry and milk are three times more energy efficient (in carbon emissions) than beef and six times more than pork. Herring is seventeen times more efficient than beef. And this does not even account for methane emissions, which are 25 times more potent as a GHG. With everything factored in, the beef industry emits 13 times more GHG than the chicken sector.
Lastly, the idea that meat is bad for your health is simply not true. Again, there is a huge difference between eating a diet with a lot of beef and pork and one with a lot of poultry and fish. The main difference here is saturated fat. Beef, pork, chicken, and fish all have relatively high amounts of cholesterol. But cholesterol, by itself, is not a threat to your health. It only becomes the bad stuff that clogs arteries when a person's diet is also high in saturated or trans fat. Most cuts of beef and pork are quite high in saturated fat. Chicken, however, are composed of leaner cuts.
Furthermore, to group fish in with either of these is absurd. Any fish that is high in fat is composed of very healthful Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically docosahexaenoic acid. Far from being damaging to health, a person is more likely to have a healthy cardiovascular system by eating fish, when compared to a diet without it.
The other nutritional component here is the utility of protein. The argument from a climate perspective is that more protein is not linked to better health. Again, a falsehood. Protein, as a building block in the body, may have diminishing returns, but when compared to the common alternatives for vegetarians, then the importance of protein becomes clear.
If someone is not eating protein as a source of calories, then they must be those calories from either carbohydrates or fat. Since carbohydrates are the cheapest to produce (e.g. grains, rice, sugars), this will be the most likely food choice. But these are also the foods that will raise blood sugar in high consumption. Therefore, these are the most likely to cause diabetes in people. Protein, on the other hand, has negligible effects on blood sugar. So a diet high in protein is less likely to raise blood sugar than one high in carbohydrates.
(Carbohydrates, of course, have an important role to play as well. Top among these are fiber and the many vitamins/minerals/antioxidants associated with carbohydrate foods. My point is simply that anything can be overdone.)
Rather than educating the public on the above nutritional differences, many in the climate movement generalize all meat together, using studies that also do not differentiate types of meat.
The upshot: beef and pork farming emits a lot of GHG. At the policy level, governments need to begin taxing or capping GHG emissions in order to reduce the most polluting meat sources. Furthermore, public money needs to be pumped into a solution that would make this whole issue null and void: in vitro meat. Until that happens, we all need to diversify our sources of protein, eating less of it from meat in our daily diet. Dairy, whey protein powder, soy, and poultry are some of the least energy intensive choices.
I am a strong supporter of policies and behavior that will halt climate change. That is why it bothers me when falsehoods are perpetuated by others with a common interest. Campaigns for change are a necessary part of human progress, but not if they are driven by dishonesty.