Some Valuable Facts about Meat
By Guadalupe Astorga
This October 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared red meat and its processed derivatives a threat to human health, namely for its carcinogenic risk. Twenty-two experts from ten countries in the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1, as with tobacco smoking and asbestos), while red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A). This classification is based on the strength of scientific evidence rather than on the level of risk. Daily consumption of 50g (1.8 oz) of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18% (as a reference, the meat in a hamburger can easily surpass 200g or 7 oz). Find more details in the WHO Q&A about this topic here.
Now, let’s get into more digestible terms:
Processed meat is meat that has been transformed by the food industry through salting, curing, fermenting, smoking, or other processes used to enhance flavor or improve preservation. This includes hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky, canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces, and even the meat in your beloved hamburger.
Now, what is the reason for the risk in unprocessed red meat? In this case, it is the way you cook it that can be problematic. High-temperature cooking, as in a barbecue or in a pan, produces carcinogenic chemicals including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic aromatic amines.
Is raw meat safer? If you really want to eat raw meat
you must consider that eating it carries a separate risk related to microbial infections. Although some of them are resistant, cooking kills most bacteria in steak.
In the end, is there a real health risk to eat red meat? Similar to alcohol, the risk depends on the dose. A good alternative is to steam your meat or cook it in the oven. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) offers a recipe for a low-cost sausage variation made from vegetables and fresh, unprocessed meat that you can easily prepare to enjoy a delicious homemade natural product. Learn more about processed meat products and find a homemade alternative at the end of this article.
Knowing these facts about the potential effects on human health is terrific, but what about the real risks derived from the production process?
Unlike the European Union, in the United States there is still a significant use of antibiotics in livestock farming. Because these drugs are also used in humans, when we consume meat we acquire a strong antibiotic resistance and this can drive up health care costs. In 2009, the total cost of antibiotic resistant-infections in the United States was estimated to be between $17 and $26 billion per year. Read more in this governmental health bill.
The environmental consequences of meat production can be even stronger than its health risk.
We normally think about global warming as being produced directly by human activity through carbon emissions. Surprisingly, industrial livestock production, including poultry, is one of the biggest sources of methane (CH4, released as a digestion byproduct) and human-related nitrous oxide (N2O), which has 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO2). Find more information about the role of livestock in climate change in this article from FAO. If you want to read a detailed study of livestock and climate change from FAO go to this link.
A limited resource: Water
Livestock’s needs for fresh water are also important. One quarter of fresh water used worldwide relates to meat and dairy production. This water is then contaminated with dirt, manure, blood, chemical preservatives, and chemicals used to dissolve hair and skin. And for leather lovers, if we include the process of leather production, pollutants would also include acid ammonium salts, enzymes, fungicides, bactericides, and organic solvents, used to prepare the skins. Find more information about the water footprint of livestock farming here, and a report from FAO on the role of livestock in water depletion and pollution here.
What about the land? The effects on the land are also striking. These include reduced fertility, soil compaction, increased salinity, and desertification. Livestock-related habitat destruction causes the extinction of native species, while the genetic diversity of livestock is also reduced. Extinct species include some cattle, goats, pigs, horses, and poultry. On the other hand, important land extensions are used for intensive culture of crops (corn, alfalfa, barley or cottonseed, among others) destined to feed animal livestock. Animal feed production produces deforestation, drought, and threatens biodiversity.
This massive feed production also causes problems associated with monocultures, the use of genetically-modified organisms, and excessive use of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides.
What is wrong with fertilizers?
As in our diets, we tend to think that the more nutrients we have, the better.
Well, not really. Soil, water, and air can be polluted by nitrogen and phosphorus from the fertilizer used for feed crop production and from manure. This overdose of nutrients reduces biodiversity due to water ecosystem’s response to pollution and acidification.
Would it be better to become vegetarians?
A strict vegetarian diet requires strong nutritional enrichment and consumption of a variety of seeds, legumes, cereals, fruits, and vegetables, to replace meat. If not done properly, it can affect red globule production and it may not supply the essential nutrients our bodies require.
A good compromise is to reduce meat consumption by one half.
The United States has the world’s biggest rate of meat consumption per capita (120.2 kg/year or 265 lbs.), followed by Kuwait (119.2 kg/year or 262 lbs.) and Australia (111.5 kg/year or 245 lbs.). Peru and Turkey consume 20.8 (44 lbs.) and 25.3 kg/year (55 lbs.), respectively, while China consumes 58.2 kg/year (128 lbs.). Take a look at this interactive chart.
If meat consumption is proportional to the acquisitive power of a country, there is a long way to go to learn to invest in high quality food, other than meat.
Since 1960, meat production has grown. If this trend continues, by 2050 the environmental consequences of meat production could be devastating. Find a chart with the millions of tons of meat produced in the past fifty years here.
It all depends on us; if we reduce our meat consumption by one half, we may be able to maintain sustainable meat consumption in our diets.