by Marion Nestle
Nov 2 2009

Meat arguments: health, climate, taxes

If only meat were just a food and not the flash point for concerns about health, climate change, and tax policy.  But it looms large in all such debates.

According to reports, meat is linked not only with a higher rate of cancer but also with type 2 diabetes.   Does this make logical sense?  It could, especially if meat eaters take in more calories and are fatter than non-meat eaters.

We’ve heard so much lately about how farm animals contribute to environmental problems and climate change, but Nicolette Hahn Niman writes in the New York Times of “the carnivore’s dilemma.”  It’s not the animals themselves that contribute to climate change, it’s the industrial methods of raising them that are the problem.  She ought to know.  She and Bill Niman run the free-range ranch in Bolinas, California highlighted in Time magazine last August.

On the other hand, Princeton professor and ethicist Peter Singer argues in the New York Daily News that meat is so bad for health and the environment that it ought to be taxed.

How to deal with all of this?  Push for more humanely and sustainably raised farm animal production, dont’ eat meat if you choose not to, and if you do eat meat, just don’t eat too much of it.

Update, November 4: I forgot to include Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece in the New York Times magazine on why he is against meat.

  • Anthro

    Another timely subject and rational solution from the most sensible woman in America. Advice I have already taken, in part, due to the wise counsel of your books. (Michael Pollan’s as well).

  • If they removed any government subsidies, added an environmental and health surcharge and labeled the meat truthfully (antibiotics, growth hormones, ect) they would have to charge more for the meat and people would eat less. The beef industry is very powerful as Oprah found out. Add in the fast food powerhouses and it is a very big task to change the way they are doing things. We just need to keep getting the truth out
    Thank you for all your truth telling. I try to read every word.

  • K.

    Singer’s food tax seems incredibly shortsighted, targeting people who should be of specific concern to anyone interested in food politics and how we eat: those who eat, as Pollan says, from the middle of the store. Many boxed meals require that said box is supplemented from the meat case, and provide fast (albeit unhealthy) meals for families without the time – or money – to cook scratch items from the perimeter of the store.

    Yes, we all know that there are a variety of plant proteins that can be prepared that are cheaper than meat proteins. But the key element there is time/access, and expecting that someone who is having to buy the cheapest/highest calories to maximize food dollars spent is going to also have the time to prepare non-red meat based foods seems shortsighted. Especially since a 50% “luxury” tax isn’t going to stop those who can afford it. It might limit a middle-class consumer, to some degree, but is the result genuinely worth it?

    Food reform needs to come from the ground up. Once we’ve addressed the larger issue of getting access to healthy foods to everyone, regardless of their income, it seems like we can start “punishing” people for their food choices via luxury taxes.

  • I believe chefmax may have hit the nail on the head. A wider understanding of just how that meat is getting to peoples’ plates, and what is in the meat that gets there (in addition to a true cost paid for said meat), would likely take a huge gouge out of meat consumption.

    It’s going to be a long slow process, of which advertising and greenwashing are prime enemies. We must continue to do all we can to educate all consumers of what they’re actually paying for and eating. I too am grateful that we now have a few voices to champion the truth of current food production, and who are gaining popularity.

    As far as Mr. Singer’s tax suggestion… it seems somewhat ludicrous to subsidize something and then turn around and tax it. I’m for ending government subsidies, so that both the companies that wish to profit off of animal foods as well as the people who wish to consume them are the only people paying for them.

    To K – there is no reason for a non-meat meal to take any longer to make than one containing meat, or to be any more expensive. Often they are significantly cheaper, even when looked at from a dollars-to-calories perspective. (And given that we’re talking about people taking in too many calories, cutting those back wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.) Even when talking about “middle of the store” packaged foods, there are plenty of veg options. Adding meat to those boxes is a suggestion; you can just as easily add tofu or vegetables or beans, none of which are expensive. Pasta, jars of sauce, cans of soup and beans and vegetables, rice, and dozens of other products can be purchased cheaply and kept in cabinets for months. The only valid argument in this department is for populations living in true “food deserts”, who have no access to real grocery stores and do their food shopping in convenience stores instead. Meat is less an issue here than the fact that these people have no access to anything that isn’t ridiculously processed and usually vastly overpriced.

  • K.

    Melissa, I suspect this depends on where you do your food shopping, and what your budget is per person. I know that Pollan has spent some time recounting how in order to be cost effective and use dried beans to replace meat protein, you end up with a time-factor that is prohibitive to a lot of families. Likewise, I know that at least where I am living, it is significantly cheaper for families to purchase bulk meat and freeze it than it is to purchase fresh produce. (Beans, again, come down to the fact that cans are economically prohibitive, and dried are time consuming.)

    I suspect that this is one of those issues where what “cheap” is really comes into sharp definition depending on where you live, what your shopping options are, and of course, what your income is. For fun, when I priced it out at the store tonight, a pound of broccoli cost most than a pound of ground beef. (This becomes especially true in the winter months, when the vast majority of produce is shipped across the country from California.)

    Ultimately, I think it’s pretty clear Singer is proposing a luxury tax on an item that has, for a variety of reasons, become a core part of many people’s diets. Rather than treat it as a luxury that it’s not, reforming the rest of the system seems like a better idea – from how the food is grown to how people access it, pay for it, etc.

  • BenJ

    Singer: Large studies have shown that the daily consumption of red meat increases the risk that you will die prematurely of heart disease or bowel cancer. This is now beyond serious scientific dispute.

    Really? “Beyond serious scientific dispute”? Says who?

    I don’t think this man knows the first thing about Science.

  • Anthro

    K –
    Beans are not necessarily more time consuming, but rather, require a simple shift in routine. Put them in a bowl of water to soak just before you go to bed. Pop them in a crock pot in the morning and then use them the same way you would use meat in the evening. I have done this for years and don’t think twice about it anymore. Also, once they’re cooked you can freeze small quantities for future use. I do this with stock as well. I make big batches with bits of leftover chicken (buy them whole, its cheaper), and then freeze it in yogurt containers. Take some stock and beans out of the freezer, dump in a pot, add some veggies (fresh or frozen), maybe a can of tomatoes (sauce or diced)–hearty soup in a few minutes–way better than Campbells and much cheaper.

    Even making bread can be worked into a busy routine. Let is rise in the fridge–it gives you a lot more flexibility as It can stay in there a long time if necessary.

    It comes down to how much you care about what you eat or what you feed your family.

  • MA

    I’m curious about dried beans being prohibitive due to time…
    From start to finish, yes, they take lots of time. But they aren’t labor intensive, thus, in my book, aren’t too difficult to incorporate into my diet. The ACTUAL TIME SPENT doing any sort of work to cook dried beans is really minimal. Soak overnight, cook in crock pot 8-10 hours the following day. It only takes a few minutes to rinse the beans, put them in the pot, and add water and any seasonings desired.

    My guess is that it’s more of a lack of planning than a lack of time. Please clue me in if I’m missing something here. I truly don’t get it – why are dried beans difficult?

  • DennisP

    I think part of the argument is that 1) many people live in a food desert where they simply cannot get good, fresh food. But also 2) many people simply do not know how to cook fresh food or dry beans. Many lower income, inner city people do not have these skills. Neither do they have the kitchen equipment – the panoply of pots and pans and utensils, perhaps not even adequate stoves, etc. We who write on this blog often are implicitly assuming everyone lives as well as we do. That simply is not true.

  • rjm

    Benj, it isn’t, necessarily. Look, industrialized red meat is not the same as red meat from grass-fed, free-range livestock. The former tending to have more sat. fat in the meat. Further, it’s also about the number of Calories you consume. My caloric requirements are not the same as your caloric requirements.

    When you have an abundance of energy stored in the form of say triglycerides(because you overeat on a consistent basis), and your body fat percentage is high as a result, you give way to the formation of tumors. How does a tumor grow? Well, partly, it requires energy. And where will that energy come from? Can you connect the dots now? There is no wonder that those on a calorie-restricted diet/have low-body fat tend to also have very low cancer rates.

  • Hylton

    “Cattle Rancher Writes Op-ed Defending Cattle Ranching”

    News at eleven!

  • Roxanne

    Cooking and eating healthfully and within a strict budget doesn’t require a lot of time. It requires planning, education, and skill. People living on a strict budget need training and education on time management, meal planning, smart shopping, and cooking skills. It’s easy to substitute meat for other cheaper, healthful options. It just takes the no-how to do it. It also requires the help of the entire family, not just Mom. Everyone in the family can pitch in to do planning, shopping, and cooking. It takes a lot of the burden off the main care giver in the family–usually Mom. We need to be focusing our attention on education and life-skills training.

  • ET Addison

    Sheesh, Marion Nestle relying on what what she reads in the paper as definitive truth.


    And. Where, oh where do you get the ‘evidence to say.

    ‘just don’t eat too much of it.”

    And explain to me how plowing up ecological rish grasslands and forest habitats, to replace them with artificial monocultures of wheat is a good thing.

  • Marcia

    Can grassfed cows be carbon sinks and really help the environment?

    Also, I would trust the word of a Niman farms over a big agribusiness. People need to be educated so they can understand the difference between grassfed meat and cornfed meat. Cornfed meat is definitely much fattier and more unhealthy than grassfed. So the best advice to those who don’t eat grassfed meat is to limit the amount they eat.

  • MA

    DennisP – Thanks for the input. I hadn’t thought of the lack of knowledge of how to cook beans. Much can be said about that, like Roxanne says about education and life-skills training.

  • Bobby

    health, climate, taxes, and WATER.

  • L.C.

    What a wonderfully sensible view of things, free from the edges and extremes I’ve read elsewhere.

    I also just finished reading “What To Eat” and am going to be a regular reader here. How does Marion Nestle stay so wonderfully attuned to the calm center of things? Maybe it’s what she eats? 😉

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  • Tom

    Yeah eating meat is so bad…that’s why the Masai people – who live basically on meat, milk, an blood, went extinct long ago.

  • rjm

    The Masai people seem to live chiefly off of maize now. But besides that, the animals they used to eat were not raised like industrial livestock.

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