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Can we really help ourselves, and our planet, by shunning meat and embracing our roots and vegetables?

Veganism and its Discontents
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Meat producers acknowledge that vegetarian diets can be healthy. They also have responded to the call for leaner food; the National Pork Board says that, compared with 20 years ago, pork is on average 31% lower in fat and 29% lower in saturated fat, and has 14% fewer calories and 10% less cholesterol. But the defenders of meat and dairy can also go on the offensive. They mention the need for B12. And then they ratchet up the fear factor. Kurt Graetzer, ceo of the Milk Processor Education Program, scans the drop in milk consumption (not only by vegans but by kids who prefer soda, Snapple and Fruitopia) and declares, "We are virtually developing a generation of osteoporotic children."

Dr. Michelle Warren, a professor of medicine at New York Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City—and a member of the Council for Women's Nutrition Solutions, which is sponsored by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association— expresses concern about calcium deficiency connected with a vegan diet: "The most serious consequences are low bone mass and osteoporosis. That is a permanent condition." Warren says that in her practice, she has seen young vegetarians with irregular periods and loss of hair. "And there's a peculiar color, a yellow tinge to the skin," that occurs in people who eat a lot of vegetables rich in beta carotene in combination with a low-calorie diet. "I think it's very unattractive." She also is troubled by the reasons some young vegetarians give for their choice of diet. One female patient, Warren says, wouldn't eat meat because she was told it was the reason her father had a heart attack.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, sees most of the meat and dairy lobby's arguments as desperate, disingenuous scare stories. "It unmasks the industry's self-interest," he says, "when it voices concern about B12 while hundreds of thousands of people are dying prematurely because of too much saturated fat from meat and dairy products." Indeed, according to David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist, the average American consumes 112 grams of protein a day, twice the amount recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. "This has implications for cancer risks and stress on the urinary system," says Pimentel. "And with this protein comes a lot of fat. Fully 40% of our calories—and heavy cardiovascular risks—come from fat."

Pimentel argues that vegetarianism is much more environment-friendly than diets revolving around meat. "In terms of caloric content, the grain consumed by American livestock could feed 800 million people—and, if exported, would boost the U.S. trade balance by $80 billion a year." Grain-fed livestock consume 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of food they produce, compared with 2,000 liters for soybeans. Animal protein also demands tremendous expenditures of fossil-fuel energy—eight times as much as for a comparable amount of plant protein. Put another way, says Pimentel, the average omnivore diet burns the equivalent of a gallon of gas per day—twice what it takes to produce a vegan diet. And the U.S. livestock population—cattle, chickens, turkeys, lambs, pigs and the rest—consumes five times as much grain as the U.S. human population. But then there are 7 billion of them; they outnumber us 25 to 1.

In the spirit of fair play to cowboy Jody Brown and his endangered breed, let's entertain two arguments in favor of eating meat. One is that it made us human. "We would never have evolved as large, socially active hominids if we hadn't turned to meat," says Katharine Milton, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. The vegetarian primates (orangutans and gorillas) are less social than the more omnivorous chimpanzees, possibly because collecting and consuming all that forage takes so darned much time. The early hominids took a bold leap: 2.5 million years ago, they were cracking animal bones to eat the marrow. They ate the protein-rich muscle tissue, says Milton, "but also the rest of the animal—liver, marrow, brains—with their high concentrations of other nutrients. Evolving humans ate it all."

Just as important, they knew why they were eating it. In Milton's elegant phrase, "Solving dietary problems with your head is the trajectory of the primate order." Hominids grew big on meat, and smart on that lovely brain-feeder, glucose, which they got from fruit, roots and tubers. This diet of meat and glucose gave early man energy to burn—or rather, energy to play house, to sing and socialize, to make culture, art, war. And finally, about 10,000 years ago, to master agriculture and trade—which provided the sophisticated system that modern humans can use to go vegetarian.

The other reason for beef eating is, hold on, ethical—a matter of animal rights. The familiar argument for vegetarianism, articulated by Tom Regan, a philosophical founder of the modern animal-rights movement, is that it would save Babe the pig and Chicken Run's Ginger from execution. But what about Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse? asks Steven Davis, professor of animal science at Oregon State University, pointing to the number of field animals inadvertently killed during crop production and harvest. One study showed that simply mowing an alfalfa field caused a 50% reduction in the gray-tailed vole population. Mortality rates increase with each pass of the tractor to plow, plant and harvest. Rabbits, mice and pheasants, he says, are the indiscriminate "collateral damage" of row crops and the grain industry.

By contrast, grazing (not grain-fed) ruminants such as cattle produce food and require fewer entries into the fields with tractors and other equipment. Applying (and upending) Regan's least-harm theory, Davis proposes a ruminant-pasture model of food production, which would replace poultry and pork production with beef, lamb and dairy products. According to his calculations, such a model would result in the deaths of 300 million fewer animals annually (counting both field animals and cattle) than would a completely vegan model. When asked about Davis' arguments, Regan, however, still sees a distinction: "The real question is whether to support production systems whose very reason for existence is to kill animals. Meat eaters do. Ethical vegetarians do not."

The moral: there is no free lunch, not even if it's vegetarian. For now, man is perched at the top of the food chain and must live with his choice to feed on the living things further down. But even to raise the question of a harvester Hiroshima is to show how far we have come in considering the humane treatment of that which is not human. And we still have a way to go. "It may take a while," says actress and vegetarian Mary Tyler Moore, "but there will probably come a time when we look back and say, 'Good Lord, do you believe that in the 20th century and early part of the 21st, people were still eating animals?'"

It may take a very long while. For most people, meat still does taste good. And can "America's food" ever be tofu?

—Reported by Melissa August and Matthew Cooper/Washington, David Bjerklie and Lisa McLaughlin/New York, Wendy Cole/Chicago and Jeffrey Ressner/ Los Angeles


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FROM THE JULY 15, 2002 ISSUE OF TIME MAGAZINE; POSTED SUNDAY, JULY 7, 2002

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