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Is It Possible to Be a Conscientious Meat Eater?

The "new meat movement" is against industrial meat production, but not against eating meat. Their thinking is problematic.

You may have noticed an onslaught of articles recently on what is being coined as the "new meat movement." The most recent is an article in Newsweek, " Head To Hoof: A butcher helps lead a new carnivore movement."

These articles almost all support the idea that cruelty to animals is wrong and that factory-produced meat is unjustifiably bad for the environment. However, they are not opposed to meat in and of itself, they are simply opposed to industrial meat.

These "conscientious omnivores," believe it is possible, and preferable, to eat meat the old-fashioned way -- on small, sustainable and local farms, with farmers who love their animals and perhaps even have pet names for them.

The backlash against industrial meat has been brewing for many reasons. Ever-increasing knowledge of the industry's effect on the environment, human starvation and animal welfare, is making it harder for even the most ardent omnivore to consume meat without guilt.

The much-quoted report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, " Livestock’s Long Shadow -- Environmental Issues and Options" (Nov. 29, 2006), did a lot to raise awareness about the animal industry's devastating effects on the planet and global warming.

More and more, people are also realizing the troubling connections between human starvation and eating animal products. It takes approximately 16 pounds of grain and 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat (thus feeding one or two people on meat versus approximately 16 people on grain). Much of this grain is grown in developing countries, where a large percentage of their land is used for cattle-raising for export to the United States, instead of being used to grow staple crops, which could feed local people directly. In a world where a child starves to death every 2 seconds, it seems impossible to justify such waste.

The animal industry is partly responsible for the destruction of the Amazon and other forests, for our world's diminishing water supply, for the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases, and basically every other environmental problem. People are also more readily accepting that the animals themselves deserve a life free from cruelty and that factory farms give them anything but.

Vegans and vegetarians have been saying many of these things for years, but it seems that people have only started listening now that there is simultaneously a proposed solution to this problem: "happy meat."

"Local," "grass-fed," "sustainably produced," "humanely raised" and "free-range" are just a few of the benevolent-sounding phrases that greet conscientious shoppers in the meat department. Animal-rights activists jokingly call these products "happy meat."

Many of these products tout pictures of smiling pigs, happy farmers in green pastures and stickers that say "humane." For many people who care about the environment and animal welfare, choosing to eat "humanely raised" meat seems like an option that honors traditional farmers and diets while also solving the ethical problems of environmental degradation and animal suffering.

But it solves neither of these problems. This meat is high-priced, and its production is an even less-efficient use of land and resources. It is often marketed as luxurious, an indulgence to be lingered over. It is inherently not adaptable to a national or international solution. Local organic meat is for an elite few, and not a practicable alternative to the massive crisis of industrial meat production.

For the first time in history, an entire civilization consumes meat as a staple. How can America truly produce enough of this "happy meat" (not too mention happy milk and happy eggs), to feed this country even a fraction of the animal products we currently consume?

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