Should we eat meat or not?

This column is written by Stig Bengmark – Professor Emeritus, scientist, lecturer and writer. Read more of Stig Bengmark’s columns here.

Meat, health, and the environment

One of the most common questions I get is whether we should eat meat or not. And it’s not an easy question to answer.

We’re not completely vegan, ourselves, mostly because the scientific evidence for completely abstaining is actually not strong enough. A lot depends on how the animals are fed, how the meat is treated and how much we eat. The following applies for us:

  • The meat has to come from animals that have been raised on the same feed as they’ve been eating for millions of years – i.e. feed without additives, for example, flour and sugar (concentrates) – which means game is preferable. Unfortunately, today even game is being fed additives, and, often, without grass or root vegetables anymore but with grains (which are often cheaper).
  • The meat should not be hung for as long as it is today because even dead bacteria have strong inflammatory effects.
  • It’s also important to us that the meat, like other food, is not cooked at high temperatures (never seared, fried or grilled) but only boiled or, even better, roasted at a low temperature in the oven – no more than 70-80 degrees and for several hours.

The market is teeming with ‘bad’ and cheap meats, but more and more high-end restaurants in the US and partly also in Europe have begun advertising ‘meat from only grass-fed animals’ and ‘low-temperature meat’. If you have a hard time finding these, you would imagine that meat from countries with huge grazing areas, such as the Pampas in South America, have been raised that way.

Processed meat is the big culprit

There’s no doubt that we eat far too much meat on Planet Earth and that it’s absolutely necessary to limit our intake dramatically. This is shown, among other things, in the results from two important and very comprehensive studies, which have recently been published.

One study, conducted in North America, monitored 37,698 men and 83,644 women for more than 28 years. The number of ‘premature deaths’, especially from cancer and cardiovascular disease, increased by 13% among those who ate meat. And if they ate a lot of industrially produced meat – bacon, sausages, meatballs, pâtés and the like – the ‘premature death’ rate was no less than one in five people (20%).

The second study, which was conducted in several European countries, followed 448,568 people for 13 years. Daily meat eating resulted in a sharp increase in mortality during the 13 years of the study and, if the meat was industrially processed, i.e. fried, grilled, smoked or made into sausages or meatballs, ‘premature death’ was also seen in every fifth person (20 %) in this study. In addition, the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease was increased by 72%, and from cancer by 11%.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that industrial treatment is the biggest culprit, and that mild processing can significantly reduce health risks even when eating meat. But just avoiding processed meat is not enough – we also have to dramatically reduce the amount of meat we eat.

In Europe, we eat an average of 85 kg of meat per year, something that authorities in several different countries believe should be reduced to at least the level of Kenya’s – 15 kg/year (i.e. a maximum of 300 grams per week/meat at most twice a week). And then preferably based on relatively lean meat such as game, poultry, beef and mutton.

We have a responsibility towards the environment

Every day, all year round, tens of thousands of acres of rainforest are cleared under the pretext of producing food for humans, but the truth is that for the last 50 years, all new land has been devoted entirely to the production of fuels and animal feed. Domestic animals primarily, but also pets. Agriculture with its animal husbandry causes more than 50% more greenhouse gas effects than the total traffic on all roads, rails, in the air and at sea, but the contribution from pets is also extensive. A cow that gives 30 litres of milk a day consumes as much as 20 ‘average people’ on earth do, and a large dog takes up as much of the earth’s resources as a large 4×4 doing 10,000 km driven per year. One dog actually consumes the equivalent of what four average people consume – the earth’s 500 million dogs thus consume as much meat as two billion people.

I personally am not even close to eating 300 grams a week and the reason for this is mainly responsibility towards the environment. It’s extremely inefficient and uneconomical to let the farmers’ products first pass through an animal’s stomach before it’s consumed, and if that wasn’t happening, we could feed almost three times as many people. Did you know that it takes 4 kg of plants and 2000 litres of water to produce just half a kilo of meat? And that only a few percentage points of the energy that the fields provide is left after the meat animal consumes it, taking 85% (chicken) to 98% (beef) of the food (including to heat itself)? This inefficiency is particularly noteworthy given that around 56 billion animals are slaughtered each year to meet people’s needs for meat alone – a number that’s expected to double by 2050.

So, thank you to vegans the world over for your contribution to the environment!



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