Ethical Beef, Part 1: The Benefits of Eating Meat

One environmental lawyer takes a stand in favor of eating meat, explaining its benefits and disproving popular myths about meat consumption.

  • The Benefits of Eating Meat
    Cattle and other livestock have the ability to process food from land that farmers would have otherwise left untouched.
    Photo by Fotolia/Sergii Figurnyi
  • Defending Beef
    In “Defending Beef,” environmental lawyer and vegetarian Nicolette Hahn Niman debunks popular myths about meat consumption, arguing that, when done properly, the earth benefits from the production of meat from cattle and other livestock.
    Cover courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing

  • The Benefits of Eating Meat
  • Defending Beef

Is eating meat ethically right or wrong? In Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, environmental lawyer Nicolette Hahn Niman aggregates the research and personal insight to explain how eating meat is beneficial for humans and for the planet, stating that there is a need for meat to be produced the right way. This excerpt, which explains how the proper production of meat will produce significant results in individuals’ lives and the Earth’s environment, is from the section, “Final Analysis: Why Eat Animals?”

Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Defending Beef.

Eating Meat Does Not Create More World Hunger

In addition to what’s already been explored, two major ethical questions surrounding beef consumption remain. One is whether it’s morally acceptable to eat meat at all. The other is whether eating meat aggravates world hunger. I will address the first momentarily, and start with the latter. The idea undergirded the hugely popular and influential book Diet for a Small Planet, which argued, essentially, that the world’s finite resources are stretched thin and would quickly be expended if a growing population of humans continues eating meat. The raising of livestock, especially cattle, the argument goes, is uniquely resource-intensive and cannot be morally justified in a world where (now) some 900 million people don’t have enough to eat. In various forms, we continue to see this line of reasoning everywhere today in the materials of vegan and environmental groups.

I agree that meat and dairy consumption is out of balance: There’s more than necessary in industrialized countries and not enough in developing countries, where malnutrition generally, and deficiencies of protein, iron, and vitamin B-12 specifically, are rampant. But there are so many things wrong with the assertion that eating meat adds to global malnutrition and starvation that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Perhaps first I will point out that it can only be sensible to quit eating meat for this reason if doing so actually aids in relieving global hunger. For me, as a lawyer, this is so self-evident it should hardly need to be stated. And yet, in over 20 years of reading various forms of the “livestock aggravates world hunger” argument, I have never seen anyone effectively demonstrate that if you stop eating meat you will help world hunger. Rarely is such proof even attempted.

When distilled down to its essence, this is not really an argument that by refraining from eating meat you will help feed others. Instead it’s more an endorsement of a principle of food equity: that it’s unfair to eat resource-intensive foods while others have insufficient food. But we could just as easily argue that we should refuse to drive because billions of people in the world cannot afford cars; we should refuse to use air-conditioning; we should refuse to take airplanes. I don’t see how doing any of those things helps a single person in need, therefore I find none of those arguments compelling.



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