March 24th, 2009
01:34 PM ET

Holy cow: the wide impact of eating red meat

By Shahreen Abedin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Last weekend, as a special treat for my family, I grilled up some lovely filet mignon steaks for dinner. To my surprise, our 16-month-old LOVED the beef, which we cut up into thin juicy slices for him. He literally gobbled it up. Beaming, my husband made some comment about the baby being a true Texan like his daddy.

Flash-forward to this morning’s medical news headline: Red meat will make you die sooner.

National Cancer Institute researchers studied 500,000 people and found those who reported eating the highest amounts of red meat (about a steak a day) had a 30 percent greater risk of dying compared to those who ate the lowest amounts of red meat (which was on average about a kid’s hamburger a day). The study considered ‘red meat’ to mean all forms of beef and pork products, including processed forms like sausages and yes, bacon.

The point of the study was not necessarily to eliminate all red meat from your diet, but to enjoy it in moderation. No prob.

But aside from the health argument, I’ve been more troubled about what Barry Popkin, a nutrition epidemiologist, discussed in his editorial published alongside the study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. He focused on the environmental impact of how much meat we eat, an argument that’s starting to make me less comfortable about chomping down on a cheeseburger for lunch today.

Primarily, we’re talking about the toll on our planet resulting from mass raising livestock in the giant, assembly-line meat factories where animals are fed then processed before they show up in the grocery store, all neatly packaged and ready for the grill. And it’s not just an issue here in the U.S., where total gross consumption of meat and dairy foods is double or even triple of what people in lower-income countries eat. Elsewhere in the world, industrial livestock production is growing more than twice as quickly as the traditional methods, where cows just graze on grass out in the fields.

These animals consume huge amounts of energy and water. We use two to five times more water to grow grain for these animals than just to raise the crops that we eat ourselves. One source estimates almost a quarter of the world’s water goes to livestock use. Amidst global food shortages – where 800 million people on our planet go hungry every day - the majority of corn and soy grown on this earth go to feed these animals.

On top of that, there’s the issue of water pollution. In the U.S., raising livestock accounts for more than half of the erosion of our soil, half the antibiotics consumed, a third of pesticides used, and a third of the total discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus into surface water, says the editorial.

Plus, these animals generate massive volumes of greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere. The U.N. estimates that livestock are responsible for almost a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions – much more than what the cars and trucks on America’s roads account for.

Despite these facts, I know I’m still going to be looking forward to our first big “grillfest” of the season, just as soon as this weather gets a bit warmer. However, on a daily basis, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be going easier on the red meat, for reasons that go beyond my own family’s health.

Just wondering – are you just as bothered as I am about the environmental consequences of our meat eating habits? We’d like to hear your thoughts.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. BettyAnn, Nacogdoches,TX

    This information has been around for a long time. Remember John Robbins son of the famous Baskin-Robbin's ice cream fame authored the book Diet For A New America?
    Robbins addressed all these problems as well as the meat industry having a big impact on this information being released to the public. There have been several books about this but the meat industry always blocks the info from being pushed. Such a shame.
    It makes you wonder what would happen if there was a cure found for cancer. Would all the specialist and pharmacy companies go ballistic for loss of money? Could we already have the cure to this and other dreaded diseases if not for the politics involved aka/ $$$???
    I hope this information gets pushed to the top~
    Thank you for this important blog. You might be the very one that saved a life. kudos!

    March 24, 2009 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Marion

    For me this is a rational as well as an emotional concern. After thinking it through, I haven't eaten any kind of red meat in over a dozen years. This is both for my own health reasons and because of ethical consideration for human and animal health.

    It's been known since the 90's that methane emissions from livestock are a major source of greenhouse gas. It's been known since the 80's that economic pressure from the growing demand for meat, and beef in particular, has accelerated deforestation in South America and elsewhere. It's been known since the 70's that animal fat is a major contributor to heart disease in American diets (and Russian diets, and a whole bunch of diets in between.) The link between antibiotic use in animal husbandry and the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of common bacteria has been suspected for decades, and is now confirmed by a growing number of studies.

    I didn't find it hard to stop eating red meat. I just quit. I had quit eating pork many years before I cut out all red meat. That was because I'd helped to care for pigs in my childhood, on an old-fashioned subsistence farm, and for me eating pork came to feel like eating meat from a dog or cat. Pigs are smart.

    To this day, if you ask me what my favorite meat is, I'll tell you "bacon." I just don't eat it any more. I'm a Southerner. It took me years to learn to cook decently without pork, and then more years to learn to cook decently without any meat. But now the Internet has made all that a lot faster to master, for the motivated individual or family.

    And motivation is the key. You don't have to stop eating red meat because somebody else thinks you should. You can stop eating it because you're motivated to live longer, live healthier and avoid disability. You can stop because it's the rational thing to do and you're a rational person. You can stop because it's the emotionally-appealing thing to do and you're an empathic person. You can stop because it's the ethical thing to do and you're an ethical person. You can stop because it's the responsible thing to do and you're a responsible person. Whatever works for you, is the key.

    And if you don't want to stop, that's your business and it doesn't make you a bad person. But it might be in your interest (and the interests of those who love you) to think about the whole health thing.

    March 25, 2009 at 02:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Nancy Dalton

    I doubt most Americans would care about the issues you raise when the majority of Americans clearly don't even care about their own health, much less the environment or other people. More Americans are obese than merely overweight, and both of those categories outnumber normal weight Americans, despite all the news stories explaining how unhealthy obesity is. The costs, in dollars for health care, damage to the environment and the geopolitical damage stemming from the global alienation of people who are literally starving, are ignored. The only method that ever really gets peole to change their behavior is to hit them in the wallet. Tax meat products like tobacco and liquor products. Meanwhile, limit domestic production and importation. If the Obama administration is truly serious about the Big Four Issues of energy, environment, education and health, taxes on meat products and limiting production/importation would take a big swing at two of those.

    March 25, 2009 at 07:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Jose bonifacio

    I know I am doing bad by eating red meat-cow-but I just like this meat all better than all the others. I say, 30% more chances of dying earlier than some one who eats less meat is not a lot and can even be said that it could be related to other factors.Don't get me wrong, but 30% is not good data. I will go slow on the red just in case I fall in the 30% range, after all I don't want to die younger than I should be. Still cow meat is very tasty and nutritional. Racing the cows is another matter, specially for the planet.

    March 25, 2009 at 11:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Jack Phoenix,AZ

    This country has always been a land of meat eaters. Third world countries would be eating meat if they could, and they pollute more than we do. The greenhouse gasses will soon be one of our energy sources. I'll take my chances eating red meat.

    March 25, 2009 at 14:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Dawn

    I guess if I'm going to die earlier from enjoying a good steak or hamburger or pork chop, then so be it. I'm married to a beef farmer; we have cows. I'm all about the red meat. If we listened to every single report on what was bad for us, there is going to come a time when NOTHING is healthy.

    March 25, 2009 at 16:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. richard

    Apparently, nothing is good for anyone.alcohol,sugar, salt,even sex- u can get knocked up or catch a nasty disease.the upside is moderation.if we moderate ourselves, then perhaps we can live to see another day.

    March 25, 2009 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. GF, Los Angeles

    I know how horrible cows are to this planet and how unhealthy it is to eat them but simply put – I love eating them. I limit myself to having beef once a week. Unless we all go vegetarian, the environmental problems won't go away nor the obesity problem.

    March 25, 2009 at 19:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jennifer Meyer in North Carolina

    For five years while in high school and college, I worked in a slaughterhouse . My mom has been working at the same slaughterhouse twenty-two years. Before that, my grandfather worked in a nearby slaughterhouse thirty-five years.

    One might think that working in the business of death and the food industry would have innured us to the suffering of livestock, or that the people who kill the animals and package the meat the rest of the nation eats simply don't care about animals, but that's not the case. The work we performed and continue to perform has caused us to value the land, recognize the suffering of animals, and understand the issues surrounding the industrialization of food. My parents attempt to obtain only organic, grain-fed, locally grown meat, dairy, and egg products when available. I became a vegetarian during my stint with the slaughterhouse. My aunt and uncle raise their own cattle, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, and geese.

    The slaughterhouse is a major employer in my home area. I recognize its necessity in the local economic climate, but I also realize that the antibiotics routinely fed to livestock may be responsible for the growth of the new "superbugs," including MRSA, which, according to a recently published study, has been detected in 50% of the pigs raised for slaughter at Iowa hog farms. I've visited feed lots and chicken coops and smelled the stench rising off hog farms. They're nothing like the family farms I was raised with in our quaint rural area, family farms which are now almost a thing of the past.

    The advanced adolescent development of my stepdaughter and her friends worries me. Twenty years ago, I was concerned about Bovine Recombitant Growth Hormone being administered to cows and transmitted to children through milk; now I'm more concerned about breast enhancement growth hormones transmitted to children through chicken meat.

    This is the way we raise animals now. Why does industry not treat them humanely, and why does our government allow industry to grow so large that animals are treated without dignity and respect? If our society demands to eat meat, why can't our society demand a return to calves who see sunshine, cows who suckle their own calves, and pigs who sleep in a bed of clean straw?

    Instead we settle for pigs who are so stressed that 20% of their meat has to be discarded at the slaughterhouse because its texture has disintegrated into jelly. We settle for cows who are sent to slaughter after three or four years of peak milk production, rather than a normal ten or twelve year lifespan, and we neuter and slaughter male calves after a mere 16 months: fattened in a feedlot on a diet of corn and antibiotics rather than sunshine and grass.

    March 26, 2009 at 15:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. xm

    Hello Mr Jack from Phoenix,
    Just FYI, US produces more greenhouse gases than China & India combined. To put this in perspective, Chinese + Indian= 4 billion people creating less pollution than 300 million Americans. Please check your facts before making such statements!
    X, Detroit, MI

    March 28, 2009 at 01:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Craig McKee, M.D.

    Comment on the red meat article. Statements regarding the environmental impact of our current living conditions beg at least some comment on conditions prior to ours that are assumed to have been more "natural". For instance, what effect on the environment was the massive wildlife burden in North America prior to the arrival of European settlers. Hundreds of millions of roaming bison cannot have had a gentle effect on the Great Plains or the atmosphere. The search for knowledge must be sincere and thorough. The presentation of knowledge should not be biased nor emotionally driven.

    March 28, 2009 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Phil

    In re: to craig McKee's comment: Nature was doing just fine without human interference. To address your example, the bison would have eventually grown to a size that could not have supported all of them and they ultimately would have shrunk to a size that their environment could support. The fundamental difference between free roaming bison and the meat industry now is the fact that cattle and pigs are raised specifically for their meat. This means they are mass produced using far less nutrional or natural means. For instance, the feed they use is cheap and abundant. They can feed significantly more animals with significantly less land. So, while it was estimted that there were maybe 60 million (tops) bison roaming the US at one point . . . it would produce nothing compared to the millions of cows needed to meet the current populations' beef needs. Factor in the energy used to transport the cows, their feed, and then the actual beef and, well, I'm sure you can see the difference.

    April 1, 2009 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Skip Johnson

    As a fourth generation vegetarian, my views on meat consumption are from the viewpoint of someone looking on, rather than participating, in the process of eating flesh foods. I am a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, about half of whom choose the vegetarian diet cited as the original and ideal "fuel" for the human body in such Biblical passages as Genesis 1:29 and Daniel, chapter one. The half of us who do choose to eat meat, the greatest majority adhere to the kosher "clean/unclean" directions found in such passages as Deuteronomy 14 and Leviticus 11. The basics for that include:

    1. Mammals–must have a split hoof and chew its cud, includes such meats as beef, mutton, goat, deer, elk, and similar herd animals

    2. Birds–those on the forbidden list include primarily birds of prey, carrion eaters and fish eaters–chicken, turkey, pheasants, and a great many other birds that eat seeds, insects and seeds are on the menu

    3. Water Creatures–it must have fins and scales to be eaten, which includes a great many fish, but rules out shell fish, and those that have smooth skins, such as catfish, eels, etc.

    4. Insects–the grasshopper family are among the "clean insects", if they come eat your crop, you can eat them. Anybody interested? You can get a lot of exercise just catching breakfast!

    These dietary laws, as well as avoiding smoking, drinking, and recreational drug use, add between 7 to 14 extra years of life to those in our ranks world wide–so please don't think I'm feeling deprived of anything that will do me much good long term.

    Currently, over 100,000 Seventh-day Adventists are being studied here in North America to seek further details of the health advantage that we have enjoyed from incorporating some of the "forgotten Biblical secrets of long life" into our lifestyle. We have been identified as one of the three longest living people groups on the planet by National Geographic magazine, and the only one that is growing rather than dying out. We began in New England in the mid-1800's and are now in more than 200 countries. The health advantages are not national in character, but rather directly related to lifestyle. The preliminary studies coming out of this very large test group are showing a direct correlation between the amount of meat consumption of all kinds and the increase in diseases that are currently killing over 1/2 of Americans years before they need to die. The more meat, the greater the person's weight and the greater the increased of disease, with subsequent early mortality. The less meat, the less weight, the less disease, and the longer the life span. Its pretty much as simple as that.

    Quite apart from religious and health convictions for avoiding meat foods, there is certainly the issue of impact on earth's overcrowded resources. It has been estimated that you can feed 7-8 vegetarians with the same impact on planet Earth as it takes to feed a single meat eater. So the single choice most of us could make that would allow us to "tread lightly on the planet" would be to move toward a vegetarian diet. It simply makes very good sense, same as the Good Book has suggested since the first chapter of Genesis.

    April 2, 2009 at 10:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Margi Saccomanno

    Please, please, please, read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell, AND Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows An Introduction to CARNISM by Melanie Joy,Ph.D.

    March 4, 2010 at 22:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Skip Johnson

    I am aware of most of the enviromental impact points you have noted here, though the 2 to 5 times more water to grow food to feed an animal that will in turn be eaten ups the impact in that vital area from what I'd read previously.

    I'm a fourth generation Seventh-day Adventist vegetarian myself. That is a part of my Bible-based Christian lifestyle, along with about half of the other 16 million of my particular branch of the Christian church. The choice of a no meat, or for about half of us a kosher diet is one of the reasons for our statistically unusual longevity as compared with the rest of the population in the more than 200 countries around the world where our members reside.

    I've always been fascinated when I meet other vegetarians of other world views as to reasons they have chosen this lifestyle. Some do so out of pity for the animals. (As in, "I won't eat anything that has a face!") Others do so for religious reasons, like myself. As you point out, on an overcrowded planet, enviromental concerns are a significant reason to consider cutting back, or entirely eliminating the use of flesh foods. It takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef–grain that might have been consumed directly by human beings in a far more healthful form, rather than "second hand" after being processed by a creature. That means a great deal more cropland must be tilled to feed the human carnivor as compared with a human non-meat eater like myself. A rough estimate is that the resources and impact on our environment required to feed one meat eater would be adequate to feed seven vegetarian.

    The blunt fact is that the single thing most anyone can do to tread lightly on planet Earth and create the smallest impact to our environment is to simply omit the eating of meat entirely. No other choice most of us will make will contribute more to the well-being of both our planet and the other beings that share it with us.

    Further, the human body was not originally designed to burn flesh foods as its most efficient fuel. As a Bible believing Christian, I look to the original diet God gave humans that is mentioned in Genesis 1:29 as my primary motive for a diet based on plant sources. Eating meat is like burning kerosene in your car. It may get you down the road in a pinch, but it gums up the works more quickly than the fuel the car was designed for in the first place. Many indicators of the human frame show humans fit most adequately among the herbivors rather than the carnivors. The long length of our digestive tract is one detail we share with plant eating creatures, for instance.

    An additional Biblical "test case" for the benefits of a vegetarian diet is found in the first chapter of the book of Daniel. Here four young Hebrew captives choose a vegetarian diet like the one mentioned as the original diet in the book of Genesis. They choose plant foods and water rather than the rich meats and the wine from the king's own table in Babylon during the time of their training to serve in the Babylonian court. The results? Within ten days they look visibly better than their many meat eating and wine drinking counterparts who were also in training. At the end of three years, they proved far more intelligent than even their instructors in the king's school for officers for his realm. And Daniel was vital and active in international affairs in his 90's and beyond. He actually outlived the empire of Babylon itself, and held top offices in the Medo-Persian empire than replaced it. Plainly, there is a rapid, progressive, and lasting benefit to consuming the fuel our bodies are more adequately designed to handle. That fuel does not include meat.

    We don't just do the environment a favor by choosing a no-meat diet. We also do the critters themselves a favor, our fellow human beings a favor, and ourselves a favor, too. This is one of those "no-brainer" choices logically that only runs into our pre-trained taste buds as interference. Here's secret, however–one I heard cited by a doctor knowledgable in such matters: Our taste buds replace themselves entirely every 17 days. We like what we've been eating right along. But we can override those tastebuds for a higher purpose for a little over two weeks and have a whole new set of taste sensors we've trained in over that fairly brief period. We can actually change our own food preferences through an act of will sustained less than a month.

    For all the benefits that can result, that's something to consider.

    March 5, 2010 at 12:36 | Report abuse | Reply
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