Dan Murphy: Even Chimps Eat Meat

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This is getting old.

Seems like not a day goes by when some celeb, movie star or activist spouts off about why eating meat is a horrific problem. And surprise … the solution is always the same: Just Go Veggie!

Now, some of these born-again veggies are merely bandwagoners. They follow trends, and proclaiming yourself to be a holier-than-thou vegetarian is certainly a (relatively) hot trend.

But others who speak out against the diet of animal foods that has sustained humanity for eons are smart, well-educated people who are often authorities — experts, even — in various scientific fields.

They oughta know better.

But they don’t. Instead, they simply repeat the same exaggerations cooked up by anti-industry activists, the tired old talking points pro-vegan mouthpieces have beaten to death, and they never stop to question whether the logic of their arguments even makes sense.

Here’s one of the more recent example of characterizing meat as a four-letter word, this time involving the noted anthropologist Jane Goodall. She’s an accomplished scientist, considered to be the world’s foremost expert on the social interactions of wild chimpanzees, having studied them for decades in East Africa and written a raft of books and academic papers on the subject.

Goodall is now in her 80s, so maybe she can be forgiven for urging people to give up eating meat, implying that if they care about animals (which we certainly do), if they want to stay healthy (which is a near-universal aspiration), and if they want to save Planet Earth (which other than those Hollywood aliens who show up in futuristic space ships equipped with super-weapons, is a big 10-4 for virtually everyone alive today), then they need to go full veggie.

From a first-person article on her blog, titled, “Why I became a vegetarian (and why we should all eat less meat),” she began by rolling out a lead that I remember a professor in Journalism 101 telling the class of wanna-be writers not to use: “People today are eating more and more meat, and it is becoming more and more of a problem.”

A throwaway line like that would need several paragraphs of explanation to make sense. For instance: “People?” Does she mean all people, or just some people? It’s not clear.

They’re “eating more meat.” In terms of overall tonnage, or is she referring to per capita consumption. If the latter, then in actuality, “people,” at least in the developed world, are eating less meat than at any time in the last half century.

And the use of the phrase “becoming more of a problem,” implies that animal agriculture and meat-eating has always been a problem—only now it’s suddenly a crisis.

Bad diction, lousy logic and a misstatement — at best — of the facts.

Debunking the ‘Problems’
Specifically, the problems to which Veggie Jane refers start with “ending factory farming.” That statement assumes that if livestock somehow disappeared from the world that large-scale, mechanized farming would disappear along with it.

Truth is, raising cattle, dairy cows, pigs, goats, chickens or turkeys is one of the few avenues left for smaller farmers to earn a living. If the entire world has to subsist on only wheat, corn, rice and soy, along with fruits and vegetables, of course, there would be even greater pressure to mass produce food crops via mechanized monoculture.

Not to mention enormous pressure on existing land, soil, water and energy resources to feed nine billion people in the next few decades on nothing but plants.

Second, Goodall raises concerns about environmental damage caused by raising livestock. In the West, she places the blame on producers for feeding their animals rations supplemented by grains and legumes, which create the carbon footprint that’s at issue with meat-eating. In other words, modern methods of animal husbandry are at fault.

In the developing world, however, the herders and producers themselves are at fault because they don’t use modern methods, instead relying on slash-and-burn tactics to clear forest land and failing to manage the grazing pressures of their herds on what are often semi-arid rangeland.

With that argument, nobody wins. Raise livestock efficiently, and you’re guilty of an unacceptable carbon footprint. Let your herds graze “naturally” on the land, and you’re to blame if the resource becomes overused, eroded and unproductive.

Finally, she plays on the “eat meat and die” card, suggesting several canards that are patently untrue:

“Meat consumption certainly plays a role in the global rise in obesity.” No it doesn’t. There are clear and compelling data showing an inverse relationship across North America and Europe: As people in those regions have eaten less meat over the last 40 years, the obesity statistics have risen in exactly the opposite direction.

“Hormones and other supplements fed to animals … may be passed on to us.” Not if you’re buying USDA-inspected meat or poultry, since residues of those inputs are not allowed in commerce.

“Antibiotics are now supplied on a regular basis just to keep animals alive in the crowded and depressing conditions in the factory farms.” That is a complete falsehood. If you need to use antibiotics “regularly” just to keep your animals alive, you need to exit the business. Immediately.

It’s sad that a trained scientist, who would object vigorously to anyone characterizing chimpanzee behavior without proper anthropological and zoological foundation, would fall so easily for what amounts to propaganda manipulated by organizations who’ve made it their mission to demonize animal agriculture.

Yes, the developing world could stand to do a better job of food production, minus the destruction of wildlife habitat. And the West needs to continue to develop more efficient, sustainable methods of production that conserve, not squander, limited resources.

But most of all, we could do with a lot less proselytizing from people like Jane Goodall.

An expert on chimps? Agreed. An expert on livestock? Not so much.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.