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The Great Sustainability Debate: Meat Or No Meat?

Good Magazine published the first post in what I hope will be a long running series called Reasonable People Disagree. The premise is that they select two rationally-thinking people on opposite sides of an issue and print their dueling essays.

This iteration, which is worth reading in its entirety, is about meat consumption and sustainability. But for those of you who want a Readers' Digest version of the debate, I thought I would lay out some of the highlights.


Nicolette Hahn Niman is an attorney and activist for improving conditions on farms. Her husband is founder of Niman Ranch, on which animals are raised, and she is the author of Righteous Porkchop.

Niman says that modern animal farming practices are to blame, not animal farming itself. She explains how the debate is dominated by two extremes: agribusiness who strive to maintain the status quo and vegan activists fighting to get rid of animal farming altogether.

One of the industry ills is the concentration of farm animals. When animals and animal farms are not placed so close to one another, Niman argues that they play an important role in the recycling of nutrients in their ecosystems.

What the United Nations' report fails to take into account is the difference between traditional and modern methods. Highly deleterious practices like clear-cutting rainforests in Brazil and the use of nitrous oxide-rich manmade fertilizers should be considered separately.

Niman also contends that that pasture land actually helps to absorb excess carbon dioxide - the atmospheric gas whose surplus is responsible for the greenhouse effect. However, while her essay is nicely ornamented with linked to reputable studies, she does not provide a reference for this last claim.


Lindsay Rajt is a long-time vegetarian and leads grassroots campaigns for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Among those campaigns are KFC's treatment of chickens and conditions for horses at the Kentucky Derby.

Rajt takes the position that we should give up consuming animals altogether. Her initial argument focuses on the emotional relationships humans have with animals, and the relationships they form among themselves.

She points out that raising animals in order to kill them is easily equated to slave-ownership.

But Rajt also tackles more tangible issues. For example, she states that the modern American diet and Niman's proposed changes in farming practices cannot match up logistically.

She says that the 10 million animals used every year for food in the United States requires the very existence of the modern factory-style farms Niman demonizes.

Rajt does not shy away from the well-worn arguments that animal farms produce huge quantities of greenhouse gases and that third-world countries could ease their hunger crises with the widespread adoption of vegetarianism. After all, many calories that could be used for hungry humans are wasted in the production of meat.

Who has the stronger argument? Can meat consumption become more eco-friendly if farming practices are improved? Or should we try to eliminate meat products from our diet to conserve resources and reduce pollution?

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