LEH: Saving humans

The other day a friend offered me part of his bacon, egg and cheese sandwich — a staple of the late-night college diet. I shrugged it off, reminding him that I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my college career. “I always forget,” he responded between bites. “You’re not like those other vegetarians.”

Those other vegetarians. Popular perception conjures up images of aggressive PETA activists picketing fast-food restaurants or bombarding fur-clad women with red paint. But it’s time to end the misconception that vegetarians are sanctimonious moralists looking down from leafy pedestals at a nation of merciless murderers.

To do so, we must first challenge the notion that vegetarianism is solely motivated by a concern for animal welfare. Saving animals — while certainly a boon — need not be the primary motivation for forgoing meat. For me, environmental, economic and health concerns all provide stronger reasons to embrace plant-based fare.

On the environmental front, eating an omnivorous diet contributes to pollution, deforestation, water scarcity and climate change. In the United States, meat consumption — each American eats an average of 270 pounds of meat a year — exacerbates the global oil crisis. Given the massive quantities of oil it takes to raise a 1,250-pound steer, this statistic means the U.S. uses approximately 350 million barrels of oil per year just on animal products.

Additionally, Michigan State University researchers found that as many as 2.5 million gallons of water may be needed to raise a single cow. Producing that same amount of food in grain, on the other hand, requires only 1 percent of that amount. According to the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report, more than 1 million people have inadequate access to water — numbers that might otherwise change were society to reduce its meat consumption.

These environmental impacts mean we cannot claim “speciesism” as a defense for eating meat. Our actions do not only affect animals; they harm our fellow human beings as well.

Polluted water resulting from excess manure also poses a threat to many Americans. In the Chesapeake Bay — now tainted by runoff from the 64 million chickens living on the Delmarva Peninsula — one-third of underground aquifers have alarmingly high nitrate levels. In recent years, an increasing amount of the public water supply has been deemed contaminated and rendered unsafe for humans to drink.

As compelling as these reasons may be, I know my meat-eating friends are not easily “converted” by ecological arguments. Environmental consequences are difficult to visualize because in many cases their impacts are distant (while the mouthwatering benefits of a sandwich, they claim, are directly in front of them).

From talking to meat-eaters, I know health concerns can provide a much more pressing impetus. Vegetarian diets confer benefits like reduced risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure when compared to omnivorous ones. A longitudinal study of almost 100,000 SeventhDay Adventists even found that vegetarian men live 9.5 years longer than their meat-eating counterparts, while vegetarian women live six years longer. Moreover, in the United States, noncommunicable diseases that may be spurred on by excessive meat consumption are many of the leading causes of death, accounting for an estimated $50 billion in health care costs — money that may come out of taxpayers’ pockets through the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

To my friends, I wonder: Is meat still as appetizing when it’s simultaneously cutting short your life and dipping into your wallet? Part of the reason some continue to say “yes” is that vegetarianism retains a certain stigma. It is linked with its most vocal supporters — people who argue that any consumption of animals is murder. But if we are to seriously reduce our meat consumption, we cannot demand an “abstinence-only” approach. Just as comprehensive sex education programs try to reduce the possible negative consequences of sex, emphasizing a “less-meat” rather than “no-meat” diet for Americans would at least turn us in the right direction.

So here’s what I proposed to my friend that night — and what I propose now to every college student who won’t give up his Saturday night bacon, egg and cheese: Go halfway. Eat meat occasionally — not excessively. Skimp on beef to lower your family’s economic burden. Reduce your poultry intake to prevent children from going hungry or thirsty. Pass on an additional hot dog to reduce your risk of heart disease. Put an end to “abstinence-only” nutrition; eating less meat does not have to be as radical a change as we make it out to be.

Erica Leh is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact her at erica.leh@yale.edu . 

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