Not a day (or two) goes by that I don’t end up having a conversation with someone who proudly proclaims themselves to be a vegetarian.
I don’t know; maybe it’s the “I ♥ Red Meat” button I’m typically wearing, but I seem to attract debate from people who love to argue that the world would be so much better off if all livestock, um . . . I don’t know. Ran free? Ascended into heaven? Disappeared into some other dimension?
The point is, these true believer veggies always argue, that if cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, goats and every other animal raised for food were somehow gotten rid of, we’d have gotten rid of everything from global warming to peak oil to the specter of global hunger and starvation.
We don’t need livestock anymore, is the common refrain in all these tortured arguments — certainly not to eat.
I disagree, and not just on a nutritional basis. In addition to the meat and milk that sustain 95% of the seven billion humans alive today, here are seven other reasons the world needs livestock. That’s 6.6 billion people if you at home are keeping score.
1). Medical research. Consider for a moment the idea that a surgeon could “practice” only on computer simulations, as animal activists always suggest, then walk into his or her first operation, pick up a scalpel and slice open somebody with aplomb and skill, and everyone — particularly the patient — would be totally comfortable with such training.
If you’re the one getting operated on, it’s pretty clear how you’d feel. Any professional technique requires lengthy practice to perfect the skill, and one of the best choices for an animal that mimics human physiology is the pig. Not only complicated organ transplants but even routine surgical procedures involve the techniques and management protocols that need to be researched on animals through a process of trial and error.
And nobody wants to serve as the error in that process.
2). Organic fertilizers. This one’s probably the easiest to “sell” to anyone who opposes animal husbandry on principle. Typically, they also love organic foods and hate “chemicals” of all kinds.
So, the question becomes: Without livestock, what do organic farmers use for fertilizer? They certainly can’t apply synthetic nitrogen or other manufactured compounds. That’s prohibited by the organic certification rules. More important, it’s contrary to the all-natural philosophy of organic farming.
In fact, the highly regarded Center for Sustainable Farming at Washington State University states, “Many of the reported climate change advantages of organic farming flow from its prohibition of synthetic fertilizers and exclusive use of organic fertilizers.”
But without any livestock, there would be such a limited supply of organic fertilizers that it would severely compromise the entire enterprise of organic farming and definitely derail its stated mission of feeding the world. So, if you love eating organically, you’d better learn to love livestock.
3). Animal foods. Both feline and canine pets — vegan extremists notwithstanding — need animal protein. That’s why virtually every ad for pet food, unlike ads for human food, promotes the nutritional value of the kibbles, bits, chunks, shreds and pellets that will keep your pet happy and healthy.
Uh, where is all that rich, savory, protein-packed nutrition supposed to come from, if not from livestock? Sure, there are plenty of idiots feeding their companion animals vegan pet food — and a number of marketers profiting handsomely off them — but any veterinarian will confirm that cats in particular (now America’s No. 1 pet) are pure carnivores.
No livestock, no meat. No meat, no naturally healthy pets.
4). Diversified agriculture. No matter one’s political persuasion, the issue of national food security ought to a high priority. And that means not only domestic cultivation of corn, soybeans and rice, but also the other grains, produce and nuts and other specialty crops needed to properly fill that mythical plate USDA encourages Americans to load up with fruits and vegetables.
That priority is two-fold: Not only does it ensure U.S. farmers and producers collectively produce a variety of foods, but individually that as many farm operations as possible benefit from the synergies agronomists promote when crops are rotated, different varieties of are planted and when animals and crops are raised together. The crops feed the livestock and the livestock fertilize the crops.
5). Farm work. Agriculture in North America long ago progressed beyond having mules or oxen pulling plows or dragging hay wagons around the old farmstead. Except for competitions among draft horses, or county fair competitions, we no longer even consider horses or cattle as work animals.
Yet elsewhere in the world, oxen, water buffalo and donkeys are critical to the subsistence farming that feed more than three-fourths of the Earth’s population. Anyone want to calculate what the costs, ecologically and financially, would be if all those animals had to be replaced with tractors? From every aspect — resources consumption, energy use, and even the basic logistics of trying to ship equipment to hundreds of millions of farmers around the world — such an attempt would be disastrous.
6). Solar panels. A potentially breakthrough new technology may improve the efficiency of solar panels. According to a presentation made at the American Chemical Society conference, a new process using a blood product from cattle may serve as a substitute for the rare and often toxic materials currently used to manufacture solar panels. A team at the University of Connecticut is experimenting with bovine serum albumin, which when mixed with certain lipids and dyes, created a matrix that appears to support artificial photosynthesis.
Yes, the technology is several years away from commercialization — and a biodegradable gel creates lifespan issues — but this research is critical. Why? Because there’s a limited supply of the rare metals and minerals currently needed to manufacture conventional solar panels, and a similarly limited supply of the fossil fuels for which we will someday soon need to find a replacement.
7). Heart valves. This final category is one near and dear to me, because without the bovine heart valve inside my chest, I’d be dead. Both bovine and porcine valves taken from cows and pigs are often the preferred choice for patients, like me, who find out later in life that either the main heart valve or valves have deteriorated or they’re congenitally defective (as in my case). In either situation, there is one and only one option: Open-heart surgery — done by physicians who trained on animals, by the way — and insertion of a valve taken from species of livestock.
It’s actually an incredible procedure when you think about it -- and I try not to do so, given the overall experience. It's a procedure that has allowed millions of people to resume living a normal life, life that otherwise long ago would have been over and done with.
I can only wish that the vegan arguments against livestock have a similar fate.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator