Brown’s plan to cut campus red meat consumption without tackling poultry and fish lacks nuance
The Undergraduate Student Council noted in an April 30 email that Brown will task a red meat task force to provide recommendations for reducing red meat consumption on campus. The rationale set out in the Strategic sustainability plan to reduce red meat (i.e. beef and pork), it will reduce the University’s contribution to nutrient pollution, which includes agricultural waste laden with nitrogen and phosphorus that contributes to various public health and environmental issues. Purchases of red meat make up one-fifth of Brown’s nitrogen footprint. The plan therefore aims to reduce the consumption of red meat in mess halls by 25% by 2025 and possibly by 50% by 2030.
The fact that the plan is specific to red meat, and lacks an explicit commitment to reduce animal products as a whole, makes it insufficiently holistic. It is true that reducing red meat consumption alone can constitute “progress” through narrow measures of nutrient pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the plan does not specify which foods will replace red meat. Those implementing the plan should note that replacing red meat with other animal products does not address public health issues such as antibiotic resistance and the risk of a zoonotic pandemic, and may in fact increasing the number of animals abused in factory farms.
The public health risks associated with animal products (not just red meat) include some of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. For example, the Poultry and farmed fish Both industries contribute to the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant microbes in the same way as other meat productions: When antibiotics are used in meat production, natural selection produces strains of bacteria that survive current medical treatments. The United Nations has estimated that by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people per year, which is more than double number of deceased COVID-19 from June 2021. If such a disaster occurs, it could be largely due to animal agriculture. Currently, 80% of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animal agriculture, and among these, 70 percent are considered “medically important” by the Food and Drug Administration.
Additionally, switching from red meat to chicken or turkey does not resolve the pandemic risk posed by animal agriculture. As shown last year, zoonotic diseases – such as bird flu, commonly spread by chickens – pose a serious threat to humanity. In recent decades, epidemiologists have observed strains of avian influenza with rising death rate at 60 percent. Fortunately, such strains have so far not been contagious in humans, but scientists worry that mutations could occur and allow human-to-human transmission. Increasing our dependence on chicken for meat increases the risk of such a mutated strain occurring. If that happens, the effects of an ensuing pandemic could far outweigh those of COVID-19.
Replacing beef and pork with other meat products is also counterproductive from an animal welfare perspective. Part of the reason is that chickens, turkeys, and fish are much smaller animals than pigs and cows. a much larger number (100 times more chickens than cows) must be murdered to produce the same amount of meat. More than 99 percent of chickens and turkeys raised in the United States are raised on factory farms, where endemic and extreme abuse is well documented. In fact, the most common types of chickens have been selected to be so heavy that they feel excruciating pain, even in a decent environment.
Even though red meat tops the list of contributors to nutrient pollution, the Sustainability Plan ignores the very real environmental threats posed by poultry and fish. The chicken is still considerably worse for the climate than plant-based alternatives, and the commercial fishing industry threatens to cause the collapse of world fishing. That would do worsen malnutrition in developing countries where, unlike Brown, seafood provides essential nutrients that are hard to find elsewhere. In light of all these concerns, it is strange that the Strategic Plan for Sustainable Development only talks about the consumption of red meat in terms of nutrient pollution, with a passing reference to greenhouse gas emissions. . Poultry and fish are not mentioned once in the plan.
Encouragingly, however, the plan also suggests that the Sustainability Office will explore “options for sustainable alternatives to meat” and organize “plant-based diets educational campaigns”. The plan also notes that “reducing the consumption of red meat is not the same as reducing the availability of protein.” But the same goes for reducing meat consumption in general, so there is no point in distinguishing between red meat. Between lentils, nuts, seeds, chickpeas and other beans, tofu, seitan, tempeh, nutritional yeast, edamame, textured vegetable protein and all whole grains, high protein plant foods could easily supplant animal products in our mess rooms while accommodating a wide variety of dietary lifestyles.
The Sustainable Development Strategic Plan leaves plenty of room for interpretation by the committees and working groups that will implement it in the years to come. Hopefully these groups will use this leeway to address animal products in general, and not just red meat. The University should prioritize replacing animal products with herbal products (and maybe someday cultivated) alternatives, and commit to avoiding ill-conceived measures such as replacing red meat with poultry and fish.