Should We Eat Meat? Summary and Review

by Vaclav Smil

Has Should We Eat Meat? by Vaclav Smil been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Since our ancestors hunted for game together on the African savannah, eating meat has been an integral role in our human culture and evolution. Meat is still the superior item when it comes to providing proteins and fat which is valuable, even though vegetarian diets can provide sufficient nutrition. A huge rise in modern technology has meant that we can produce massive amounts of meat each year, this has led to an explosion in meat consumption around the world. Unfortunately, this has come at a huge cost to the environment. But, vegetarianism isn’t the solution to these issues. This book summary will show you that the solution lies in lowering consumption and producing meat in a more rational way.

In this summary of Should We Eat Meat? by Vaclav Smil, you’ll find out:

  • How eating meat has played an important role in human evolution;
  • Why mammoths were targets for our hunter forebears; and
  • Why vegetarianism isn’t the answer.

Should We Eat Meat? Key Idea #1: High-Quality proteins from Meat are Essential for Human Development and Health.

As a child, you may have learned about the food pyramid and how carbohydrates and proteins are essential for growth and energy. These are high-quality proteins and a lot of these come from eating animal products. Actually, humans evolved to eat other animals. For example, a humans digestive tractive is distinctive from other herbivores because they have enzymes which are developed to digest meat. So, how does meat fit into our diets? The eating process can be thought of as supplying yourself with the things you need to sustain your metabolism and also maintain and grow your body. To do this, you need macronutrients such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins. You also need micronutrients like vitamins. Meat happens to be a great source of both macro and micronutrients, in particular, protein. For example, high-quality protein that is found in meat is essential for young children and also serve as crucial for brain growth. As well as this, the energy contained in a gram of meat is more than double than in carbohydrate, this gives you a huge 39 kilojoules per gram as opposed to 17.3 of carbohydrates. Meat is also a large source of iron, this is particularly important as iron deficiencies are a global issue that affects up to 1.6 billion people worldwide. This can lead to impaired brain development and even maternal death. Despite all of these beneficial aspects of eating meat, there are also some drawbacks. Meat production does have a negative impact on the environment. This is because the per-capita of meat that is available is higher than the average grown adult's weight of 65 to 80 kg. This poses an issue because the agricultural process that is linked to meat production uses a lot of energy and incurs other costs. We will discuss this further in the summary.

Should We Eat Meat? Key Idea #2: Meat Played a Big Role in the Evolution of Humans.

Have you realized how prevalent meat eating has been through history? This is not a coincidence. Meat has served as a key role in human evolution. For example, even though historical meat consumption has seen fluctuation, purely vegetarian societies are few and far between. This is because many societies saw meat as in indicator of wealth and social status, this is a reasonable association as meat has played a huge role in the evolution of the human species and for our brains. All the protein enabled us to grow larger and better, Meat doesn’t just affect the structure of our brains but it is also key to our social development. Biologist Craig Stanford links human intelligence to meat eating while observing chimps. Just like chimps, humans have hunted in groups in order to distribute the risk, and when they joined forces it meant that they could kill larger animals such as mammoths that were higher in fat and had more nutritional content. This meant that they had to communicate and find ways to get along. Hunting these large creatures meant that humans had to develop a language, beginning socialization and engaging in strategic thinking, sometimes even trading meat for sex. As meat was hard to get hold of, people who had it were boosted to higher social status, reaping privileges along the way. In this, meat also became a central part of religious ceremonies and language, giving the leader the best cuts. It began with goats and sheep around 11,000 years ago and moved on to cows about 1,000 years later. As well as this, meat consumption has changed with society. When we first started consuming meat, we ate everything we could get our hands on, from large mammoths to small fish. But today, humans consume a smaller range of species and because of this domestication, there is controlled breeding that affects its function or productivity. The way that we have kept consuming domestic animals has changed as society and technology have developed.

Should We Eat Meat? Key Idea #3: Increased Production and Consumption are symbols of transition to modernity.

OK, so all this evolution happened millennia ago, but there has been a more recent evolution, and it all began in the nineteenth century. Why? In the 1800s global trade intensified and this meant that animal fodder could be imported cheaper and more meat animals were raised on it. After this, the first US patent for a refrigerated train car was issued in 1867 and the Frigorifique became the first ship that transported refrigerated meat from Argentina to France in 1876. This huge scale and long distance transport of refrigerated and frozen meat led to higher production in order to satisfy a new market. As the centuries moved on, this change only accelerated. The consumption of carbohydrates such as cereal and legumes continued to decline, and the consumption of animal products, meat, in particular, rose to unprecedented heights. In summary, meat production rose again and so did meat production. How? In first instance, animals used to be key as labor in transportation and agriculture. This changed though when the internal combustion engine took over this role. Second, crop production and animal husbandry go together because nitrogen in manure was necessary for agriculture, but artificial nitrogenous fertilizers eliminated this need. Third, new mechanized farming and fertilizers meant that higher crop yields were achieved on less land and with less workers, this made animal feed crops easier to come by. Demand then rose in the mid-twentieth century, especially as middle-class women left home and began to work. They had less time to cook and they looked for easy to prepare meat in order to make nutritious meals for their families.  

Should We Eat Meat? Key Idea #4: Meat is Produced on a Huge Scale in the 20th Century.

For thousands of years, domesticated meat production was tasked by either a farmer who made use of the grasslands in the country or practitioners of mixed farmers, who integrated crop production and animal husbandry in to each other. However, these methods are a thing of the past. In the present, we have a systematic chain of meat production from breeding to raising to slaughtering to processing to distribution. This production happens on an enormous scale. In 2010 alone, humans slaughtered 55 billion chickens, 3 billion ducks and turkeys, 1.4 billion pigs and 300 million cows, most of these out of site in large scale facilities and in the hands of unskilled workers, who have little job or financial security. As any business person will know, the higher the production is, the more downsides there is, and meat is no exception. When per capita meat consumption was low, livestock production didn’t cause any major transformations to the environment at a local, regional or global level. But this all changed as people came to expect more meat at their table.   The next passage will discuss how industrial meat production works, or often doesn’t work.

Should We Eat Meat? Key Idea #5: Large Scale Meat Production means Large Scale Problems.

Is the acronym CAFO familiar? This stands for Confined Animal Feeding Operations - the type of production plant that churns out cheap meat in order to meet demand. Factory-style farms in first world countries began to produce chickens raised on a standardized feed after World War Two. Then this was used to farm pigs and spread to wealthy countries to Asia and Latin America. Now, this method of animal production is dominant in nearly every country but Africa. CAFOs even lend a hand in cattle raising, but this is almost exclusive in the US and Canada. The result? As factory farming has become more widespread it has lead to specialization, this means that animals that are used for breeding are now separated from those for slaughter, and the gene pool has become narrowed. Animals themselves are altered to increased output. For example, a chicken that is living now will reach the sexual maturity in 18 weeks rather than their natural date of 25 weeks, this means that they can produce more offspring. Chickens will also now reach their maximum weight in six weeks as opposed to 6 months to accomplish! In order for this to happen, they need to be treated with drugs, this speeds their growth and also keeps them healthy in crowded barns, this means that their manure is more toxic and getting rid of that waste means that there is more environmental degradation. CAFOS rely in increasing density to boost their output and are profitable, but the economies of scale made by having a relatively small number of plants offset the cost - financial and environmental of transporting meat to different customers. This production system only works because of the non-stop refrigeration after slaughter. What about animal products other than meat, like milk and eggs? Some people argue that animal products are just as problematic as meat, but this isn’t the case. A milk cow producing a US average of 9000 liters a year gives about 65 gigajoules of energy in three years, compared to the two gigajoules it would produce in meat and fat. Dairy and egg farming is, therefore, more efficient than meat production.

Should We Eat Meat? Key Idea #6: Feeding Animals in Factories is a large, inefficient business.

It is easy to see that more animals mean more feed, but this is the reason that meat is so environmentally costly. This is because modern meat production in CAFOs and feedlots depends on the cheap and steady supply of compound feed, this is a composition of carbohydrates enriched with proteins and the most common of this is corn. The protein tends to be supplied by oilseeds, soy in particular. But where does soy come from? Soy mostly comes from the US which produces about 90 million tons annually alongside Brazil and Argentina where production of soy is on the rise. In Brazil, soy production rose from 0.25 million tonnes in 1960 to 20 million tonnes in 1990 and now stands at 69 million tonnes. Seen as though large mammals are inefficient at converting feed to meat, most of the crops that are grown today are not for direct human consumption, but for the livestock that humans will consume. However, some animals are more efficient than others. An example is that pigs are the most efficient producers of mammalian meat, they have low metabolisms and at their highest growth point convert two thirds of their metabolized energy to body mass. They also take up less space. Now you are aware of the dirty secrets of factory farming, but what about grass-fed meat? Isn’t this more natural and eco-friendly? But pastured animals require large tracts of managed and grazing land, so this form of production reduces natural biodiversity, but also leads to overgrazing, high soil erosion and desertification.

Should We Eat Meat? Key Idea #7: Feed Production is a threat to Soil, Water and the Atmosphere.

Think about the fact that a pig will eat around 300 kilograms of feed before it has been slaughtered. This will mean that as much as 500 square meters of land is needed to grow the crops necessary to raise just one pig! On top of that you will also need a lot of nitrogen in order to fertilize the crops and this takes up a lot of energy to produce this nitrogen.   As a result of this, large scale meat production has reshaped the way we use land. For example, most people aren’t aware of the extent that domesticated animals dominate the zoomass, which is the mass of all terrestrial vertebrates other than humans. Even in largely populated countries such as the US, animals that are raised for meat weigh just as much as the human population of the entire nation! A quarter of the earth's ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and a third of all arable land produces crops for their feed. The atmosphere is also affected too, in three important ways. The first is that carbon dioxide levels have risen as a result of the deforestation that is necessary to clear the farmland. A lot of the carbon dioxide has then been released into the atmosphere as rain forests have been chopped down. Secondly, methane levels have increased because of the digestive byproducts of animals like cows. Third, the nitrous oxide that is released by fertilizers is a major cause of global warming. Unfortunately, that isn’t the extent of the damage, animal production has also affected water supplies. This is because water isn’t only offered to animals for drinking, but it is necessary to clean their feed and operate slaughterhouses. These are chump change in comparison to the hidden or virtual water needed to produce meat. For example, the production of one kilogram of feed requires about 1,000 liters of water, or more. Not just that, but most of this water is wasted in evaporation. When all’s said and done, an American-grown broiler chicken fed optimally needs about 2,000 liters of virtual water per kilogram of meat. For pork, it’s about 5,000 liters, and beef clocks in at an impressive 15,000 liters.

Should We Eat Meat? Key Idea #8: Meat Alternatives have their limitations.

So, you’ve seen how meat production plays a role in global warming and deforestation. But what’s the alternative? Is not eating meat the only option? Maybe not. Increasing the number of vegetarian people would help, but as meat plays a central role in our diet then this wouldn’t be a wise move.  For example, a vegetarian diet can be just as nutritious as one that includes meat, but it does take more effort. This is because they are hard pressed to make sure that their diets include enough metals. This is since one kg of vegetables isn’t nutritionally the same as 1kg of meat. It is much easier to achieve a balanced diet by eating meat, especially when there are young children involved. Vegetarianism is common in many Asian cultures, there is no Western culture with a rate of vegetarianism and veganism that is higher than 4 percent. Although these numbers can rise, vegetarianism will never replace meat eating or become a common practice in the West. But what about meat substitutes or meat made in a lab? Meat substitutes have been consumed for a long time in cuisines such as India, China, and Japan, look at tempeh or seitan. Sales of these kinds of products are on the rise in the West, and in 2011 they had increased by ten percent in the United States alone. But, consumption of these meat substitutes in 2010 in the United States was only worth $270 million, which is a small 0.2 percent of the country’s annual meat sales of $160 billion. This means that it is unlikely that meat substitutes will replace the real thing. Asian cultures are now experiencing an increase in demand for real meat. Another change that may come is the production of cultured meat, this is meat that is made on an industrial level in laboratories. This would mean that there is less animal mistreatment and also a decrease in the transportation of the enterprise, but this is slow to progress as animal muscles are very complex. In order to replace a mere ten percent of the current annual meat production, 30 million tonnes would need to be developed in labs. Therefore, this cultured meat is merely science fiction. However, there may be one other way.  

Should We Eat Meat? Key Idea #9: The best Solution is to continue to produce meat but in a rational way.

The reality is that the current levels of meat production and the way we consume it are not fixed. Although eating huge quantities of meat has become a phenomenon, this does not mean that it is going to remain as one. We do not need to sacrifice our protein intake in order to do this.   This is because there are other incredible sources of protein that don’t come from meat, and products such as dairy and eggs. They may not be able to replace the meat entirely, but they can put a dent into our consumption. But what about lactose intolerance? This is a smaller issue that you may think, Japan and China are increasing their Dairy intake and even those who are lactose intolerant can enjoy different kinds of milk. Another amazing source of protein is fish. Although the world’s oceans are in peril, freshwater or farmed fish are still viable alternatives. If you combine them with dairy and eggs then we can decrease our meat consumption, but we will still not be able to cut it to zero. This is because our average meat consumption per capita in many areas is off the charts at an average of 40 kilograms per year and over 100 kilograms a year in countries such as the United States, Brazil and Spain. When you combine this with the fact that there is a growing population globally and these are in developed countries means that higher meat intake is very likely. However, if we can replace some of the consumption with meat substitutes such as Seitan and eggs, then this increase can be curbed. The real question is whether or not we can produce meat with a minimal impact. The rational production of meat requires us to improve efficiency, reduce waste and minimize environmental impact. In order to do this we will need to produce more animals with a better grain to body mass conversion rate, for example, chickens, which have a two kilograms of feed to one kilogram of meat ratio. If we produce meat rationally, we will be able to produce something that has the output of France at 16 kilograms per year per capita, an Japan whose country has the highest life expectancy - at 28 kilograms.

Should We Eat Meat? Key Idea #10: SHOULD WE EAT MEAT? BOOK SUMMARY

The key message in this book: Humans have the ability to live without meat, but this doesn’t mean that we must, or should. While the methods today and the rate of meat production involves a variety of environmental impacts and animal rights issues, the answer isn’t to stop eating it altogether but to produce it more rationally. Suggested further reading: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer Eating Animals offers a comprehensive view of the modern meat industry and demonstrates how the entire production process has been so completely perverted that it is unrecognizable as farming anymore. The book explains the moral and environmental costs incurred to achieve today‘s incredibly low meat prices.