Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The flesh of tetrapods

There are many good reasons not to eat meat -- something I have not done for 40 years, by the way. (I do eat some seafood.) But I'm a little nonplussed, if that's the word, by the massive global flapdoodle over this new publication by the World Health Organization saying that eating procesed meats (and probably any red meat) is associated with an elevated risk of cancer.

My nonplussedness is because we have known this for decades. All they are doing is restating epidemiological evidence that has been emerging since the 1980s. This is not a "study" as most reporters have been calling, but a systematic review of what we already know.

The truth is the absolute risk is pretty small, although it certainly pertains to amounts that carnivores do commonly consume. A steak or two strips of bacon a day is the kind of dosage they are looking at, and if you aren't a DFH you probably eat at least that much. This represents something on the order of a 1% lifetime increased risk of cancer. It's far more important not to use tobacco in any form, not to drink to excess, and to maintain a healthy weight. Steering clear of formaldehyde and nuclear waste are also good ideas but you're probably already doing that.

I think the public should be informed, of course. The problem is keeping things in perspective and in proportion. The meat industry is destroying the planet because it produces immense carbon outputs. Making a pound of beef takes 8 pounds of feed. If people ate the vegetable products directly, we'd multiply the product of our farmland, fertilizer, and machinery 8 fold. And we'd cut our risk of cancer by 1 or 2 percent.


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