"What's The Beef"
New Scientist - Jan 24, 2015
The media’s recent spotlight on the meat industry is a welcome development. But unlike the New York Times’ recent investigation into the Meat Animal Research Center, far too much coverage proves false, lighting a path to obfuscation.
Last week’s New Scientist cover article, ‘What’s the Beef?’ is a case in point. The article promises to reveal “the truth about meat and your health” but instead distorts an important issue: how meat eating impacts human health, and that of the planet.
The cover story asks if “quitting meat will save our bacon.” Do we have to stop eating meat to be healthier? Science writer Linda Geddes attempts to hook readers with a counter-intuitive claim: what we’ve been told about the dangers of meat “isn’t quite as clear as the headlines suggest, and not everyone is convinced of the perils of tucking into a juicy steak.”
It’s a compelling question, one sure to keep eyes on the page. But Geddes’ take on the question favors a small sample of research over an overwhelming evidentiary case against meat consumption as a way to improve health.
One study discussed in the article—based on the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey—was, according to Sabine Rohrmann of the University of Zurich, “an outlier, because most studies have shown an association” between meat consumption and cancer. And yet Geddes steers a clear path away from this association toward a suggestive conclusion based on a thin reed of proof.
Geddes also argues that eating at least some red meat (and plenty of other types) remains better for the environment than eating no meat at all. The claim is hard to digest in light of the magazine’s internal inconsistency. New Scientist, in an editorial in the same issue, claims that 15 percent of greenhouse emissions come from the meat industry. Geddes, by contrast, places it at 32 percent. This hardly inspires confidence in a claim that already has so little support.
Essential sources also go unaddressed. There is no mention, for example, of the United Nations 2006 FAO report on Livestock’s Long Shadow, nor the 2009 Worldwatch Report that suggested up to 51% of greenhouse emissions came from animal agriculture. Neither is any mention made of the growth of animal agriculture and its intensive farming practices, with world meat consumption estimated to triple by 2050.
Instead, we get treated to yet another myth. In the “Red Meat Can Be Green” side feature, the author blithely includes quotes from Friends of the Earth regarding grazed land—not intensive farming practices—as being of benefit to biodiversity, even though numerous studies show how grass-fed beef is currently worse for greenhouse gas emissions than the industrial model.
The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) research at the heart of this article has hundreds, if not thousands, of articles drawn from its cohort study, many of which find favorably for vegan and vegetarian diets on subjects such as cholesterol and heart disease. Where’s the beef, now?
This kind of article brings to mind the work of Max Boykoff at the University of Colorado. He and colleagues have presented the ‘balance as bias’ hypothesis [here’s the published article]: what seems like a fair balance in sources and data is actually a distortion of the huge amount of research confirming one set of findings. This is research that New Scientist would be wise to consult —because it presents here a sloppy piece of science reporting that’s bad for animals, humans, and the environment they share.
Dr. Alex Lockwood is Senior Lecturer in Journalism and member of the Center for Research in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland, UK.