It’s easy to think about the meat industry in black and white terms. You either support factory farms or you don’t. You’re vegetarian or you’re not. You’re choosing to kill cows or let them live.

I admit that I once thought this either/or logic was perfectly sound reasoning. I didn’t understand why eating meat was such a big deal—after all, the cows are happy until they get slaughtered, right?

problem with eating beef

Photo by Madeleine Cohen

Wrong. The meat industry in the United States has many issues that often aren’t discussed in day-to-day conversations about food. Though the factory farming industry encompasses a variety of livestock animals, let’s focus on beef as a starting point for the larger issue of factory farming as a whole.

The environmental effects of beef production worldwide are staggering. According to PETA, it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. Compared to the 240 or so gallons required to make one pound of tofu, America’s love of hamburgers and all things red meat doesn’t seem so tasty anymore.

So where does all that water go? The issue might be more cut and dry if we were just talking about the water being fed directly to the cattle on a daily basis. But take into account the water needed to grow the crops being fed to fatten a cow up and the water used to clean the massive farming facilities on a daily basis, and suddenly you have thousands of gallons of water being used.

On top of the immense amounts of water needed to raise the cattle in the beef industry, a huge portion of grain is fed to the cattle to encourage quick growth. It takes up to ten pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef. An article by The Guardian states that beef requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken.

problem with eating beef

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Even more alarming than the huge amount of grain and water that’s funneled into the beef production process is the threat of pollution and disease from the factory farming industry. According to Columbia University, manure accumulated on factory farms is stored in open-air lagoons and is often used as fertilizer. There have been prior instances of the lagoons leaking into other waterways and polluting potential drinking water.

The runoff from factory farms contains antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, heavy metals, and chemicals. Nitrogen and phosphorous in the runoff can eventually reach larger bodies of water and cause subsequent dead zones, which are areas of water where living creatures can’t survive.

In addition to the threat of disease from waterway pollution, Americans are at further risk of foodborne illnesses due to the overuse of antibiotics in commercial beef. An article by the U.S. News states that more than 32.2 million pounds of antibiotics were given to animals in 2012, the majority of which didn’t require a prescription from a licensed veterinarian.

problem with eating beef

Photo courtesy of oliver.dodd on Flickr

Because of the overuse of antibiotics in the beef industry, bacteria like salmonella and E. coli could become stronger and develop a resistance to the very drugs being pumped into cattle to prevent them from catching such diseases. Consumers are at risk, as they could very easily purchase an infected package of beef with strands of antibiotic-resistant diseases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million Americans become sick from drug-resistant bacteria each year, and approximately 23,000 of those people die. Statistics like this explain the $20 billion spent in the U.S. each year on excess direct healthcare costs stemming from illnesses caused by antibiotic resistance.

problem with eating beef

Photo courtesy of Leszek Leszczynski on Flickr

We can no longer afford to view the choice to eat beef in black and white terms. There is no “right” choice here. To avoid antibiotic-laden meat, choose certified organic cuts of beef. To prevent water waste, eat less meat. To prevent further environmental damage and protect the planet for future generations? That’s going to take a massive overhaul in how America produces its beef.

Until the factory farming industry is improved, the most you can do to help solve the issue at hand is become an informed consumer and pick your meats wisely. Write to your local Congressmen and speak your mind. After all, change will only happen if you do something.