By Dennis T. Avery

Director

Center for Global Food Issues

Hudson Institute

Churchville, VA

Martin Sheen is offering fake-turkey dinners to homeless shelters this Christmas season.

The actor, who plays the president on the TV show The West Wing, made the offer in a letter for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal-rights group. The question is whether even the homeless will eat tofu turkey.

For 40 years, activists have been trying to convert us to vegetarian diets. The campaign has utterly failed. Instead of rich people giving up meat, the world's increasingly affluent people are eating more of it.

During the last quarter-century of rapid economic growth, meat consumption has risen five times faster in the Third World than in the First World. Are meat-eaters simply trying to copy the "lifestyles of the rich and famous"? Apparently not.

A startling recent report from the U.S. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology offers powerful reasons why humans urgently seek out meat and dairy products.

First, animal proteins have a higher rate of digestibility than most plant proteins.

Second, animal products offer us a more complete set of the amino acids that are the building blocks of nutrition. The amino acids in animal proteins range from 90% to 100% of "optimum," while plant proteins rate only 50% to 70%.

People can get a full roster of amino acids from vegetable sources, but it may take a college degree in dietetics to ensure the family is getting complete nutrition.

Third, animal products give us more of the minerals we need more easily, minerals like calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, magnesium and manganese.

Ditto for vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine and vitamin B-12.

Human brains are too large and our stomachs too small for vegetarian mammals our size. A cow needs about 18 hours a day and four stomachs to turn all that grass and hay into nutrients.

What about the charges meat and milk have too much fat and too much cholesterol? What about the cancer and heart disease warnings? There are statistical links between consuming too much saturated fat and heart attacks, breast cancer and premature death.

The key phrase is "too much." The nutritional benefits of consuming moderate amounts of meat and dairy products have been proven both in laboratory studies and in the real world.

Kids who don't get much high-quality protein don't grow very

tall. Young Japanese in the 1960s grew six inches taller than their grandfathers because they were getting milk, cheese and meat in their school lunches.

Kids who lack high-quality protein have less energy and may have difficulties in cognitive learning. For adults, the high efficiency of livestock products in providing amino acids, minerals and vitamins means we have more energy for living.

Meanwhile, the statistical relationships between diet, serum cholesterol and heart disease have proven weak, like circumstantial evidence in an old Perry Mason mystery. Meanwhile, the bad-food/good-food list changes by the month.

There has never been a voluntarily vegetarian society in the entire history of the world.

Even India's Hindus are not really vegetarians. They consume lots of dairy products and have recently doubled their poultry consumption. Rapidly rising incomes in China have enabled the country to double its meat consumption during the 1990s.

In the United States, red meat consumption has already dropped from 165 pounds a year in 1977 to 115 pounds by 1993. Our increased consumption of poultry and fish has slightly raised our total meat intake.

foods and commercial baked goods now are made with vegetable oil.

What about the heavy human footprint on the earth that environmentalists keep telling us about? Well, it does take more grain per calorie to produce meat and milk than when humans eat it directly.

But feed grain yields (like corn) are twice as high as food grain yields (like wheat and rice).

Cattle, hogs and poultry also eat a lot of stuff we don't, like grass, milling bran, molasses, cottonseed meal and almond hulls. Nearly three-fourths of each pound of U.S. beef is derived from something humans can't eat.

When you combine the forages and by-product feeds with the high food efficiency of livestock products, meat and milk turn out to be a fairly good deal for the planet after all.

Can you imagine Congress passing a law against meat? Or Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany signing an executive order banning sausages?

If we want to tread more lightly on the earth, the best solution is to produce a lot more meat, milk and eggs from the land we're already farming. The way to do that is by using chemical fertilizers, confinement feeding and genetically enhanced seeds.

Sheen and his wife say they are no longer vegetarians themselves. Perhaps next Christmas, they'll take pity on the homeless and provide real turkeys.

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