Since I spend so much time here talking about how I’m no longer a vegetarian, some people might be surprised to learn that I’m still a big advocate of eating less meat overall. But there’s an important case to be made for significantly reducing our (and by our, I mean Americans, who eat the vast majority of the world’s meat) meat intake. That case is front and center in the food world this week as the Environmental Working Group — the watchdog organization who also brings you that handy annual sunscreen guide, and GMO watch — released their first Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health.
Not everyone is aware of the link between meat production and climate change, so let’s break it down. Here are the highlights of the issue — more detail can be found by following the links embedded, or by reading the great EWG report, which is very accessible.
Food production contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than transportation.
A recent study from Carnegie Mellon put it into these concrete terms. 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.
Meat is the primary culprit of this.
The ways in which food production contributes to global warming can be both direct & indirect. Direct contributions include the burning of fossil fuels to fertilize and grow the massive quantities of corn required to feed livestock animals and methane gas emissions from cattle (yup, cow farts). Indirect contributions stem from what factory farms do to the land. Desertification, water pollution, deforestation, topsoil erosion, etc. All of these make our planet less resilient to rising temperatures. And these animals require a LOT of land. About 30% 0f Earth’s ice-free land.
That is, industrial meat.
Since most of those negative consequences of meat production stem from grain feed, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and fuel for transporting all those things, this is a problem unique to factory-farmed meat. Take away those features, and sure, you’ve still got the cow farts to deal with, but they become a miniscule, if stinky, problem. But combined with a ravenous desire for meat growing globally, industrialized meat production is a huge problem.
Sustainable meat is a different beast.
If we changed our farming methods, much of those problems would be dramatically reduced — and some would even be reversed. If cattle were allowed to roam, they wouldn’t need grain-based feed, as they would eat their natural grass diet. This would also reduce their impact on the land. There’s a much longer chain reaction here, but the point is that raising livestock in a biodynamic cycle is better for them and better for the planet. The hitch? Meat doesn’t “grow” as quickly or in as great a number with those methods. Because it’s not supposed to.
Meat should be a minimal part of our diet.
Lisa Frack of EWG said it most concisely:
Eating meat in moderation can be a good source of complete protein and key vitamins and nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamins B-12, B-6, and niacin. That said, we eat far more protein than we need: Kids get three to four times the recommended amount and adult men get twice the amount they need. And, of course, the nutritional benefits of meats can be reaped from other, less environmentally damaging food sources.
Because it’s better for our health that way, too.
This one I can say briefly: over-eating red meat and/or industrially-processed meat significantly increases your risk of dying prematurely. Not to mention your risks for certain types of cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart diseases. Conversely, eating more vegetables is universally agreed upon by nutritionists to be the best dietary choice ever. No exaggeration here, and no surprise, I’m sure.
We don’t have to do without.
People! Bacon is my header. So before you think I’ve gone and jumped back on the vegetarian bandwagon, let me share with you a little environmental agriculture secret: livestock meat can actually, if done right, be a more efficient use of land. Scale is everything here. This sustainable system works great for everyone — if we do it small enough, and with the basic principles of a natural food cycle in mind.
We just have to do less & better.
Yes, buying local, grass-fed, antibiotic-free organic meat is more expensive (for now). But if you’re buying less of it, you can balance that impact. And over time, you’ll be contributing to a better, healthier system for your body and for the planet.
Any questions? (No, really, ask away! Leave a comment and let me know what you think of the global warming/meat connection. How do you reduce your meat consumption? Share your meatless stories, recipes or conversions!)
If you’re sold on all this but need ideas, check out my advice post on How to Eat Your Veggies, or these past We*Meat*Again vegetarian recipes: