By Lesley Sykes
As you gear up for the upcoming farmers’ market season and the plethora of local fare, here’s something to consider: the single most important thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is to eat less meat. With livestock production a major culprit of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution, the high-protein American diet and the environment are clashing. In 2008, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made a groundbreaking statement when he announced that eating less meat would improve health and tackle global warming.
American Beef Production
Despite the overwhelming evidence in support of plant-based diets for health and environmental reasons, the American beef industry still reigns supreme. Beef consumption in the United States is very high—an average of 60 pounds of beef annually since the mid-20th century. The majority of this plastic-wrapped, custom-cut beef that you find at the supermarket couldn’t be more detached from its origins and the realities of the production process.
Over the past 60 years, the livestock industry has been completely restructured into an input-intensive factory system—a streamlined, commercial means of turning a raw commodity (cows, pigs, or chickens) into a consumable product (meat). The beef industry, in particular, has been targeted for its contributions to global warming, air and water pollution, use of hormones and antibiotics, abuse of labor rights, and the inhumane treatment of animals.
Pollution, Animal Welfare, and Energy Costs
Conventional livestock production confines large numbers of animals in relatively small spaces, which has serious consequences. According to a study in the Journal of Animal Science, 10,000 head of cattle on a feedlot produce 260 tons of solid waste each day, which is tainted heavily with nitrogen, phosphorous, hormones and other chemicals. With nowhere else to go, it accumulates in manure lagoons, which can potentially run off into waterways. Also, corn production takes up a large portion of US cropland, much of which goes toward feeding livestock. Conventional corn production requires undue amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, water and land, resulting in severe resource depletion and pollution.
Animal welfare is severely compromised in mass livestock production. Cows are ruminants that evolved to eat grass and forage. Corn-based diets disrupt physiological processes, compromising the animal’s health and creating an environment that favors the growth of pathogenic bacteria. The overcrowded and unsanitary feedlots serve as a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria. The solution for feedlot owners is the heavy use of antibiotics, which can end up in our food chain and lead to the development of antibiotic resistance.
In the current American system of farming, grain-fed livestock consume far more energy than they produce, and none of it is recycled—tons of corn feed enters the system, while heaps of manure exit. Compare that sequence to the husbandry of pasture farming, which is inherently sustainable—a solar-powered, self-fertilized design with minimal use of costly inputs. But even so, as David Wallinga notes in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, “animals are much less efficient [than plants] at converting energy into food…chickens require 2 kg of feed grains to produce 1 kg of meat; grain-to-meat conversation for pork and beef is 4:1 and 7:1, respectively.” By eating plant protein sources directly, you are conserving lots of wasted energy that goes into livestock production.
Tim Griffin, Director of the Agriculture, Food, and Environment Program at Tufts explains the high-energy cost of livestock. “One of the unanswered questions is whether we can even produce enough meat to sustain the demand, aside from the environmental impact. The majority of grains produced go to animal feed, and eventually that energy source may be diverted back to human consumption,” he says.
Too Much Protein
Cheap, subsidized feed has dramatically driven down the price of meats. This means more people can afford to eat meat, but this can displace important vegetables and whole grains. And most of us don’t need nearly as much protein as we put into our bodies everyday. According to David Pimental, a Cornell University ecologist, American animal protein consumption is among the highest in the world. In the U.S. the daily protein intake is 112 grams, of which 75 grams is animal protein. Many dietitians contend that most humans only need half a gram for each pound of body weight. This means that a 130-pound woman needs about 65 grams of protein, an amount that we can get more than enough of from grains, legumes, and vegetables.
Nonetheless, it is hardly an argument that food from animals provides an unbeatable source of protein. Meat has been a part of our diet since the beginning of humankind, but in much smaller quantities. Albeit, the quality we ate then is substantially different from the meat we eat now. In fact, corn- and confinement-based agriculture has been shown to degrade the meat’s nutritional content. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reports that meat from pasture-raised cattle contains less total fat, but higher levels of fats beneficial to human health—omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids—as well as traceable levels of vitamins E and A.
Within the past several decades a pioneering group of farmers have started a grass-fed revolution, which is part of the larger sustainable food movement. But grass-fed cattle rearing presents problems of its own: It takes a long time and a vast amount of land. As such, America’s pastureland would not have the capacity to raise America’s nearly 35 million cattle that are commercially slaughtered every year. “Intensive animal production in the U.S. has well-known environmental hazards, but we should recognize that grazing livestock are also a major cause of land degradation around the world,” says Griffin. The best solution seems to be less meat production altogether.
The Next Steps
Issues with livestock agriculture are enough reason to cut down levels of meat intake. It is not expected that everyone renounce meat-eating altogether, but if we focus on eating more plants and fewer animals, a decrease in the number of livestock would do a lot to offset environmental threats and our poor health status.
It is important that the animal protein we do choose to eat is from environmentally and socially responsible sources. Sustainably produced animal products often demand a higher cost for the consumer, but if we view meat as a condiment, or a luxury enjoyed less frequently, most of us could afford the premium for exceptional animal products. Plus, eating less meat presents an exciting opportunity to explore a variety of grains and legumes that have been part of traditional diets across the globe.
Sustainable food production is becoming more common, thanks to the efforts of a handful of producers and to the power of consumer demand. We have made small, yet significant steps toward combating a system that is taking a toll on the environment, animals, and our health. Just imagine what we can do at full throttle.