Can Eating Less Meat Save the Planet?
Before we get any emails, phone calls or letters about this article, we want to make one thing clear. This article is all about the direct environmental and human health impacts of eating more meat. It is not about how animals are treated. It's also not about the morality of eating meat. Those are discussions for other articles.
The choice to eat meat has slowly transformed over the last 50 years. In the 1970s, you bought what you liked to eat. In the 1980s and 1990s, dietary considerations started taking hold and more decisions were made based on what was healthier. Since around 2000, there have been increasing discussions on what may be sustainable, or better for the planet.
To more fully understand the impact meat-eating has, I decided to look at some of the claims being made. In each case, I was only interested in what could be proven through studies or government-provided usage information. What I found was both revealing and shocking.
Let's start with the big bold statement that eating meat harms the planet, because of all the resources it takes. According to the Environmental Working Group, the production, processing and distribution of meat is responsible for 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as common vegetables and grains. The reason for the huge difference is because not all meat has the same impact.
For example, a pound of lamb has the largest impact on the environment, generating 39.3 kilos of carbon dioxide equivalents for each kilo eaten.
That's a third more than beef, which has the second-highest emissions at 27.1 kilos.
Cheese is in third place with 13.5 kilos of carbon dioxide equivalents for each kilo eaten. That means vegetarians who eat cheese aren't as environmentally conscious as they may have thought.
With just those simple numbers, the assumption is if we switch to an all fruit and vegetable diet, we would see a dramatic drop in the environmental impact of our food. But those numbers merely compare the weight of the finished food product, not how many calories the food contains.
A pound of cucumbers has about 68 calories. A pound of 80% lean ground beef has about 809 calories. If we plan on eating meals with the same number of calories in them, we would have to replace the beef with nearly a dozen times as many fields growing vegetables like cucumbers.
In a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers said that if Americans simply replace the calories they take in from meat with vegetables, it would be worse for the environment than what we're currently eating. A one-on-one swap isn't going to work. But helping the environment isn't the only reason people should eat more vegetables.
Consider this; 66% of Americans are either overweight or obese. Eating vegetables tends to fill people up quicker, with fewer calories. So one of the big benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables is that we'd all be eating less. If Americans simply reduced their calorie intake to healthy levels suggested by the USDA, we would see a 9 percent drop in emissions, energy and water use. And that drop would happen even if we continue eating meat.
Another argument against meat is what it's doing to our water supply. The feed for livestock requires more than 150 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer. The rain then washes those fertilizers and manure into streams, rivers and lakes. Those nutrients super-charge the growth of algae, which then depletes the oxygen in the water.
The larger the algae bloom, the more oxygen that's pulled out of the water, until that water can no longer support the life of fish or other sea creatures. It turns the water into a dead zone. In 2018 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitored the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that had grown to nearly the size of the state of Massachusetts.
The problem, is that removing cattle won't necessarily stop the water pollution from happening. If we continue to eat the same number of calories, we'll still need all that food for us.
The truly frightening consequence of all those farm animals, comes from the antibiotics farmers give them.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, 80% of all antibiotic use in the United States is on farm animals, dramatically increasing antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In 2018, antibiotic resistance was responsible for 25,000 deaths in the European Union and 23,000 deaths in the United States, with 2 million Americans developing a drug-resistant infection just last year.
At current growth rates, researchers predict antibiotic-resistant bacteria will kill 10 million people a year by 2050, making it more deadly than cancer worldwide. The easiest way to deal with the problem, is to eat less meat or get farmers to only use antibiotics on animals that are sick.
You have the power to start making things better. One day a week, designate as a meat-free day. Meat-Free Monday is easy to remember. On the other 6 days a week, pile up at least three-quarters of every plate with fruit and vegetables, leaving only a quarter for meat. That'll help fill you up quicker, without eating as many calories.
When you do buy meat, if you want to make a difference, look for labels like antibiotic-free, hormone-free, grass-fed and free-range. Choose meats that have been raised humanely and in environments that are closer to their natural habitats. The animals get a better life and you get better food. It'll cost a little more, but since you aren't eating as much, your food costs should stay about the same.
To help you out, we've been adding dozens of vegetarian and vegan recipes to our website. You can find them at www.WeCookFit.com and by clicking here.
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