Eating Less (or no) Meat is Better for the Planet

20 Jun

Read Time Magazine's article: "Should We All Be Vegetarians?"

There are a lot of reasons why people choose a vegetarian diet. Many people feel that a well-balanced vegetarian diet is simply healthier, and there is a lot of information to back this up. In fact, eating too much meat is far less healthy that no meat at all, and The Guardian reports that meat-eaters are at higher risk for cancer. Others object philosophically to eating animals at all, and/or the conditions and treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and factory farms. These places are not only horrible in the treatment of animals (we’ve all heard about the conditions and animals that never walk or move) – but they often use a lot of chemicals and unsanitary practices, as well as creating high levels of pollution, which are very unhealthy for the human consumers of this food.

Another reason that people eat vegetarian is the implication of meat-eating on our planet – both the earth and its people. In simple economic terms, it requires far more resources to raise and produce red meat than it does poultry; and more for poultry than fish; etc. Basically, the larger the animal the more resources it takes to produce it. It takes 10,000 kg of wheat to produce 1,000 kg of beef, which feeds 15 adults. Conversely, only 1,000 kg of wheat can directly feed 15 adults. And Americans consume 60% more meat than Europeans.

This has a huge, trickle-down effect on not only the earth, but hunger and food production for the billions of people on it. Some argue that if everyone went vegetarian we wouldn’t even have a hunger problem – the grains, water, energy and other resources freed up from meat production would more than feed everyone who is currently going hungry in the world. Of course, that leads to other practical concerns such as delivery of that food, etc; this isn’t an article about that, but you can certainly read much more about it. As the New York Times reports:

New York Times: "Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler"

“These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

Americans eat about eight ounces [of meat] a day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we “process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.”

About two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption; it’s as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States. The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound.

You may also want to check out this excellent article in the Huffington Post, which does a good job of explaining the environmental impact of production, processing, transportation, cooking, and waste (20% of edible meat winds up in landfills – and 44% of salmon is thrown away!!). The article reaches a familiar conclusion: people should eat less meat and dairy. In particular, the article points to these foods that take the largest toll on the environment: lamb, beef, pork, cheese and farmed salmon. It’s important to note that most of these people, and myself included, don’t advocate that the world should get rid of these animals altogether; they are essential to the nutrient cycle. However, if each American cuts meat and cheese from their diet for one day a week it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road. “We can grow our meat more efficiently,” says Simon Donner, a climate and agriculture expert at the University of British Columbia. “More grass-feeding and the use of less processed feed would be one way.”

Michael Pollan, the well-known author of books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes:

“Food. There’s plenty of it around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone need to defend it? Because most of what we’re consuming today is not food, and how we’re consuming it — in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly alone — is not really eating. Instead of food, we’re consuming “edible foodlike substances” — no longer the products of nature but of food science.

The omnivore’s dilemma has returned with a vengeance, as the cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet confronts us with a bewildering and treacherous food landscape. What’s at stake in our eating choices is not only our own and our children’s health, but the health of the environment that sustains life on earth.”

For a lot of people, eating a strictly vegetarian diet is practically unthinkable – and please don’t think this is what I’m preaching, because I myself am not vegetarian. However, I eat very little red meat and I am careful about what seafood and poultry I eat (sticking with locally grown, organic choices and avoiding endangered seafood). Being mindful that you aren’t getting meat that is commercially factory-farmed (which is bad for the environment AND your body) is a big step – buy local grass-fed beef and organic farm-raised chickens, shop farmers markets or get a local farm delivery going, and avoid grabbing meat from mass-production corporations at the grocery store.

And believe it or not, going meatless even ONE DAY A WEEK makes a huge difference. An initiative called Meatless Monday is starting a movement for this; as their website states, going meatless once a week may reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. It can also help reduce your carbon footprint and save precious resources like fresh water and fossil fuel. The site has a lot of great recipes to try, and you can sign the pledge if you want to commit to the habit.

Sasha Aronson writes at the Elephant Journal, “The government subsidizes our food. As a result, we can go into the store and buy meat for, say, as little as $1 per pound if you’re just going to the local supermarket. What is troubling about government subsidies is that it makes meat seem far more accessible than it actually is. In order for that beef or chicken, pork or bison to make its way into our shopping carts the animal had to first be supported by tons upon tons of grain and water. This system is incredibly demanding of our natural resources, and is actually very inefficient.”

This raises the question of, “how much meat would people eat if we had to pay the actual cost of it?”

Sasha, like myself, is not a vegetarian but limits her meat consumption to one or two days a week and is careful about what kind of meat she eats.

My “bible” for this project, Shift Your Habit, lists a few more food tips for eating more sustainably:

  • Grow your own herbs instead of buying them – fresher, cheaper & more plentiful!
  • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables instead of canned ones.
  • Buy a fresh loaf of bread from the bakery instead of packaged bread.
  • Use the faucet, water filter or refillable pitcher instead of buying bottled water.
  • Reduce or eliminate soda consumption.
  • Buy value-priced organic wine.
  • Buy block cheese instead of shredded or pre-sliced.
  • Use ground turkey instead of ground beef.
  • Cook with whole chickens instead of cut-up ones.
  • Buy condiments in glass jars or bottles instead of plastic containers.

Speaking of this last one, I am pretty excited about a very cool new zero-waste grocery store coming to my East Austin neighborhood this fall! It’s called in.gredients, and it’s all about precycling and local, organic goods. Customers will not only bring their own shopping bags, but their own containers to fill with sauces, milk, granola, whatever. I think it’s an awesome revolution in how we consume food products.

This project is coming to a close; please stay tuned for my next 30-Day Experiment! Until then, live well.

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22 Responses to “Eating Less (or no) Meat is Better for the Planet”

  1. Shelley Bueche June 20, 2011 at 8:47 am #

    Wonderful Shelley, I’ve been a vegetarian for 27 years!

  2. thedrivencook June 20, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    Great blog! Omnivore’s Dilemma is a fantastic book. It has changed how I eat and view food. I still eat meat, but much less (like you.) I haven’t read Shift Your Habit yet but I’m glad you posted some tips from it! I do most of those but some I wasn’t thinking of. Thank you!

  3. Christine Garvin June 20, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    This is a hard one. As a nutritionist and former vegetarian for 2 years followed by veganism for 5, I can tell you the many dangers of being a strict vegetarian (especially for women), ones that I denied for years during my veganism. I see it time and time again with my clients – from hormone issues to anemia (unfortunately, heme iron, which you get from animals, is much more readily available to the body than non-heme iron, which you get from plants), to omega-3 deficiencies (again, it takes a lot for the body to convert the ALA found in flax to EPA the body uses – which you get directly from fish. Many nutrition experts believe we absorb only about 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA) to B12 deficiency, to hypothyroid issues, to osteoporosis, to low blood sugar issues (the BIGGEST culprit).

    Honestly, the problem is not meat itself – it is the type of meat we are eating first and foremost (which you hit upon in recommending local, organic and most importantly, GRASS-FED meats), and the amounts we are eating, plus what we are eating alongside it. It’s more than a bit irksome that most of the studies that compare vegetarians to meat eaters use meat eaters that consume factory-fed beef, which are fed grains their bodies aren’t made to digest (cows are herbivores and should only be eating grass), therefore needing antibiotics to deal with the infections that occur in their stomachs, after being pumped full of hormones, which, whether we like to believe it or not, impacts our bodies. Of course it’s healthier to be veggie than to base your diet on these types of meats – including cold cuts that have tons of preservatives and chemicals in them, practices of what goes into beef jerky that would make Upton Sinclair’s head spin, and dairy that many, many people are allergic to and don’t know it.

    On the other hand, I would like to see studies between vegetarians and those that eat only grass-fed (and bugs and other slimy things that chickens like to eat) meats with a focus on vegetables. There is a growing contingent of people that believe grains beyond glutinous ones (and all the other forms of sugar we get) are the real culprit in our sky rocketing rates of heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer (great article at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html), and the amount of soy, corn, and grains that we are growing is the real detriment to our environment, particularly those of the GE sort, which are most of them. If we ate less meat, and only that which feeds off of vegetables and other living things, we’d have a lot less systemic problems, from our personal health down to the health of the soil.

    I appreciate your points, Shelley, and am not trying to knock them at all. I agree we need to change our diets dearly as a western society. I just think there is a lot of misinformation out there about the benefits of vegetarian diets that can do a huge disservice to our health and environment (I was one of those people who for years touted the benefits of soy, and lo and behold! It’s a horribly processed food that is costing our environment, thyroids, and estrogen dearly). Though they don’t actively keep it up-to-date, a great site about some of these issues is http://www.beyondveg.com/. It’s written by former and current vegetarians, vegans, raw foodists, etc, and really takes a look at the true implications of these different diets. Also, The Diet Cure by Julia Ross is a great book to learn about how the amino acids that our body readily gets from meat is necessary in almost every bodily process.

    • Shelley Seale June 20, 2011 at 11:35 am #

      Wow, EXCELLENT information Christine, and thank you so much for taking the time to post it!

      I agree whole heartedly. That is why I make a disclaimer a couple of times in the article that I am NOT a vegetarian. I actually ate vegetarian myself for a while, like you, a few years ago. Because earlier in life I was underweight and struggled with anemia and hypoglycemia, it was not a good diet 100% for me. My B12 levels dipped so low they were off the charts, and I had to get B12 injections for a while. I still take B12 supplements.

      I believe that when people DO eat entirely veg, they have to be careful to get LOTS of proteins in nuts, beans and other foods. I personally do not think vegan is a healthy diet, but that is only my opinion (plus I love cheese way too much!!). But I also completely believe, as I put in this post, that eating far less meat and more importantly, as you also point out, being careful where that meat comes from, is the key.

      Simply going half meat/half vegetarian meals, and making sure that meat is grass-fed, locally farmed if possible and healthy for you, is a major thing in my opinion.

      Thanks again for sharing such great info!

      • Sujatha June 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

        Hey Shelley, great article!

        I’ve been a vegetarian for 25 years, and like you I used to think that vegan wasn’t a good idea. However, I have to say that since I’ve learned how to do it “right,” I’ve realized that I feel a lot better with less dairy. And I don’t eat eggs at all. My mom has been a lacto-vegetarian her whole life (like many people in India) and she is still going strong at age 71!

        On a side note, one thing to remember is that even grass-fed beef are finished on grain in feed lots before they are slaughtered. The best way to find out the truth about what you’re eating is buy meat/eggs at your local farmers market and ASK QUESTIONS. They are usually happy to provide information to savvy consumers.

    • Stan July 1, 2011 at 12:32 am #

      Thank you Christine for posting REAL information about dangers. Driving a car is bad for the enviroment too. How many people are riding their bike to work every day?

      • Shelley Seale July 1, 2011 at 11:16 am #

        Yes, I agree with both Stan and Christine. As I mentioned in a previous post (http://30days2011.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/major-anti-green-culprits-cars-and-e-waste/), vehicles are one of our main culprits in pollution and non-sustainability. I am fortunate to work from home, meaning that I can greatly reduce car use. I also do take advantage of public transportation and share my vehicle with my daughter and a neighbor. Would be nice to be able to do more though. I wish Texas wasn’t so hard to live without a car.

        Christine, totally agree with your statement: “If we ate less meat, and only that which feeds off of vegetables and other living things, we’d have a lot less systemic problems, from our personal health down to the health of the soil.” And also your points about the negatives of a totally vegetarian or vegan diet. I have a lot of friends that are vegetarians and I completely support their lifestyle decisions. I prefer to eat a lot of vegetarian and be extremely aware of how/where the meat I do eat comes from. However, as I’ve said, going totally vegetarian isn’t a healthy option for me personally.

        To each his own!

  4. Shelley Seale June 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    Thanks Sujatha! Great info, and I totally agree about farmers markets. I buy a lot of my food from them, and thankfully here in Austin we have a lot of great ones.

  5. Idcowgirl June 29, 2011 at 9:05 pm #

    Wow I just love uneducated people.. They just put proof out that if you eat no meat you have smaller brains. Which is proof by the lack of any kind of knowledge in this article.
    http://beefmagazine.com/news/0421-vegetarians-smaller-brains/. They have already proven that too much soy is bad for you. Women who have cancer should avoid too much soy. Feminizing our boys.

    • Shelley Seale June 30, 2011 at 9:53 am #

      Yes, uneducated people boggle my mind too – including people who don’t bother to read everything someone such as myself has written here on this subject. If you had bothered to do that you would see that I am NOT a vegetarian. I make it clear in both this article and in the comments that I am not, that I do eat meat and even my nutritionist had once told me it was good for me to eat some meat.

      My point is that I am careful about WHAT meat I eat, and how much! Everything should be in moderation. I don’t believe an extreme vegan is healthy, and I also don’t believe that eating meat every day is healthy for you either. Too much meat is bad, and even cutting back meat and making sure that which you do eat is HEALTHY and not produced in an unhealthy manner using chemicals and bad farming practices (i.e. dirty conditions, animal excrement getting in the meat product etc which happens a LOT among the commercial meat production plants!).

      Read what I actually say before you comment across the board.

      • heath June 30, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

        Have you personally been to a slaughter house or a “commercial meat production plant,” which I am confused as to what this is exactly, are you referring to a corporate facility such as Cargill that processes the beef?

        Also, I understand your point about how the amount of resources involved in getting an animal ready for butcher, and while I think it is a relevant point, your theory could work as an argument for countless things. For example, why don’t we do away with vehicles altogether? We would be a much healthier plant and country if we walked everywhere we needed to go. Do you have any idea the amount of resources it requires to produce a single vehicle? Do you NEED to drive to the farmers market to get your grass-fed beef? OR do you just WANT to regardless of the cost to our enviroment? I guess we could talk about electric vehiclesa and how green they are with no emmisions but fail to think about the massive amounts of energy we use in producing the batteries required to power them.

        I suppose I just struggle with someone making a broad claim about how beef in the United States is produced, and the adverse effect is has on everyone. How do you make a living? I suppose if someone did research on all of the components used in the mass production of computers, how much energy is used to produce each component, or should I say how much we are contributing to the economy of China with each computer built.

        I bet you would get a little defensive if your livelihood was threatened or condemmed by someone with different beliefs, simply based on percentages and numbers that google provided them.

  6. Shelley Seale June 30, 2011 at 3:12 pm #

    Actually, Heath, I have personally been to a slaughterhouse – two in fact – which is a big reason why I don’t eat much red meat! And I do not make “broad statements” about all meat – once again, if you would actually read what I wrote, you will see that I do eat meat. I just prefer to eat meat from local farmers that is grass fed, healthy and humane. That is my personal opinion and preference, that’s all. You have every right to feel and to conduct your life as you wish. I’m not going onto meat-loving blogs blasting them.

    And you are totally right about other aspects of modern life that take tremendous resources, including vehicles. I couldn’t agree more, and have addressed those issues in multiple places throughout this blog.

    Everyone is entitled to their own lifestyles and opinions. This is simply mine. Live and let live dude….

  7. Bailey June 30, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    I have to respectfully disagree with your opinion. As a college student who is studying animal science and who would like to work with cattle for a living, I firmly believe that the livestock production sector is striving to meet our consumers’ demands that meat be safe, wholesome, and cheap.
    To me, it is not plausible to attack not just a sector of industry, but a lifestyle for many people, including myself. I firmly believe that my cattle are treated better than I treat myself most of the time. I make sure they have a balanced diet, clean water, shade, and I make sure they remain healthy.
    Some facts that I believe may be relevent to this post are: scientific studies have shown that animals fed a forage based diet produce more methane gas than animals that are fed a grain based diet, and while it is true that some animals are fed or implanted with growth promotants that may include estrogen, the average amount of estrogen in a serving (3 oz) of beef is 1.9 nanograms and the average amount of estrogen in a serving of peas is ~167,000,000 nanograms.
    I respect anyone’s ability to choose their own lifestyle, and all I ask for is that I be given that same respect when choosing my own.

    • Shelley Seale June 30, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

      Hi Bailey,
      Thanks for your viewpoint and opinion. I tend to agree with you, and have said so many times on this blog, that the healthy and ethical farming/raising of livestock and other food is not something I take any issue with.

      My main point, that I feel I’ve made MANY times and people are somehow glossing over and not getting, is that for myself personally I do NOT eat all vegetarian or cut all meat from my diet. I have said that many times. I do personally feel that overall it is best for our health, and for the resources of the planet, that people eat less meat (in other words, not eating meat the way my parents and grandparents did, for practically every meal). Virtually all the health field agrees with that.

      And when I do eat meat, I choose the people like you describe yourself, who are ethically raising/producing that meat. I prefer local farmers and organic, quality meat. And I think it’s best not to eat it every day. It DOES consume a lot more resources to produce than other food, that is indisputable, and a lot (though not all, I never said that) of huge commercial farms and slaughterhouses use unhealthy, unethical practices.

      I appreciate your practices and viewpoint, and I agree. You, as is everyone, are entitled to your own lifestyle choices. As am I.

  8. Bob July 1, 2011 at 1:22 am #

    I like that you are choosing who’s message to post, really compliments your character.

    • Shelley Seale July 1, 2011 at 11:10 am #

      Well, obviously I am publishing comments from all the people who don’t agree with me or who have brought up other points, whether I agree with them or not. Don’t think I would do that if I wasn’t encouraging debate. However, I am not going to keep approving comment after comment after comment, from the same person, that is saying the same thing. That is redundant and boring for the rest of us.
      P.S. You might be taken more seriously if you would learn proper grammar. The proper use would be “whose” message to post; “who’s” means “who is.”

  9. Laura S July 2, 2011 at 12:52 am #

    I guess ignorance really is bliss…clearly (some of) these people don’t get that they are hurting their own cause by 1: Not reading before commenting and 2: Not writing anything of substance nor using correct grammar. No wonder they spend their time around cows-they have similar sized brains…FYI, I’ve been a vegetarian for 15+ years, and I’ve tested in the 150 range for IQ. And lastly, I can respect that different diets work for different people, and I can respect that others like Shelley are not vegetarian like me.

  10. Bob July 2, 2011 at 3:01 am #

    When someone makes a point that you are unable to rebuttal, you block the comment. I read the comment that was posted onto the chatroom and it was a pretty good one. I was looking forward to your rebuttal, but it’s obvious that you do not want to appear as if you pulled something up last minute and posted one sided “facts”. One little grammar error is nothing in comparison to the many, many false accusations you make in your article (aren’t you a freelance (sp) journalist……..doesn’t that mean you have to check your facts before publishing?). Continue on with the “I’m not a vegetarian” defense though, it’s working so well for you.

    • Shelley Seale July 2, 2011 at 10:56 am #

      As a journalist, I have included links to and quoted several sources, and as an individual on my own PERSONAL BLOG that expresses my own opinions, viewpoints and lifestyle, I am entitled to post those too. I have no problem with other people having their own opinion or lifestyle choices, and not sure why they have such a problem with mine. Unless they are extremely threatened by it. Wonder why that is? Your industry must be extremely fragile if my little personal preferences get you so worked up.

      And sorry, but yes being intelligent enough to know grammar and spelling makes a difference as to how seriously people take your arguments. I don’t care how you live. Why do you care so much about me?

      To each his own. Thank you Laura S. and Christine for being respectful of other people’s choices and lifestyle. Would that everyone could show the same respect…

      Thanks for the debate, and eat well everyone!

  11. Shelley Seale July 7, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    Check out this blog post, a great explanation and argument:
    http://wemeatagain.com/2011/07/07/who-works-for-your-food/

  12. Shelley Seale July 15, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    Here is another great resource I found, on some easy ways to implement a lower-meat diet without going completely vegan or vegetarian. Good resources here and a sensible approach!

    http://tinybuddha.com/blog/13-tips-for-eating-more-compassionately/

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