I’ve become a vegetarian (or a flexitarian) and have only just realized it. Some of my best friends have been vegetarian for years, but I’d always been a bit dismissive, assuming it was their personal issue.
Then I read a press release from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO ) that asked “Which causes more greenhouse gas emissions, rearing cattle or driving cars“? Their answer is cattle.
According to the report “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, the world’s livestock sector “generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent- 18 percent- than transport”.
Meat as an enviro-evil
It’s tough to imagine meat on the same level as other seemingly more obvious enviro-ills like exhaust-spewing cars, but the amount of meat we’re eating these days- worldwide, it’s double that of 4 decades ago– and the way it is produced- predominantly in factory farms-, is taking it’s toll on the planet.
A couple years ago, University of Chicago professors Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin quantified the difference between a meat-eaters’ diet and that of a vegetarian and found that the average American diet requires the production of an extra ton and a half of CO2-equivalent compared with a vegetarian one. Depending on your car model and fuel efficiency, this can be nearly equal to the greenhouse gas emissions of your car (Annually, the average American drives 8,322 miles, emitting 1.9-4.7 tons of CO2).
Besides the direct energy costs from raising animals- which account for 9% of human-induced CO2 emissions-, there are so many problems with animal production that it’s tough to know where to begin. Professor Eshel explained to the New York Times in January of 2008: “When you look at environmental problems in the U.S., nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production.”
Meat production has just become so widespread: according to the UN’s FAO, worldwide, livestock use 30% of the earth’s entire land surface. And often, they don’t tread lightly. The UN report blames livestock production for deforestation and widespread land degradation “with about 20 percent of pastures considered as degraded through overgrazing, compaction and erosion”.
All that gas
Then there’s the well-publicized problem of the methane emitted from cow farts and burps; in the US, enteric methane from livestock accounts for over 20% of all human-produce methane emissions (once you add the methane emitted from manure and other sources, that number rises to one-third).
Given that methane is 23 times more destructive to the ozone layer than CO2, this is worrying.
It gets worse. Livestock are responsible for 65% of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, which is 296 times more destructive than CO2, and 64% of ammonia, which accounts for acid rain.
A quarter pounder or a summer’s worth of showers?
The water used to produce meat makes those low-flow showerheads seem a waste of time. Estimates on the amount of water used to produce one pound of meat range from 2,500 to 6,000 gallons.
Eat four hamburgers and you’ve basically used all your showering water for the year.
Or consider that it takes about 23 gallons of water to produce a pound of tomatoes or 24 gallons for potatoes and it’s obvious the radical difference in water use between a carnivore and a vegetarian.
Most feedlot cattle are “sick”
It’s hard to imagine that something so “natural” as animals can be so destructive to nature. Part of the problem is we’re no longer raising them naturally.
Increasingly, animals are being raised on feedlots, or factory farms. According to the Worldwatch Institute, worldwide, 74% of poultry products, 50% of pork, 43% of beef and 68% of eggs are generated by industrial systems.
Not only are the lodging conditions on factory farms inhumane- hinted at by their more official title, Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)-, but their diets are a mess.
In the best-selling book “Omnivore’s Dilemna“, Michael Pollen explains how cattle in American CAFOS are being raised on grain- mostly subsidized corn-, which wreaks havoc on stomachs adapted for grass. “… A great many feedlot cattle- virtually all of them to one degree or another, according to several animal scientists I talked to- are simply sick.” According to Pollan, when finally slaughtered, 15 to 30% of feedlot cows are found with abscessed livers and one doctor he talked to (responsible for administering antibiotics in CAFOs) told him in some pens that figure reaches 70%.
To keep the animals alive on this unnatural diet requires antibiotics. Today, in the US, 70% of the country’s antibiotics end up in animal feed: both the drugs used to prevent bloat, acidosis and liver infection, and the hormones given to speed livestock growth.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, “this widespread use of antibiotics on animals contributes to the rise of resistant bacteria, making it harder to treat human illnesses.” Not only is this creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs (a problem for humans as well), but these drugs are polluting our waterways, as well.
Methane-emitting manure lagoons
If you’ve ever driven past a factory farm, you’ll have smelled it from miles away; with so many animals in so little space, they’re huge cesspools. Not only is this environment ripe for the spread of infection, but manure releases methane, particularly when kept in anaerobic conditions like the “waste lagoons” common on pig farms.
CAFOS are producing unnecessary waste because of such huge quantities of excrement. Since the manure from CAFOs is so concentrated much of it can’t be returned to the crop cycle as a fertilizer and needs to be disposed of. That which is sprayed on fields often exceeds by hundreds of times the soil’s ability to trap nitrogen, which results in the release of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
The impact of all this manure is also felt downstream where it has been known to pollute drinking water- the NRDC lists effected locations from California to Ontario, Canada- and to ruin habitats for aquatic life. One such “dead zone” of algal blooms- caused by the nutrients from animal waste- covers 8,000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico.
The cost of feeding cows corn
This system appears even more out of balance when you consider cost of using fossil fuels to produce grains, and their pesticides and fertilizers, to feed to cows. In an article entitled “Meat is Murder on the Environment”, New Scientist magazine cited a Swedish study from 2003 that “suggested that organic beef, raised on grass rather than concentrated feed, emits 40 per cent less greenhouse gases and consumes 85 per cent less energy.”
Grassfed beef, and other more “wild” meats like bison, are growing in popularity not simply because they are seen to be less environmentally destructive, but because of their health benefits: lower in fat and higher in omega-3 fatty acids (shown to reduce the risk of heart disease) and a higher level of C.L.A., conjugated linoleic acid (shown in animal studies to help prevent cancer).
Of course, all cows and bison spend some of their lives eating grass and as Carol Pasheilich of Montague, California’s Tawanda Farms explained to me for a video on their grass-munching animals, it’s important that consumers demand meat that is grassfed, grass-finished. Even Ted’s Montana Grill- the namesake of it’s founder Ted Turner- serves grain-finished bison though according to Time Magazine they’re experimenting with grass-finished.
The Union of Concerned Scientists call grassfed beef, “beef with benefits“, claiming it reduces water pollution and the risk of antibiotic-resistant diseases, but not all are so full of praise for animals that graze- be it cattle or bison.
Henning Steinfeld, chief of the FAO’s livestock policy branch, told Salon that grazing “is not necessarily an environmentally benign form of production”, due to both the large amount of land needed and the fact that cows that forage burp more (more methane, that is). Cornell University professor David Pimental provided Salon with a counter argument and estimated that grassfed beef requires half the energy consumption of that of the feedlot variety.
Details aside, it’s obvious beef- grassfed or not- is not a small burden on the earth.
A guide to greener meats
For those not ready to give up meat entirely, it is possible to eat animals with smaller carbon footprints. Beef is definitely a larger strain on the environment than some of the other animals we eat.
If you live in Australia, kangaroo is one of the less impactful animals: they don’t emit methane, use less water than cattle, and unlike cows and sheep, they don’t harm the soil (after reading a Greenpeace report urging Australians to eat more kangaroo and less meat, I tried a bit of roo for a video while visiting the country).
Here is a simplified way of ranking the meats from least sustainable to the somewhat “greener” options:
- Cows: burp/fart methane; consume a lot of food/land/water per pound of meat.
- Large fish: predator fish like tuna, shark and swordfish require a large investment of fossil fuel energy to catch them; they’re also high on the food chain so their killing means a strain on the problem of global overfishing.
- Pigs: a bit less polluting than cows; they don’t emit methane via burps or flatulence, but their “waste lagoons” of manure do.
- Dairy cows: it’s similar to pork (why vegans have a smaller footprint than vegetarians).
- Chicken: efficient at turning grain to meat: 2 pounds of grain = 1 pound of meat (cows need 6lbs and pigs need 3lbs); they don’t emit methane via burps/farts; their waste produces 1/10th the methane of pig/cow manure.
While chicken appears the clear winner if you’re planning on eating
meat, there are serious by-products of industrial poultry farms.
According to Salon, “the waste often contains the cancer-causing
element arsenic, which is added to most U.S. chicken feed to promote
growth. Plus, chicken poop frequently has mercury in it, possibly from
fish meal used as feed, or from vaccines.”
It’s a bit simplistic to simply rank animals by species. Individual
farms can produce at different levels of sustainability. From four decades of humane husbandry from Niman Ranch to the attempts of Heritage Foods U.S.A. to preserve Native American livestock breeds,
there are ranchers trying to go beyond even organic and grassfed.
Pennsylvania’s Polyface Farms is an ideal example (used extensively by
Pollan in Omnivore’s Dilemna) of how a farm, and its animals, can be
used to restore an ecosystem. In nearly five decades, the Salatin family has turned 550 acres of badly eroded land into a fertile, nearly cradle-to-cradle, agricultural system.
Not only are there no waste lagoons, there is virtually no waste
because Joel Salatin works to allow all of his diverse animal species-
cows, chickens, hogs, turkeys, rabbits- to feed off of each other’s
droppings and leftovers. And because he has brought agriculture back to
an animal farm, any animal feed is raised on-site and any extra manure
goes to fertilizing those crops. His hogs help compost… and the
sustainable practices go on and on.
Read Omnivore’s Dilemna for the
full picture of the place. But don’t expect to buy anything online
because he only sells locally, on principle.
Becoming a flexitarian
Really, the clear winner for the greenest diet is to go vegan, but
that, and even vegetarianism, seems a hard sell in much of the world
right now. Unless of course, we begin to apply cigarette-style warning
labels to packages of meat.
I’m aware that not everyone is prepared to go vegetarian, or at least
not overnight, but the more meat we can cut from our diets, the better
off we are for the planet. Maybe we should think of meat-eating like
driving. You do it when you need to, but with the knowledge that we’re
harming the planet.
When I met my husband meat, mostly pork, formed a large part of every meal (he didn’t eat breakfast). Over the past four years, we’ve slowly added more vegetarian foods to our meals until meat has been mostly squeezed out. Now we eat a lot of tofu, seitan, and beans and rice (I shot a video of myself cooking the latter for my daily lunchtime routine).
We’re not total veg-heads as we will eat meat when at dinner parties or even at my in-law’s for the weekly Sunday lunch (we haven’t said anything to my mother-in-law since meat is such an important part of her cooking, which is an important of this weekly ritual).
It’s not so extreme to cut some of the excess meat out of our diets.
We, in the US and Western Europe at least, have somehow gotten out of
balance when it comes to eating animals; according to the United
Nations Population Fund, “each U.S. citizen consumes an average of 260 lbs. of meat per year, the world’s highest rate.
That is about 1.5 times the industrial world average, three times the
East Asian average, and 40 times the average in Bangladesh.”
And we don’t really need meat to survive, in fact, we may be better off
without it. Many health organizations argue the benefits of
vegetarianism. The American Heart Association dedicates a page on their
website to tips and facts about vegetarian diets, explaining that “many
studies have shown that vegetarians
seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which
causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some
forms of cancer“.
No need to worry about getting enough protein
Changing your diet means figuring out what foods will provide you with
a balanced intake, but I was surprised at how easy it is to get
protein, even for kids. According to the American pediatrician and
author Dr Sears: “There’s no need to worry about vegetarian children
getting enough protein. Each day, for example, preteens
can get all the protein they need from an egg, a peanut butter
sandwich, a couple glasses of milk, a cup of yogurt, or a black bean
If you are going to go strictly vegetarian it’s important to focus on a few core nutrients (recommendations of the Mayo Clinic):
Protein: eggs, dairy, soy, legumes (beans, peas), lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains
Calcium: dairy, dark green vegetables like spinach,
turnip/collard greens, kale and broccoli. Calcium-enriched tofu,
fortified soy milk and fruit juices.
Vitamin B-12: almost exclusively found in animal products,
including milk, eggs and cheese. For vegans, there are B-12 enriched
foods, but there’s no need to worry about it immediately after cutting
animal products from your diet since the body has a reserve that lasts
Iron: legumes, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grain products,
dark leafy green vegetables, dried fruit. To help your body absorb
non-animal sources of iron, eat vitamin C rich foods while consuming
Zinc: whole grains, soy, nuts, wheat germ.
Embarrassed to be a vegetarian
Last week, I emailed a vegetarian friend of mine explaining that I
wanted to write a blog about our family’s environmental vegetarianism
(or more accurately, flexitarianism). I told her I knew she hadn’t
chosen to eschew meat for the good of the planet, but that I had a
newfound respect for her nonetheless.
It turns out that I was wrong and her decision was partly motivated by
Earth Day 20 years ago- as well as the book “A Diet for a New America”
by the Baskin-Robbin’s heir John Robbins, which exposed factory farms and debunked nutritional myths about meat eating-,
but back then, at 15 years old, it wasn’t easy being a vegetarian. “I
always remember being asked why did you decide to become a vegi, when I
was younger, and my face would start to get flushed… like if i didn’t
give the right answer or say something profound I failed the test.”
I’d assume it’s easier today for a teenager to announce their veg-head
status, but there’s still social pressure- in any age group- to just
eat “normal”. Yesterday I was IMing with a friend who said ideally
she’d be a vegan, but eats meat because it’s too difficult, especially
with three very carnivorous roommates.
“They are very ‘gourmand’ and love their steak and ribs and lamb and
duck. They are really set on meat. Like if i make even a pizza piled
with cheese and veggies, they wont think of it as a meal unless there
is ham on it.”
They may love their meat, but they are also very socially liberal
Brooklyn-ites and I’d be curious if they’d be so set on meat every meal
if they knew how much greenhouse gas emissions they are responsible for
with every bite of steak. Or would they need ham on their pizza if they
equated it with manure lagoons. Or if only they knew the water used to
I’m wondering how many more of us would become at least flexitarians if
we knew the real cost of producing animals as food. If we could only
wake up to just how out of line we are when it comes to thinking we
need meat, or so much of it.
As Professor Eshel explained for the New York Times story “Rethinking
the Meat Guzzler”, if we could learn to consider the planet in our
dietary decisions, we’d be healthier as well. “The good of people’s bodies and the good of the planet are more or less perfectly aligned.”
Recipes for a new generation of flexitarians
In case part of the resistance to converting to more meat-free meals
are the lack of enticing options- especially for those “gourmands”-, I
will end with a recipe: not my aforementioned low-brow beans and rice
recipe, but that of a friend who makes homemade pasta by hand and
swears it’s quick and easy. I still haven’t tried it, but in the hopes
that it inspires one more vegetarian meal here it is:
3 cups unsifted whole wheat flour
1 cup unsifted white flour
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons of water
2 tablespoons of oil
Mix the flour and salt together on a floured board; make a hollow in
the center and pour in the eggs, oil and water. Knead into a dough for
10 minutes. Let rest 1/2 hour covered with a cloth. Divide the dough
into quarters and roll very thin. Let dough rest again for ten minutes
and cut as desired. Fresh pasta needs just 2-3 minutes in boiling water.