Meat: Bad for you, bad for the climate

Of all the things that an individual can do to help slow the process of climate change–change lightbulbs, turn down the AC, ride a bike–few if any have as much impact as eating less meat.

So, at least, says the Environmental Working Group in its new Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health.

Yes, this is a guide for meat eaters, not an argument for a vegetarian or vegan diet, which may be too much to ask of a nation of carnivores. But just eliminating a meal or two or three of meat can have a big impact, according to EWG:

If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, over a year, the effect on emissions would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

Or

If you eat one less burger per week, over a year, it’s like taking your car off the road for 320 miles or line drying your clothes half the time.

Or, as Mark Bittman notes, if for two days a week you don’t eat any meat or cheese until dinnertime, you’ll accomplish something similar.

You’ll also save money–vegetarian meals generally cost less–and do your heart a favor, since most vegetables are lower in artery-clogging fat than meat.

I don’t entirely trust EWG, which tends to see risks everywhere. But this report strikes me as both solid and useful. To produce the report, EWG teamed up with CleanMetrics, an environmental  consulting firm, to calculate carbon footprint assessments of 20 types of conventionally raised (not organic or grass-fed) meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins. Included in the tally are pesticides and fertilizers used to grow animal feed as well as the grazing, processing, transportation, cooking and finally, disposal of unused food.

Different meats, it turns out, have dramatically different impacts. Beef, for example, generates more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times that of chicken, and more than 13 times that of vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils, and tofu. Here’s a chart:

Notice that a kilogram of cheese has a higher carbon impact that pork, turkey or chicken. That came as a surprise to me. I was pleased to see lentils at the low end of the chart; they’re a favorite of mine.

Citing USDA data, the report also  said 20% of uneaten meat in the U.S. ends up in landfills. Percentages vary by type:  40% of fresh and frozen fish were tossed, 31% of turkey, 25% of pork, 16% of beef and 12% of chicken.

While there’s no evidence that meat, when consumed in moderation, is unhealthy, most Americans eat far more than they need to get their daily recommended dose of protein.  Eating too much meat can contribute to heart disease and obesity, and a  2009 National Cancer Institute study cited by the EWG that found people who ate the most red meat were 20% more likely to die of cancer and 27% more likely to die of heart disease than those who ate the least.

When consumers do eat meat, EWG says, they should try not to buy or order too much and, where possible, seek out grass fed or pasture-raised meat, certified organic or unprocessed meat.

Celebrities who endorsed the guide include author Michael Pollan, author and physician Andrew Weil and chef Mario Batali. Batali is quoted as saying: “Most people in the U.S. eat way more meat than is good for them or the planet.”

For more, including recipes, check out the excellent Meatless Monday website, which is produced in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The EWG told me it didn’t take money from food-industry companies to support the Meat Eaters Guide.

 

Comments

  1. Lewis E. Ward says:

    I’ve never heard of lamb being a bigger CO2 generator than factory farmed beef. That is very suspicious. Sheep are usually grass fed but they are ruminants so there are efficiencies and problems-CO2. Other wise the points were well taken.

  2. Ed Maibach says:

    Weaning ourselves from air travel — for business and pleasure — is another of the highest impact actions we can take toward living and transacting business more sustainably.

  3. Lewis,
    The high impact of lamb is probably due to methane emissions, which are highest for grass fed ruminants. While feeding corn to cattle is associated with a host of problems, it actually reduces methane from the cow’s digestion. See:http://www.grist.org/article/2009-05-21-on-cow-burps-meat-and-methane

    Marc,
    Given charts like this one, I wonder why there is so much emphasis on fixing up meat for a meal or tow, rather than switching from beef and lamb to pork and chicken. Do we really need to be so Puritanical?

    Suppose we switch two meals a day from beef to vegetables. We’ll probably eat more than one kg of veggies for each kg of beef we give up, since beef is more calorie dense. So say those tow meals were 1 kg of beef = 27kg CO2e, replaced with 1.5 kg of veggies = 3 kg CO2e, for a net savings of 24kg CO2e.

    We could achieve the same effect by replacing 3 beef meals with one each of pork, chicken and turkey, for a net savings of 25 kg CO2e, and it would feel a lot less like we were giving something up. If we really want change, we have to appeal to people other than hair-shirt eco-Puritans. Asking people to give up meat emphasizes the (non monetary) cost of going green.

    And chicken, turkey, and pork are also cheaper than beef as well as being less GHG intensive. My freezer is full of pork and chicken. I love nothing better than a grilled rib-eye steak (I’d rather give up all desserts), but I save it for special occasions.

  4. Oops… that should have been “giving up meat for a meal or two.”

  5. Lewis E. Ward says:

    Thanks Tom,
    I think if someone wants to be vegetarian/vegan fine, but the political vegans cite bad or outdated research as to the environmental benefits. I don’t think hauling soy and corn products across the globe really helps the carbon problem. even the research on the China diet gets distorted to become vegetarian. Whereas, most Chinese eat some meat daily with their vegetables and rice.
    Sheep/goats are more efficient grazers on marginal lands than beefers although some breeds of cattle do well on marginal grazing. China relies on chicken, ducks and pigs because they are so efficient and the agricultural systems work well. Of course, that system also breeds the flu virus.Traditionally, Europeans had very small farms/gardens and raised rabbits, chickens, a pig if space allowed and squab all required small space and could be fed scraps. Local production (neighbor or your own backyard) greatly reduced the carbon footprint.

  6. It’s amazing though, how little actions can have large reverberating effects. Great article, thank you!

  7. Berhanu says:

    I think, If world switch from meat to completely vegetarian environment might save from methane emission from herbivorous animals due to animal breeders also switch to vegetation cultivation.
    I surprise how meat lover come to vegetarian!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. jim denys says:

    All the analysis I have seen of carbon impact of meat is greatly flawed. They are all missing the fact that the manure produced by the animal is returened to the ground as natural fertilizer. This manure replaces the synthetic fertilizer that would otherwise be used to grow crops. Synthetic fertilizer that is usually manufactured in china or russia using fossil fuels and then has to be brought over on a ship and transfered several times at terminals by truck or trains that all use fossil fuels. The savings in GHG’s by using the manure over synthetic fertilizer should be credited back to the production of the animal. The animal manure is used as fertilizer right at the site of production and animal manure is also less prone to leaching than synthetic, as well as adding many beneficial micro organisms to the soil.

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