You’ve been invited to a friend’s barbeque. It’s a beautiful summer afternoon, so you decide to ride over on your bike, feeling pretty good about your environmentally conscious decision to leave the car in the driveway. When you arrive at your friend’s back yard, 7.3 miles away, you sit down and enjoy a hamburger. A delicious quarter-pounder.
As it turns out, you could have just driven. In greenhouse gas terms, that hamburger is the same as a 7.3 mile ride in the car.
Now what? If you choose to eat meat, eat less. It's a deeply personal decision, but here are some mighty meaty reasons to choose wisely.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 14.5% of annual greenhouse gasses come from livestock production. And the volume is likely to grow as the economies of poorer countries improve and the worldwide demand for meat increases. Cattle are the biggest culprit, accounting for two-thirds of livestock emissions. That’s why the FAO and some prominent environmental advocacy organizations are urging Americans to eat less meat, especially beef.
“Without a change in American eating habits,” says Sujata Bergen, Policy Analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the recent report Less Beef, Less Carbon, “It is going to be difficult to reach our greenhouse gas reduction targets.”
That’s because cows, along with sheep, goats, and lamb, are ruminant animals. Ruminants burp a lot, producing methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The FAO, which tracks greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for the agricultural sector, says that 39% of livestock’s global warming effect is due to animals’ natural digestion.
But it’s not just gassy cows that are destroying the planet. Modern farming methods exacerbate livestock’s negative effect. Farmers treat feed crops like soy and corn (which are often fed to the cows) with synthetic fertilizers. These turn into nitrous oxide, a GHG 298 times more powerful than CO2. Nitrous oxide and methane escape from manure, especially when manure is not properly handled, as happens when waste drains to large lagoons on industrial feedlots. Fossil fuel is used throughout the farming process.
The result? For every kilogram (2.3 pounds) of beef in the supermarket, 26 kilograms of CO2 equivalent are released. That’s much more than for any other food, except lamb.
Are there options?
Other meats are much less problematic. Pigs, chicken and turkeys don’t emit methane. A kilogram of pork creates 6.87 kg CO2 equivalent. Chicken is even less, producing only 5.05 CO2 kg eq/kg, and lentils just .78 kg CO2 equivalent/kg.
Fruits, vegetables and milk have a limited effect. Milk, of course, comes from cows, but each animal produces so much milk that negative inputs are spread out over much more food output. Cheese falls somewhere in the middle.
Several groups advocate grass-fed beef as a solution. Bergen says that, "While sustainable beef is better for the environment overall, its climate effects are up in the air.” Plus, she notes that the sheer volume of beef processing in the United States makes it impossible to convert the entire industry to grass-fed. There simply isn’t enough land.
But committed carnivores don’t need to panic.
Eating “Climate Healthy” doesn’t mean eliminating meat, just eating less. In fact, NRDC and Friends of the Earth say that people can make a difference if they just follow USDA guidelines for meat consumption.
If you haven’t looked at those guidelines recently, you might be surprised. Back in 2000, USDA told Americans to eat 3.8 ounces of meat each day. In 2010, USDA lowered the recommended amount to 1.8 ounces/day.
"That’s one chicken drumstick or half a hamburger," says Kari Hamerschlag, Deputy Director of the Food and Technology Program at Friends of the Earth and author of the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health.
"That may not seem like a lot," says Hamerschlag, "but chefs can compensate for decreased animal protein with increased plant material. People can mix 1.8 ounces of chicken into a vegetable stir fry, or add meat and beans to a burrito. Another option is to cook hamburgers one night and make a meatless meal the following day."
The shift to a less beef-intensive diet is already underway. From 2005-2014, Americans ate 19% less beef, according to the NRDC. This dietary change, in greenhouse gas terms, was like taking 39 million cars off the road for a year.
So, what should you do? If you are vegetarian or vegan, great. But if you aren’t and still want to fight climate change, here are some steps you can take:
- Eat one less serving of beef each week.
- Substitute other types of meat for beef. Pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs are less harmful than beef.
- Reduce your meat portion and add more plant-based foods to your plate.
- Get creative. Use meat as a condiment rather than the focal point of each meal. You could:
- Add mushrooms or other fillers to your burgers;
- Experiment with ethnic foods, like Asian cuisines which combine meat or tofu protein with vegetables and grain.
Bergen says, “Reducing the climate impact of your diet is relatively easy. All you have to do is change what you put into your grocery cart.”
We explore one theme over two months. We explore, learn, create changes and move forward. This post is part of our Meat & Veggies theme months.
CHAPTER GATHERING IDEA
Belong to a local Savvy Chapter means you can discuss, explore and share feedback from YOUR community experiences. Convening in a living room with a group of women and sharing the HOW's is all the support you will need. Meatless Mondays? Kids on board? Partners NOT on board? Sneaky cooking? The above content is the powerful WHY. But to create change in your home we suggest your Chapter turns this topic in to a Gathering Discussion. It doesn't have to be charged or negative. It can be powerfully supportive.
- Do you belong to a Chapter? Check out the discussion thread on hosting a Gathering on this topic in our Savvy Cafe.
- Would you like to join a Chapter?
EXPLORE THESE RESOURCES
A Guide to Avoiding Factory Farmed Meat and Dairy (Friends of the Earth)
Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Dairy (Environmental Working Group)
Tackling Climate Change through Livestock (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)
Less Beef Less Carbon (Natural Resources Defense Council)