The average American may not have considered the connection between global warming and a cheeseburger, but the United Nations has. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report in February of this year, concluding that livestock is responsible for 18 percent of our world global warming emissions. When you take into account meat’s entire lifecycle, each meat eater is responsible for 1.5 more tons of greenhouse gases than a vegan per year, according to a study by the University of Chicago. By contrast, switching from a Toyota Camry to a hybrid Toyota Prius would save one ton of greenhouse gases annually.
Yearly global meat production is projected to more than double from what it was at the turn of the century by 2050, which will only increase the associated global warming gases. One of the quickest ways we can lower our collective greenhouse gas emissions is to eat less meat.
Eating Like an SUV
In 2006, Drs. Pamela Martin and Gidon Eshel of the University of Chicago compared the greenhouse gas effects of a vegan diet to five other diets: that of the average American (72 percent plant-based, 14 percent meat, 14 percent eggs/dairy), and three similarly constructed diets that replace the 14 percent of meat with red meat-only, fish-only, and poultry-only. The fifth diet was a vegetarian diet (10 percent eggs/dairy). All five diets equaled 3,774 calories consumed per day—an FAO figure that represents the number of calories produced and distributed per person in the US, meaning that while we don’t necessarily eat that much on average, we eat or waste that much at grocery stores and at home.
The study looked at the entire lifecycle of these diets, examining the energy it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and prepare them. The vegetarian diet turned out to be the most energy-efficient—and therefore lowest in greenhouse gases—followed by poultry, then the average US diet. Fish and red meat—mostly beef, with some pork and lamb—tied as least efficient.
Much of meat’s low efficiency comes from grain usage. According to The Way We Eat (Rodale, 2006), by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, it takes 13 lbs. of grain to produce one lb. of beef and three lbs. of grain for one lb. of chicken. The more meat we eat, the more grain is required to feed the animals that provide that meat—in addition to the extra water and land (often deforested) used to grow that grain, extra energy to harvest it and run the slaughterhouses, and extra chemicals to fertilize it and deter pests. We save all of those resources and their related emissions by eating that grain directly.
The study also took into account that the digestive systems of ruminant animals used for red meat are a main source of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 23 times more warming than carbon dioxide, although it cycles out of the atmosphere in eight years, compared to CO2’s more than 100. Livestock manure is also responsible for 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions—another greenhouse gas that, while less warming than CO2, persists in the atmosphere even longer.
Even the study authors were surprised when fish wound up in a virtual tie with red meat, though Dr. Eshel says that not all fish are equal in this regard. “You can keep your personal emissions low by eating simple fish, not large predatory fish,” he says. “Anchovies, sardines, and mackerel are actually very good, because they live near the coast and require short trips to harvest them.” But swordfish and other large, predatory species require long, energy-intensive trips, he says.
In short, even if you aren’t already a vegetarian, cutting out some meat, especially red meat and large predatory fish, and eating lower on the food chain overall can help significantly lower your personal greenhouse gas emissions.
“The difference between eating the average American diet and the poultry diet is about 0.9 ton of emissions, so even just switching your meat intake to poultry makes a big difference,” says Eshel. “And the less meat you eat overall, the more lightly you tread on the planet.”
Other Benefits of Going Veggie
The majority of our meat in the US doesn’t come from small, family-owned farms, but from corporate owned factory farms that cause a host of other problems in addition to generating emissions.
From an animal rights perspective, many livestock animals live in crowded, unsanitary conditions on huge corporate farms bent on maximizing production.
But it’s not only the animals that suffer the ill effects of this treatment. Attempting to compensate for the stress the animals are under, factory meat farms often feed animals copious amounts of antibiotics to keep them healthy and promote growth—eight times more antibiotics by volume than humans consume, according to the WorldWatch Institute. The proliferation of antibiotics is breeding antibiotic resistant “supergerms,” resulting in hard-to-treat diseases in humans and animals alike, says the World Health Organization. A 2005 study at the University of California–Berkeley found a strong link between antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections in women and the overuse of antibiotics in food animals.
Then there’s the waste runoff from factory farms, which is making our water unhealthy. Compared to pasta production, red meat production results in 17 times the common water pollution and five times the toxic water pollution from waste, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
We could mitigate those problems if our diets collectively contained less meat—and we’d be healthier for it, too. The American Heart Association (AHA) notes that vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be lower in fats and cholesterol than the average US diet. As a result, the AHA says, “Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, and some forms of cancer.”
In addition, Eshel and Martin cite several studies in their report that link animal protein consumption to increased cancer risk, including one from 2005 showing a “tight positive relationship” between eating meat and colorectal cancer.
Meat Labels: Best Options
While a vegetarian or vegan diet is the most sustainable option, here’s our take on the labels you’ll see on meat, to help you make better choices:
Beef, pork, and poultry that is certified organic comes from animals that have never been fed antibiotics or related drugs, and have been provided 100 percent organic grain—farmed without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and that does not contain hormones or animal by-products.
The USDA oversees the organic label, which is verified by certifying agencies that inspect each farm at least annually. The USDA requires cows and pigs raised organically for their meat to have continuous access the outdoors. However, the agency does allow organic chickens to be confined, without continuous outdoor access.
Honor Schauland, a spokesperson for the Organic Consumers’ Association (OCA), says that while many organic farms do provide their animals with plenty of pasture time, some large, corporate operations may not, because the USDA regulation is “somewhat vague.”
“We’re campaigning to make the rule clearer and ensure that the animals are actually going outside and have more room to move,” she says. Organically farmed animals are sent to organic-certified slaughterhouses that may use inhumane killing methods.
From an environmental perspective, grass-fed or grass-finished beef is a better option than conventional red meat if it comes from a source you trust—there is no one overseeing the grass-fed label. Grass-fed beef cattle are fed very little grain, and generally come from small, local farms, where they graze outside in pastures. According to Local Harvest, raising grass-fed beef uses less fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides and the meat itself is leaner and has more healthy omega-3s than conventional beef.
On the downside, grass-fed beef produce more climate-warming methane per cow than conventionally raised beef, says John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America (HJ Kramer, 1998). Their grazing land may still be irrigated, which uses up water, and fertilized, which contributes to pollution. Plus, these cattle often end up at conventional slaughterhouses that may use inhumane killing methods.
The no antibiotics added/raised without antibiotics label means just that—the meat came from animals who have never been fed antibiotics or related drugs in their lives. The USDA regulates this label, and Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist at OCA, says it’s fairly trustworthy.
The words all-natural on a meat label indicate that the meat contains no artificial color, flavors, or preservatives, or any other synthetic ingredients. The meat animals may have been treated with antibiotics. The USDA regulates this label on meat, and Minowa says it’s also trustworthy.
“However, meat with this label could still have trace levels of pesticides, antibiotics, or synthetic hormones, whereas organic meat will not,” he notes.
Free-range/free-roaming labels are used mainly for poultry and eggs to indicate that the products came from poultry that had access to the outdoors. However, there are no set standards for what kind of access this is. According to Consumers Union, some “free-range” birds are still kept in cramped quarters, where a door is only opened for a few brief minutes a day. This label is regulated by the USDA for poultry only, not eggs.
Diet for a Better World
If you eat meat, consider curbing your meat consumption—and looking for certified organic meat and organic, grass-fed beef to help mitigate some of the planetary problems associated with meat. Also, consider trying a vegetarian diet: You’ll have the satisfaction of healthier meals, lowering your personal global warming footprint, and having your diet reflect your social, animal welfare, and environmental values.