Holy Cow: Less Meat and Dairy Better for You and the Planet
By Dr. Stuart Offer
I recently read an article that took my breath away, literally. According to the U.N.’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report, livestock are responsible for 14 to 22 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide— more than all the planes, trains and automobiles on the planet. And it’s going to get worse as the standard of living rises in developing nations around the world. Global meat production is expected to more than double from 1999/2001 to 2050.
Living here in Vermont, we may view the landscape dotted with farm animals as a beautiful pastoral scene. But as I have been discovering, these animals are living smokestacks, throwing methane emissions into the air. Our appetite for meat and dairy is taking a toll on our health, the environment, climate and animal welfare.
When we talk about greenhouse gases and our carbon footprint, seldom mentioned are the cows and other ruminants, such as sheep and goats. These animals put out methane and nitrous oxide that are far more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, a primary culprit from other industries. Methane has 21 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide and comes out from both ends of the cow, mostly from the front. It was a shock to learn that a single cow can belch out anywhere from 25 to 130 gallons of methane per day. Nitrous oxide, also called laughing gas, and there’s nothing funny here, has 296 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide!
Researchers found cutting out or reducing meat consumption would do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than trading in a gas guzzler for a hybrid. If you eat one less burger a week for one year, it’s like taking your car off the road for 320 miles. If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day per week for a year, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road!
Now let me say I am not becoming a vegetarian anytime soon, but this really gave me a moment of pause and some thoughts on how my personal choices are affecting the planet.
As I have delved deeper into the subject, I learned livestock produced by conventional farming, aka factory farming, is one of the two or three top contributors to the world’s most serious environmental problems, including water pollution and species loss. They contribute to global deforestation of rainforests, as land is cleared to make way for pastures and to produce the crops that feed the animals, primarily corn and soy. The rainforests are crucial “carbon sinks,” the vast tracts of trees and vegetation that absorb carbon dioxide.
There are many other solutions besides eating less meat that can help, such as the Sterksel project in the Netherlands that is capturing the methane produced from pigs and turning it into electricity. In Denmark, by law, farmers now inject manure under the soil instead of laying it on top of the fields, a process that enhances its fertilizing effect, reduces odors and also preventing emissions from escaping.
Our government should take a cue from other parts of the world that are being proactive rather than reactive, and address this problem with the seriousness it deserves.
U.S. agricultural policy is partially to blame and way overdue for changes. Subsidies of crops such as corn and soybeans have traditionally kept the price of meat artificially low.
I realized the beef industry is a dangerous foe for politicians and that is largely why this has become a taboo subject on Capitol Hill. That being said, we all can make a greener choice in the way we eat. By eating less meat, we will not only help the planet but also consume less saturated fat—helping our heart and vascular system.
Americans love beef and veal, eating 100 pounds per capita per year. We’re also leading the world in obesity, heart disease and colorectal cancer. There is a link here and the link is the saturated fat contained in red meat.
The most attractive immediate solution is for everyone to simply reduce their meat consumption. But, there are also other easy-to-implement strategies that can help. Lamb, beef and cheese have the highest emissions. Besides vegetables and plants, chicken, turkey and wild-caught seafood and fish are more gentle on the planet. Producing a pound of beef creates 11 times as much greenhouse gas emissions as a pound of chicken, and 100 times more than a pound of carrots, according to the Swedish agricultural group Lantmannen.
For your health and the health of the planet, join the international campaign’s effort to take the Meatless Monday pledge. If you do choose to eat red meat or cheese, choose to go greener and eat meat and dairy that come from organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed animals, avoiding large-scale commercial, grain-fed feedlot systems and industrial milk, pork, and poultry production sources (aka “factory farming”). It may cost more, but when you buy less meat overall, you can afford to go healthier and greener. On Mondays, I will enjoy one of my favorite high-protein meat substitutes, beans and legumes including lentils, yum!
Stuart Offer, DC, CSCS, CLC, is a Wellness Coach & Educator with Hickok & Boardman Group Benefits.