I’m a vegetarian. But my husband’s not. And – go figure – my kids aren’t either. Which is exactly why I care about the meat I buy. Yes, I buy meat. I’d rather not, but if it’s coming into the house – and into my kids’ bodies –then I need to know exactly what I’m buying. And I not only want to know how it’s affecting my family’s health, I also care deeply about how it’s affecting our family’s environmental footprint (including climate change).
Enter Environmental Working Group’s new Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health. In it, EWG took a close look at how a variety of protein foods rank when their total, “cradle-to-grave” greenhouse gas emissions are calculated. Then we factored in the non-climate environmental impacts (like water pollution) and health effects of meat and confirmed that, indeed, not all meat is created equal.
Different foods generate different amounts of green house gases
Our lifecycle comparison shows that, pound for pound, lamb, beef, cheese, and pork generate the most greenhouse gases (GHGs) of the protein foods we looked at; beef emits four times as many GHGs as chicken! They also tend to be higher in saturated fat and have the worst overall environmental impacts - because producing them requires the most resources, mainly chemical fertilizer, feed, fuel, pesticides and water.
If you’re scratching your head, wondering how exactly eating meat generates GHGs, there are three main sources: feed production, ruminant digestion, and manure. In other words, growing animal food, farting animal food, and pooping animal food. (Excuse our language, but it’s clearest –and likely more memorable – this way. Plus, my 8-year old son thinks it’s hilarious.) For a bite-sized description of the climate and environmental impacts of each stage of meat production (there are many: growing feed, grazing, slaughtering, transporting all of it, eating, and wasting), see the meat lifecycle graphic on EWG’s website.
It’s Clear: We’re Eating Too Much Meat
For many, meat is a regular, familiar part of their diets. Eating meat in moderation can be a good source of complete protein and key vitamins and nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamins B-12, B-6 and niacin. That said, we eat far more protein than we need: kids get 3 to 4 times the recommended amount, and adult men get twice the amount they need. And, of course, the nutritional benefits of meats can be reaped from other, less environmentally damaging, food sources (like lentils and beans).
The scientific evidence is increasingly clear that eating too much meat – particularly red and processed meat – contributes to a wide variety of serious health problems like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. According to the federal Food and Drug Administration, moreover, most human exposure to dioxins comes from food, almost entirely through animal fats. The best way to reduce the health risks associated with dioxins and other toxins is by limiting your dietary exposure to them.
Eating Less and Better Meat
If your health and the planet are on your “to do” list at all, you’ll accomplish a lot by trimming your portions, skipping it here and there (why not every Monday?), and choosing leaner, greener meat. Just as reducing home energy use or driving less, skipping meat once a week can make a meaningful difference in greenhouse gas emissions if we all do it. According to EWG’s calculations, if everyone in the U.S. chose a vegetarian diet, it would be the equivalent of taking 46 million cars off the road or not driving 555 billion miles. To present a likelier option, if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.
At the same time, keep in mind that although important for improving your health and reducing your personal carbon footprint (of which you’re, thankfully, the boss), eating less (or no) meat, by itself, won’t stop climate change or eliminate environmental damage. The fork is powerful, but not all-powerful. But don’t let that stop you! Wield it anyway and support policy change to invest in greener energy and cleaner, more sustainable food production.
EWG’s Tips for Meat Eaters: Finding the Good Stuff
Often, it’s not our goals (often good), but rather lack of specific, trustworthy knowledge about smart consumer choices that stands between us and our best intentions. Which is why EWG put together our top tips for leaner, greener meat shopping (we also have a wallet card, available on our website). If you buy less meat overall (our top tip for meat eaters), you can more easily afford healthier, greener meat. When shopping, always read the labels (and check our label decoder)! Look for:
- Grass-fed or pasture-raised meat: has fewer antibiotics and hormones and in some cases may have more nutrients and less fat; the animals live in more humane, open, sanitary conditions and well-managed systems reduce erosion and water pollution, conserve carbon and preserve biodiversity and wildlife.
- Lean cuts: less fat will likely mean fewer cancer-causing toxic chemicals in your body.
- No antibiotics or hormones: reduces unnecessary exposure and helps keep human medicines effective.
- Certified organic: keeps pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified foods off the land, out of the water and out of our bodies.
- Certified humane: means no growth hormones or antibiotics and ensures that animals were raised with enough space and no cages or crates.
- Unprocessed, nitrite-free and low sodium: avoid lunchmeats, hot dogs, prepackaged smoked meats and chicken nuggets.
- Sustainable seafood: avoid airfreighted fish, most farmed salmon, and consult Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list of the most sustainable seafood choices.
- Local: supports your local economy and protects farm land
If you can’t find these healthier products (we know that in some places it takes a little hunting), ask your grocer to carry them (as more and more people ask, they will become more readily available). And consult eatwellguide.org or eatwild.com – both terrific online resources - to find a nearby store with greener, pasture-raised meat.
Wasting less and eating less and greener meat amount to a powerful investment in yourself and our planet – that’s easier to make than you might think. Start today by taking EWG’s pledge to eat less meat. (And hey, it’s Monday, why not make it your first Meatless Monday?).
It’s good to be part of the solution, isn’t it?