The Low Down On Green Living
May 9th, 2008
In my continual quest to do the best I can for the environment, and consequently, myself, I have come up against an issue that I’ve been quietly avoiding for some time:
Yes, meat. And meat-related items like: pork, chicken, sausage, cheese, eggs, milk, ice cream – you know, anything coming from an animal that a person like me might get at the market or order off the menu at your favorite local bistro, pizzeria, Tai place, steak house…
It’s so hard to know what to eat these days. The endless questions surrounding what’s good or bad for the environment, the animals, the human race as a whole, it’s overwhelming. Which leads me to find myself often standing in the beautifully lit aisles at Whole Foods confused as to what to buy.
Here are some of the questions that rattle around in my eco-encouraged mind: how bad is it to eat beef? What about pork? If it’s organic and grass fed, is that enough? Or is the mere fact that someone is raising these animals for human consumption bad in and of itself? I recently went through a phase I called “two legs or less”: you know, chicken, fish, dairy. But then I heard how even organic chicken isn’t great and dairy is terrible for you and by the end, I buy some organic pumpkin seeds and call it a day. Do I really need to commit to veganism to shop with confidence?
Years ago, I read John Robbins’ book, Diet For A New America and let me say, I stopped eating meat right after the chapter on how the animals are treated. I remember reading it at the gym while riding the stationary bike and I suddenly noticed that I was making what I’m sure was a highly unattractive “Oh my G-d! Gross!” face while reading, because the news was indeed, gross. And very sad. So I stopped eating meat and started eating more pasta and a lot of bread and cheese. Needless to say, I gained weight and eventually, times changed, protein diets happened and I let go of my memories in order to get back into a size 6.
But things are different now. And my interest in going veggie is more about its positive impact on the environment than the pangs of remorse I feel when I see the devastatingly cute faces of those young cows awaiting slaughter off Interstate 5. Which is still a factor, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that today, there are more social, environmental and health reasons than ever to avoid eating animal products. A recent report based on a 2 and a half year study by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health states:
“The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.”
So here’s the environmental beef with meat:
+ Giant contributor to Greenhouse Gas Emissions
+ Requires tremendous amounts of water and energy
+ Utilizes thousands of acres of land that could be used for growing more crops, thereby feeding more people
Global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions come from a number of sources but two of the biggest are: CO2, created mostly from fossil fuel emissions, and methane, which comes from several sources. But guess what? A giant chunk of it comes from the fermentation of manure and livestock “belching.“ The livestock sector in general (primarily cattle, chickens, and pigs) produces 37% of all human-induced methane. Translated into urban terms, you can drive your car for 3 hours and leave all the lights on in your house while doing it and you’re greenhouse gas emissions will not equal what comes from the production of just one kilogram of beef. Great. And of course, the amount of energy and fuel used to transport and process these meats makes it even harder to justify that extra side of bacon.
Water Waste and Pollution:
The news here is equally as devastating. According to a study conducted by the University of California, it takes 5,214 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef, which adds up to a YEAR of daily showers in exchange for 4 hamburgers! Mass poultry production is also a huge contributor to very serious health and environmental hazards caused by water pollution from manure run-off. Apparently all that chicken poo from all those poor chickens squished together in tiny cages gets washed off into local streams and water ways and then ends up in the ground water, contaminating the community surrounding the farm with the arsenic, ammonia and other chemicals found in the feed.
“These companies seek rural areas where unemployment, or underemployment, is high and people are desperate for ways to stay on the farm,” says Aloma Dew, a Sierra Club organizer in Kentucky. “They assume that poor, country people will not organize or speak up, and that they will be ignorant of the impacts on their health and quality of life.” And while these giant birdy makers, known as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are supposed to follow federal environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, they are apparently really good at getting around the rules and regulations in order to make more chicken. Pig and dairy farms are equally as guilty in these areas. Overall, we might avoid a clean water crisis altogether if we simply stopped eating animals and animal products.
Land That Could be Used to Feed People in Better Ways
According to the USDA, growing crops for animal feed requires 80% of U.S. agricultural land and nearly half of the water supply. Think about it, it takes land to raise the animals and land to grow the food they eat. Then there’s the issue known as slash and burn agriculture, popular in South America, in which forests are cut down to be used for grazing land, increasing species extinction rates, damaging the eco-system and reducing the amount of planetary oxygen. The book, World Food and You by Nan Unklesbay, states “Approximately 90 percent of the U.S. corn crop is fed to domestic animals. U.S. grazing and pasturelands are inadequate to meet the demand for animal products. Most of the 650 million acres used to graze livestock are being degraded through overuse.”
So what about organic meats? There seems to be little environmental upside to larger animal production, organic or not. The same problems of land, water and methane remain; however, there are just less hormones, chemicals and, in some case, less animal cruelty involved. Free range, organic chicken is a little better and not as huge a pollutant, but mostly because there are less of these chickens, less waste produced and less of the toxic elements in their feed. But organic chicken is expensive and especially hard to find if you eat out and don’t live in a major metropolitan area.
Eat Your Veggies
And so, just like when you were a kid and your mom pushed your plate back in front of you and said, “Eat your spinach!” now you have more reason to do so (as long as it’s organic.) Eating no meat means less water used, less wasted energy, less land that could be used to make more food for more people and a lot less methane contributing to our global warming crisis. That and the little faces who are spared the hideous existence of short lives in factory farms. Definitions for vegetarian range from “no animal flesh” to variations that include fish, eggs, dairy and honey but to be considered vegan, you don’t eat anything that comes from an animal. It seems simple, if not easy: the most effective way that you, as an individual, can do your part to reduce global warming is to reduce or eliminate your consumption of animal products. This time around, I’m going to work hard to not be a “pasta-terian.”
For more inspiration, here are a couple of books to check out.
The Food Revolution By John Robbins
Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin
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