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Eating for the Planet: The Case for Less Meat

Eating for the Planet: The Case for Less Meat

What we eat matters

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Mary-Linh Tran

Mary-Linh Tran

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This article is part of our monthly issue “Food for Future,” in which we invite you to join us in exploring the impact our daily eating habits have on the future of our personal lives, and the planet—because if everything we eat is a problem, what can we eat? We want to learn how far even small changes can go with informative and entertaining articles, specific tips for everyday life, and recipes that can guide the way and inspire us to take our first (and maybe even second) steps towards a more sustainable way to eat. Check out this link to find an overview of all our weekly topics, stories, recipes, and more.

It’s difficult to ignore the smell of cured pork belly sizzling in a pool of fat on a hot frying pan. It’s a smell that seduces—sultry, sweet, smoky, almost sinful—one that can lure flocks of surly sleepers from the warmth of their beds and into the kitchen on a Sunday morning. It’s a smell so embraced that there are (we kid you not) perfumes, bath soaps, massage oils, and even toothpastes made to celebrate and replicate it.

Another thing that’s difficult to ignore: Our planet is warming up at an alarming rate, prompting extreme weather catastrophes, from wildfires ravaging Australia to flash floods submerging thousands of homes in Indonesia—even here in Germany, sweltering heat waves are the new norm. It seems every couple of weeks brings a new disaster, hinting at a worsening situation, and climate scientists say most of this is thanks to humans. Even more difficult to digest? A lot of this can be traced back to our love of meat.

The evolution of humans is inextricable to our consumption of meat. When we began hunting animals, we developed special tools, language, and social systems that would shape modern society as we know it. And when we learned how to cook meat, it changed our biology: Our stomachs got smaller, our brains grew bigger—you could say the 21st century homo sapien is designed to eat meat, and indeed it’s a great source of pleasure for a lot of people. So how are we supposed to reconcile the fact that eating meat might just be killing our earth?

An inconvenient truth

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock production is responsible for 14.5% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)—that’s more than the emissions produced by all cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships in the world today. Together with the CO2 emitted from raising, processing, and distributing, we’re now at a whopping 37%. Factor in the widespread method of monocultures to maximize crop yields, and now we’re looking at biodiversity loss and massive water withdrawals. Then there’s farm waste to account for, which winds up in lakes, rivers, and oceans, making animal agriculture the main culprit of water pollution.

Source: The Conversation

On top of that, cows and sheep contain bacteria to help with digestion and this very same bacteria creates methane, a GHG that’s 30 times better at trapping heat than CO2. Methane is released into the atmosphere whenever a cow or sheep burps or passes gas. Given there are 1.5 billion cows (and counting) on earth—that’s roughly one cow to every five people—that’s a whole lot of methane wafting around, suffocating the biosphere.

Burps aside, cows need a place to graze, which brings us to the problem of deforestation. Major beef exporters like Brazil and Bolivia are wiping out swaths of forests to make room for cattle ranches and soy farms to feed said cattle. So we’re destroying trees, a natural and efficient source for cleaning the air, and spewing out even more carbon in the process.

Meat production—is it worth it?

Did you know we can generate 15 times more protein from plant-based sources than from meat? Given a 1.5 acre (6,000 m²) plot of land, you can grow up to 37,000 lbs (16,700 kg) of vegetables. If you graze cattle on that same piece of land, it would only result in 375 lbs (170 kg) beef—and according to FAO, over 20% of that will get tossed at some point along the journey from farm-to-table.

In fact, about 30% of all food produced in the world goes to waste—approximately 1.3 billion tons—mostly from developed countries. FAO reports that if only a quarter of that waste gets saved, we could end world hunger.

Think of it this way: The global population is expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050, and in order to feed everyone in the world we’ll need to grow more food in the next 30 years than we’ve grown in all of human history. Our challenge shouldn’t be how to grow more food, but how to feed more people with existing farmland and preserve forests to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Agriculture of all types inevitably saps resources from the environment, but the amount of energy required to run livestock farms and processing facilities is gargantuan. This is partly because of powerful agribusiness lobbyists and liberal government subsidies, which together with advanced food technology, paved the way for our food systems to balloon. But this is only one part of the equation. The other part is that meat is still the globe’s main source of protein.

Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization / Our World in Data

The case for less meat

For most of history, meat eating has been a marker of wealth. It’s no surprise that affluent places like North America and western Europe are home to the world’s most zealous omnivores. Wealth also means having better access to things, including a diverse variety of food, and yet, people in high-income nations still eat meat at rates much higher than their doctor’s suggestion. Take the U.S., for example. In the 1970s, the average U.S. American ate about 120 lbs (55 kg) of meat per year. Today that number is closer to 140 lbs (63 kg) per year. Despite knowing more about climate change than we’ve ever known before, we still seem to want more meat. And as emerging markets like China and India get richer, their citizens want a hunk of animal protein for dinner, too.

So where does that leave us, the people who’ve taken steps like phasing out single-use plastic, biking more, flying less, but can’t stop guzzling down cheeseburgers and licking our fingers clean of carne asada?

The truth is most people like the taste of meat, and most people like the memories associated with meat eating, like weekend barbecues and hotdogs in the park. As much as we each care about what’s happening to the planet, it’s unrealistic and counterproductive to pretend whole populations can (or should be forced to) change something they’ve done their whole lives—something that’s integral to their identity and how they connect to their community—for outcomes that are invisible to the individual.

So we’re not asking you to cut out meat cold turkey. We’re asking you to reevaluate your relationship with eating meat.

Instead of making meat a daily staple, why not save it as a special treat at the end of the week? Bulk up your everyday meals with low-impact beans and lentils. If you’re stumped on where to start, check out this curated, vegetable-forward weekly meal plan. Studies show that if those of us in high-income countries cut down on red meat consumption by a third, we can reduce our carbon footprint by 13%. And if we eat 90% less red meat, and 60% less dairy (a topic we’ll cover later in this issue), we can reduce the number of GHG by 50%.

Don’t forget how you throw away food matters too. When organic matter rots in landfills it coughs up methane. Compost leftovers in a well-circulated container that lets in oxygen to minimize the chances of methane developing. It’s also good practice to plan ahead before grocery shopping to avoid unnecessary food waste. If that’s not always possible, don’t forget about your freezer, which is a wonderful place to preserve food.

Buying locally and avoiding processed foods can also minimize our footprint, but it should be noted that the GHG emitted from food transportation is pretty small compared to conventional farming, and neither alternative resolves the problem of excess demand and dwindling resources. In other words, what you put on your plate is far more significant than where it traveled from.

Is there such a thing as sustainable meat?

There’s been a surge, over the last two decades, of grass-fed/free-range/cage-free animal products. These alternatives are produced on small organic farms that place more care on how animals are raised and typically practice a method called rotational grazing. This works by moving livestock through different pastures rather than confining them to one place. When managed properly, this system can offset the climate impact of cows, since it allows nutrient cycles to take place, meaning the soil can better absorb nutrients—and carbon!

A good rule of thumb: If it’s within your means, eat less and better quality meat; choose lower impact products like organic poultry; and venture into the realm of off-cuts or nose-to-tail eating to prevent food waste—it’ll make a big difference.

The magic of more choices for more people

Let’s face it, humans don’t like restrictions. If we look at history’s long list of social movements with lasting impact, events like women’s suffrage, civil rights, and same-sex marriage, what we see is society extending its freedoms rather than restricting them. Perhaps the same thing can be said about eating sustainably—what we need are more choices for more people.

While plant-based alternatives have been on the market for quite some time, their target demographic has mostly been non-meat eaters, which in the U.S., make up only 5% of the population. This makes it difficult for there to be substantial change in our consumption habits because not a lot of people are ready, willing, or have the financial resources to make the move to plant-based. The encouraging news is that there’s a budding movement of scientists and entrepreneurs pushing for better accessibility to a wider selection of climate-friendly foods, the two key players being: Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.

In 2015, Impossible Foods discovered how to synthesize heme iron in a lab—the molecular compound that gives meat its unique flavors and aromas. In doing so, they created a plant-based meat that uses 96% less land, 87% less water, generates 89% less GHG, and is nutritionally on par with real meat, as well as looks, smells, and bleeds like the real deal. Impossible, whose slogan is “made from plants for people who love meat,” isn’t all that interested in wooing vegetarians or vegans—they’re after meat eaters. The idea being, given more choices of cheaper, tastier, more sustainable, and something that’s indistinguishable from real meat, people will have viable choices to consume responsibly.

What about lab-grown meat?

Food scientists around the globe are racing to get cultured meat, aka lab-grown meat onto the market. Cultured meat is made by harvesting animal stem cells in an artificial environment. This approach theoretically addresses all the environmental consequences of industrialized farming: It uses far less energy, far less water, and eliminates the problem of methane and grazing land. You’d also have “cleaner” meat without the slew of additives, antibiotics, and growth hormones that are administered on large-scale farms, making it an attractive option for passionate meat eaters. Of course, there are still hurdles like the impact of producing cultured meat on a mass-scale and whether eaters will be able to get past the uncanniness of it all, but it’s nonetheless a step in the right direction.

A final note

Our food system needs to change at all levels, from large-scale action to legislation and structural revisions, all the way down to us, the consumer. We all have a role in this, and changing our eating habits is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to lessen our climate impact and provoke real change. We know it may seem impossible for our personal choices to influence the climate crisis, but if we collectively eat more plant-based foods, then we can fuel customer demand, which would provide better access worldwide to more sustainable choices.

Scientists and public health officials have long advocated for plant-based diets. If we change the way we produce and eat food, we’ll be able to feed more people, have healthier diets, preserve biodiversity, and allow ecosystems to thrive—who doesn’t dream of this kind of future?

5 meatless recipes to start with

Quinoa salad with beetroot, sweet potatoes, and miso dressing

Quinoa salad with beetroot, sweet potatoes, and miso dressing

Mediterranean zucchini spaghetti with lemon sauce

Mediterranean zucchini spaghetti with lemon sauce

Easy japchae (Korean glass noodles with stir-fried vegetables)

Easy japchae (Korean glass noodles with stir-fried vegetables)

Spicy mushroom ragù

Spicy mushroom ragù

Tofu satay with cucumber salad and rice

Tofu satay with cucumber salad and rice

Published on June 2, 2020

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