Meat and the environment

Today is Green Day, and we're being bombarded with Green Day Sales, reminders as to how Green this company or the other is, and so on. It's a big topic nowadays.

I feel that the things that we can do as individuals is getting increasingly muddy. For a while it seemed like biofuels were a solution, but now the huge demand for plant-based fuels may be causing serious food shortages. Food miles and locavorism may not be as clear cut a solution either. Michael Pollan says we should start growing our own vegetables, but that's not possible for a lot of people, for space or time reasons.

Is there something relatively easy we can do? Sort of. Meat has a huge carbon footprint, so eating less of it may do more than pretty much anything else in terms of slowing the process of global warming.

photo of meat, from iStockPhoto

When you see the photo above, what does it make you think of? Until a few years ago, I would have thought "Mmm, meat heaven!". Nowadays I'm not as enthusiastic. As I have gradually reduced the amount of meat in my diet, I've found that I enjoy meat less and less. As a matter of fact, the meat products that I do enjoy are ones that have been cooked or prepared in such a way that the essential meatiness of the meat is changed or masked. I still love things like sausages, ham and dried meats - and bacon, of course. When I cook meat, I prefer to use Asian or Japanese methods that mask the gaminess or meatiness. For example, I have a hard time dealing with roast pork with crisp crackling, the way people love to eat pork in Britain and some parts of Germany (it's a Franconian speciality). The pigginess of the meat is very assertive, and I can't enjoy it.

On the other hand if pork is prepared as _nibuta_, with aromatic vegetables, sake and mirin, I love it. And I eat far less of it at a meal than with a typical Western-oriented meal because it's so richly flavored.

If you're a dedicated meat lover, the idea of weaning yourself off it may be very difficult to contemplate. One way to do this fairly painlessly may be to switch to eating more Asian food, including Japanese, where meat is used more as a flavoring than the main star, and vegan protein sources have been incorporated as a matter of course for generations. And there's nothing wrong with an occasional steak or hamburger - just as long as it is occasional.

Something to think about perhaps.

* 75% vegetarian
* Time-tested vegan proteins

Filed under:  ethics philosophy meat

If you enjoyed this article, please consider becoming my patron via Patreon. ^_^

Become a Patron!


Living in Japan has certainly changed my eating habits. I was never a frequent beef and pork consumer but even chicken and fish cuts are reduced to make room for tofu, surimi, or natto. I think the amount of options here makes it much easier (and affordable...can't beat 69 yen tofu packs) to push meat to the side.

I must say that I do really enjoy eating meat but as our impact on the world, poverty, pollution has become more apparent, I am reconsidering how I eat. Already I am eating less meat and am planning on cutting it down even more. But although it will be a readjustment in cooking styles I think it's really a good idea.

I'd like to throw this out for thought since Maki's audience is international. Humans are omnivores -- for hundreds of thousands of years. Many cultures have varied their diets, depending on what was available to raise, grow, and eat. Migrations have also had large effects, with immigrants bringing favored foods to new locales. I myself would rather eat a nice beefsteak than kangaroo, chicken rather than mutton, anything rather than organ meat. I also eat a lot of vegetables. Those are my preferences but not necessarily yours. But consider what you eat in total, not just what sounds "politically correct" at the moment.

Japanese "harvest" the seas, including endangered whales. Asian countries and Russia with their factory ships, for example, trap in their vast nets an enormous amount of "by-catch," killing dolphins and various other fish which are tossed back (dead) into the ocean. How about cutting off shark fins and throwing the dying shark back. I suppose this doesn't count as a carbon footprint....

Beef and pork are easy foods to target for present-day finger-pointing, but these and various fowl and sheep are grown specifically as foods (plus byproducts). Growing large amounts of rice and grains is not necessarily "better" than growing cattle and sheep when you account for fertilizing, farm machinery, water, and so on. What will you eat when the fish are gone? What will you harvest if all the pesticides are prohibited and the bugs eat your dinner -- and the dinners of other millions of people?

The Law of Unintended Consequences is wreaking havoc in the world, Modify your own diet as it suits you and if it keeps you healthy, without feeling that skipping on a certain kind of meat makes the entire world somehow better. Moderation is good. Ask yourself what foods come from Saudi Arabia.

SBS: growing large amounts of rice and grains IS better that growing cattle and sheep - cattle don't just grow up without food! They are fed by grain grown in the field, and use much more energy than if we were to just eat the grain itself.
I live in farm country, surrounded by corn fields, and I only know of a SINGLE one that is grown for human consumption. The rest? It feeds dairy cows.

I agree with you about Japan's track-record with fisheries, but that's not what Maki was talking about - she was talking about a simple shift from meat to veg.

Your comment led me to check on how cattle are raised. In the US, they are raised in fields from birth to 7-9 months, then sent to feedlots for a short period before slaughter. In the feedlots they are fed some hay but also grain, soy, and other supplements to fatten them faster.

In the US at least, cattle are not raised on grain but grass, so the total weight of the beef cannot be attributed to using grain. Also, Nebraska friends of mine who are in corn, soy, and wheat farming on their property raise these for any commercial use except human feed or cattle feed. Only a few acres are planted each year in "sweet" corn for direct human consumtion and sold fresh picked for only a few weeks. A byproduct of ethanol production, dried distiller's grain, is one of the new supplements mixed into feedlot feed and may contribute to O157 in cattle on feedlots.

In my local valley are tens of thousands of acres of good growing land (available water) which are used to raise cattle, with smaller amounts of acreage planted with alfalfa and other feeds and garlic. If there's anything that leads me, a non-farmer, to cut back on eating beef, it's the sight of all the new baby calves in the pastures right now.

I found this info from wikipedia-"environmental vegetarianism".
According to a 2006 United Nations initiative, the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation worldwide, and modern practices of raising animals for food contributes on a "massive scale" to air and water pollution, land degradation, climate change, and loss of biodiversity.
Also, according to the USDA, growing crops for farm animals requires nearly half of the U.S. water supply and 80% of its agricultural land.
We all need to come to terms and realize that as individuals, our daily actions have a great impact (good or bad) on everyone else on this planet.

Sorry -- I find those statistics about the amount of water and land used to grow feed for animals in the US absurd. We'd all be starving to death here rather than able to feed ourselves, make use of grains in commerce and industry, export grains, rice, beef, etc. There are not enough livestock in the country to use all that. For instance, beef prices rise and fall in about a 10-year cycle as herds enlarge, the market is glutted, prices fall, the herds are reduced. Something is also wrong when you don't consider that corn used for ethanol production is skewing the price of corn, raising the price of food, etc. The cattle are not eating it on feedlots because it has become too expensive. For grass-fed cattle (predominant here), the water for the grass is from rainfall, not rivers or aquifers.

I would suggest you make s subscription to a magazin for farmers...we in germany have the weekly farmers magazine with lots of information about prices for grains, for much crop is needed to raise an much crop is on th world market and how it influences the prices and which country buys and sells most to the world market and which much crop is feed to animals...

These facts do not lie..these statistics are made for farmers and the industry which sells stuff to farms(herbizide, seeds, machines) and buys stuff from farms(animals,crop)

Also i have to burst your little bubble of imagination.

Not even 1% of the meat on the american market is from pasture feed would be too expensive to do that because the animals would need too much time to grow and fatten up and the farmer would not earn enough.

The market also demands different meat than pasture feed cows have...the animals in the feed lots have diferent flesh than the slow grown, grass feed animals.

Every farmer or cook can tell you that.

In the times where cattles roamed free a cow would live for nearly two years before with all the grain it is feed you slaughter the animals often with 9 to 12 months because then the meat is best.

Pasture feed cows would need to much space to keep the pasture fertile and not trample it and graze it down beyond repair.

Another issue is the water....the pasture is watered....yes..not by rain only.

To get enough lush grass and hay the farmers use fertilisier and pump water from the river or the underground on the fields.

Even here in germany where we have really good conditions, in areas with much water and rain the fields where grass for the cows grows is watered during summer.

Real pasture feed cattles are expensive..and the market for such meat is small...

Sorry, but you really should spend some time on a real farm and not on your fairy tale sort of farm.

We have some organic cattle farmers here in my area...but they slaughter the animals mainly themselves and sell the meat in their own store because the companies only pay dumping prices and only buy big ammounts of meat...not the 20 or 30 cows such a farmer produces in a year.

If the ammount of cattle is not big enough the companies which slaughter the animals and turn them into food, will not make the effort to buy from the small farmer because it would not be profitable enough for them.

They make more money when they can buy 100 cattle and slaughter them at one time and turn them into steak and burgers than to buy only 5 or 10 cows at a time.

It is all a bit more complicated than you make it look.

A farm like you say...which does not water the fields and keeps the cows pasture is rare, very rare.

The meat is expensive and you can not produce as much and as fast as with grain(soy) feed animals.

Live for some time on such a farm, then you will have a better picture.

If these small farms do not slaughter the animals themselves and sell the products to the costumers instead to a company, they will not make enough money for a living.

The market wants a specific kind of meat..the soft, paler meat with less fat than pasture feed cows do have it..meat from very young animals..but with pasture feed you can not fatten them up fast enough

Another point...ethanol as an other source of fuel only takes 3 to 5 % from the grains from the market.

But worldwide more than 50% of the produced grains/soy is feed to farm animals...and people eat every year more and more meat...

And the market for meat can only be satisfied if meat is produced fast as long as people want so much and so cheap.

You can reread the information in any farming magazine with includes market information. Farmers and the companies want to know how the market is, how the prices are, how much is on the can find it all there.

I could scan the pages from my german farming magazine but i doubt you could read it

I agree with the whole thing of enjoying meat less now that I don't eat as much of it. I'm buying meat less often and I'm finding myself experimenting with tofu more... I think now I know how to do more with tofu than I do with chicken!

Since not that much fish is farmed as of yet, and the things they eat are not really part of the general food chain (crill or plankton etc) it's hard to see how much of a carbon footprint fish as of itself has. Fishing practices certainly can be very destructive, as has been demonstrated all over the world. But eating a bit less fish, especially the kind that are being overfished such as cod or bluefin tuna, is probably not a bad idea either. (I don't eat as much fish as I used to when I lived in Japan, or even the US, simply because it's so much more expensive in a landlocked land!)

In any case, I'm not talking about going to extremes, but making a change with one or two more meals a week. Besides, it's healthier and quite interesting to explore new food options.

Yes I agree with the points you are making about fishing techniques.It is not right and yes it needs to change. However that does not make meat consumption right.
It takes almost 5 lbs of grain to feed cattle to produce 1 lb of meat. Cattle farms erode our top soil and produce mass amounts of waste. Meat used to be a luxury food yet nowadays people especially in the western hemisphere consume meat on a daily basis. We are getting fatter and sicker by the minute because of our poor food choices and our planet is suffering right with us. I am not saying everyone has to be a vegetarian, but reducing your meat consumption would be beneficial to your health, your environment and your pocket book

I missed the show, but my friend saw it the other day and told me about it.
I didn't know that corn-fed cows can't live beyond 120 days, because they develop all sorts of abnormalities-ulcers and such. They get drugs to keep the diseases under control.
And as a microbiologist, I know that grass-fed cows don't have O-157. Of course, when you are forcing grass-feeders to eat grains, unnatural things happen (mad-cow disease is a good example).

I'm becoming more and more discouraged to eat meat, even though I like a small amount of meat in my diet. I noticed I'm switching more to vegetables when I can get farm-fresh vegetables, as they are satisfying.