One of the most important efforts we can take to protect our environment is one that is relatively unheard of: a shift in the collective diet of Americans. A plethora of studies have shown that livestock production negatively impacts the environment, but a new study shows that beef in particular may be doing the most damage. When compared to pork, poultry, dairy, and eggs it was found that beef production requires 28 times more land, 11 times more water, and produced 5 times more emissions. Eliminating or reducing our intake of red meat would be healthier for the planet and our bodies and it’s up to the consumer to make that choice.
1) Climate change
Factory farming is one of the most under exposed and overlooked causes of climate change. While we are all working avidly to lower our carbon foot print via biking more and driving less, switching to wind and solar, and being overall conscientious humans, we seldom think about how our meat consumption might be polluting our planet. The reality is that factory farmed cattle not only take up a huge amount of land and energy on their own, they also take up a huge amount of land indirectly through crops of mainly genetically modified soy and corn grown for their consumption. Over two-thirds of the total land on our planet is being used for livestock grazing and feed production, affecting the health of our air, water, and biodiversity.
The demand for meat continues to grow in conjunction with a growing middle class worldwide. In order to keep up with demand for meat, places like the Amazon Rainforest are being razed in order to plant more crops for livestock feed. Deforestation not only contributes to carbon emissions but also creates habitat loss, which threatens wildlife.
Although the numbers can vary from study to study, it is generally agreed that it takes somewhere in the ball park of 1600 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef compared to about 100 gallons to produce one pound of wheat. There is also the hidden water used to irrigate the crops for livestock feed, the water needed to wash away excrement, and the water used during the butchering process to clean the slaughterhouses.
So, while we are all focused on cutting down our shower time and turning off the faucet while we brush, we could save nearly 1600 gallons of water by replacing just one pound of beef with plant food. That’s equivalent to giving up about 55 full loads of laundry in a moderately efficient washing machine!
4) Your own health
What’s healthy for you tends to be what’s healthy for the planet. Excess consumption of animal protein has been linked with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a shorter life span. What is even more troubling than the amount of illness related to red and processed meat is the fact that these findings aren’t new. A study from 2012 found that participants that ate the most red meat tended to die younger and more often from cancer and cardiovascular disease. Heart disease, though largely preventable, remains the number one killer in the United States.
Giving up red meat does not mean you will be lacking in protein or other vital nutrients. Heart healthy sources of protein include legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, and a wide variety of vegetables. In fact many plant foods such as spinach, broccoli, and almonds (just to name a few) have more protein per ounce than beef, are full of vitamins and minerals, and won’t make you die faster.
5) Antibiotics and animal cruelty
Not only are factory farmed animals given antibiotics to keep from getting sick from their cramped and unhealthy living conditions, they are also given regular doses of sub-therapeutic amounts of antibiotics to increase weight gain. Regularly consuming antibiotics in meat (and dairy) poses a risk to humans because of the growing number of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. This means that when you need antibiotics to fight an infection, it’s possible the bacteria will have grown immune to the antibiotic.
6) Operation Weak Flesh
The bottom line is, don’t eat meat (and dairy) if you don’t know where it came from. In March, possibly the largest scandal in meat industry history occurred in Brazil. Aptly named Operation Weak Flesh was a two year long investigation into the meat packaging industry in Brazil. A biblical reference to those health inspectors who were too weak to resist temptation and took bribes in exchange for fake health certificates signing off on meat that was spoiled, rancid, and treated with carcinogenic chemicals to disguise the meat’s foul odor and appearance. Meat that was contaminated with salmonella, sausages made with marrow, bone, and other illegal slaughterhouse by-products, sometimes even cardboard in order to stretch profits, were sold under the watchful eye of corrupt health inspectors. The EU, China, Chile, South Korea and many others reacted quickly with an import ban from meat from Brazil, however most bans ended just as quickly after realizing that Brazil is the main exporter of meat world wide.
The hazards of the meat industry have taken the stage worldwide as seen by China’s announcement of plans to cut the country’s meat consumption in half due to health and environmental impacts. While we can’t rely on our administration in the US to instate the proper policies to combat climate change, we the consumers, can make a difference everyday with the food that we buy and the lifestyle we choose. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is not only bad for our health, but also for our planet. Boycotts are a tried and true method of creating social change. If you want to go the extra mile and boycott all factory raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy then more power to you. If you can’t envision a life without red meat, then try just cutting back or choosing one or two days a week to go without.
Boycotts send a powerful message about what we value as a society. So whether you are taking to the streets for the People’s Climate March, writing letters, signing petitions, and/or calling representatives, remember to exercise your consumer power as well!