ECOfreak: Changing the Meat Habit

December 29th, 2009 by Kim Lenz

I don’t eat red meat. It wasn’t an environmental decision when it happened – my husband’s reserve unit was activated for a year, and I just didn’t bother eating red meat during that time because I was too lazy to cook for myself, and after that long my body had no idea what to do with a hamburger any longer.

Over the holidays, as I was preparing ham and pot roast for Christmas dinner, it struck me that I haven’t been very eco-conscious when it comes to buying meat.

I buy organic chicken, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I will never be a vegetarian, nor am I ready to spend tons of money at the grocery store, but I was willing to do a little research into what kinds of meat are the most environmentally friendly.

What I read has made me much more willing to alter my grocery-shopping habits.

Here’s one thing I already knew about beef: for every pound you eat, 2,500 to 5,000 gallons of water are lost. It takes a lot of water to keep cows alive until they’re old enough to butcher (my uncle has a cattle farm, so I call that almost-first-hand experience talking). Cattle states like Texas are having trouble running their aquifers dry to water their herds, which is going to be a serious problem soon.

They also eat tons of food, literally. A cow eats about 25 pounds of corn a day. Multiply that by the millions of cows in our country, and you’ve got lots of food that could be eaten by hungry people going into a cow’s belly and, uh, into the field.

And then there’s that problem, too – fields of waste. Cow manure makes pretty good compost, but there’s no way to use the thousands of tons of manure in eco-friendly ways. The bacteria (often antibiotic resistant) are washed into streams, rivers and the water supply. There’s so much waste, there’s nothing to do with it but store it in big ponds or piles.

And it doesn’t end there – there are the millions of acres of land used to graze herds, much of which is razed forestland. Also, the methane from cow farts is contributing to global warming. (I’m sure there’s a great joke somewhere in there).

Here’s a great New York Times article about this from 2008, which has some interesting facts about the impact of industrial farming practices. About 30 percent of the world’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production (says the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Association), and livestock generates about a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases.

My favorite quote from the story is this one: “To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius.” Read the rest when you have time.

Holy cow.

So, how can I adapt this to my life without breaking the bank or, more importantly, making my family rise up in mutiny?

Well, we already don’t buy too much red meat (since I don’t eat it, I only make them a red-meat meal once a week), but switching to organic, free-range beef looks like the way to go. Smaller, organic farms don’t use chemicals or antibiotics, and they reuse manure. Animals’ diets are more eco-friendly and animals aren’t fed their dead counterparts. They’re raised more humanely which, though I have to admit I don’t lose sleep over whether cows are unhappy, does keep help away disease.

Pork – now there’s the trick in my house. We love pork. I’ve found that Trader Joe’s, now that they’re finally here in the Triangle, is a great source for more environmentally sound meat – and other foods, too. I see more TJ pork products in our future. Same with chicken.

Here’s one of many good Web sites to help you choose the best eco-safe fish, though there are hosts more. I’ve printed out the list of good and better choices so I can have it handy when I shop and go out to eat.

I know there are great meatless recipes out there that don’t mean I have to buy a cabinetful of expensive, exotic spices – I’m going to find some. If you have any, please share them below. Also, I’m joining the Meatless Monday club (read more below).

I’ll let you know if I’m forced to sleep out in the yard after the mutiny. I think my arguments will go a long way to getting the whole family on board with the plan, though.

Web site for the week
Here’s the Meatless Monday site, a non-profit group associated with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. Their goal is to reduce meat consumption 15 percent to help the planet and reduce our ever-expanding waistlines. Not only will you help the planet, you can reduce your risk of heart disease, maintain a healthy weight, and improve the quality of your diet. Hurray!

Tip for the week
Do I even have to say it? Try to be more eco-sensitive when choosing your meals! I’m not one to preach total tree-huggerness, but cutting down your meat intake isn’t that hard. Even if it’s just reducing your portion size, it’s a start. This week, pay attention to how much meat is in your diet and where it comes from (cows, pigs, etc.) You might be surprised at how many of your calories are from animal products.

6 Responses to ECOfreak: Changing the Meat Habit

  1. Anonymous

    December 29, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    The most eco-friendly meat is the meat you take yourself, from the wild! That is, if you are bringing home a species like deer that is over-populated, or croaker that still exists in large schools in nature.

    My buddy is a hunter and only eats meat he kills himself. Sure, it’s yucky, but it is as eco-friendly as you can get. Raised sustainably, processed in his back yard.

  2. Anonymous

    December 29, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Great article Desiree-Keep up the great work.

  3. Anonymous

    December 29, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    we don’t eat too much red meat, or meat at all for that matter, but what we do eat these days, I am buying via the Polyface Farms buying club. Once every 6 weeks, from Mar – Nov, they deliver to Williamsburg. To add to the comment above, my brother has not bought meat from a store for 2 years – his red meat is venison he kills and his chickens he buys from a friend who raises them organically himself.

  4. Anonymous

    December 29, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    The problem with all meat production these days is corporate run feed lots for beef,pork, and poultry. These “big lots” are absolutely disgusting and equally unsustainable. The most eco-friendly solution is buying as local as possible from small family farm operations. When I was a kid my grandparents farmed row crops as well as about 50 head of cattle, 90 hogs, and a gross of chickens annually. They were all raised in conventional farming methods now called “free range” It should be called natural. We never bought meat at the store. The livestock were all rotated on about 100 acres of pasture and the chickens ran around the yard. We rarely used hay and the 3 ponds were fed by a creek that ran thru the farm. That is sustainable and it’s the type of farming that we need to get back to. Desiree I would love to hear more about this topic, and your husband’s military service. 🙂

  5. Anonymous

    December 29, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    Great article. I went meatless about a year ago.

  6. Anonymous

    June 3, 2010 at 3:08 am

    Polyface is a good choice for biodynamical farming practices, but very over priced and over branded. Trader Joe’s is questionable, as our family inquired of the origin of their grass fed meats & eggs, and only received the doe in head light look…found out from the mgt staff some meats from Mexico, Milk is from Canada and Eggs may be from Georgia….they think. This led us to trying meats and eggs from Off The Vine Market/local food coop and we have been a huge fan since, as their meats are from Virginia farms and they tell you which ones upfront.

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