As omnivores, we can pick and choose what we eat and still remain adequately nourished. Diets across the world are as divergent as they can be and still, humans thrive in every environment all around the planet. Removing one or even several individual items from your diet might not cause you any particular trouble. However, your ability to successfully adapt to a specific way of eating will be determined by a variety of circumstances: your current health status, your location, your genetic predisposition and your level of exertion, just to name a few. Avoiding meat altogether without making some other parallel alterations to your diet could become problematic in the long run. Learning to eat for optimal health is not just about restrictions (voluntary or imposed), but about learning to use food in a way that provides you with all the nutrients your body craves.
Having said this, I realize that many people choose to avoid meat and other animal products based on their beliefs or a combination of health, environmental and religious reasons. I am also quite aware that food choices can have an important impact on the environment at large. I care deeply both about the planet and about the quality of the food that we produce. Both are intrinsically important to human health, and we are largely failing at keeping ourselves and the planet in good shape.
In 2006 the UN Food and Agriculture department reported that upwards of 18% of man made emissions were coming from livestock alone. Shockingly, that was more than all emissions from transportation at the time. Immediately, it was assumed that reducing the amount of livestock was the best answer to saving the ozone and diminishing greenhouse gases. To that end the European Parliament soon held hearings in which the focal point was “less meat=less heat”. Cows were labeled as the main culprit because they required energy intensive feed that in turn created more methane gas. The estimated rate of emissions was somewhere between 13 to 30 lbs of carbon dioxide per every 1 lb of meat produced.
This account has remained an accepted truth until very recently, when some sustainable cattle farmers decide to look at the issue in a new way. It turns out that what makes livestock detrimental for the planet is the method by which it is raised. To date, 99% of cows are still being crammed in feedlots where they are confined and fed corn and soybeans. Only 14 months of continuous gorging span between the birth of that animal and the time it hits the market. As a result, grasslands and even forests around the world are being destroyed to grow more corn and more soybeans to supply these feedlots. Cows suffer from acidosis from the over consumption of grain (otherwise not prominently featured in the traditional diet of pastured cows) and antibiotics are abused creating the dangerous problem of resistant bacteria. The fact that the public is supplied with cheap, abundant, low quality meat is no real achievement, since along with it come the destruction of the environment and the rise of disease in both animals and humans.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a few planet conscious growers are trying a new method of production. Rotating cows over areas of grass is a simple method that does not require the use of pesticides or fertilizers. It also does not call for injecting the animals with antibiotics or growth hormones to curb disease, while it increases the average lifespan of the animal for up to three years. The result is a healthy specimen and its meat is lower in saturated fat and higher in beneficial Omega 3s. As a bonus, the rotation of cattle ensures that carbon dioxide is sequestered underground through a process of continuous enrichment of the land by the cows themselves.
As Eliot Coleman, one of the new batch of breeders, put it “a vegetarian eating tofu made in a factory from soybeans grown in Brazil, is responsible for a lot more CO2 than I am”. This could be a turning point for how we view the consumption, quality and production of meat. Convenience, speed and a low price point can no longer hide the terrible damage that is being inflicted on the planet. If you are a meat eater, it is your responsibility to source that meat from reliable and environmentally friendly sources. Consume it in moderation and support those farmers who are trying to do the right thing. Both the planet and your health will thank you.