Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How meat lovers can reduce their food footprint

by Laetitia Mailhes

To eat meat or not to eat meat, that is the question. I find there are many layers to deciding whether to eat meat, what meat to eat and how often. Health, environmental, and social justice considerations all come to mind. They leave a lot of us confused. In some cases, we collapse them into a dogmatic approach that keeps us separate from what actually works best for us.

Here is the map of the land as I’ve drawn it while searching for my own path:

HEALTH

    * pros

Meat is the most naturally occurring, well balanced and easily obtained package of proteins, essential acids and source of iron and Vitamin B12 that you can find.

    * cons

Many scientific studies have demonstrated that meat is linked to the main health issues that plague our Western society (cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, strokes, etc.). Not only is it acid forming in the body, but it taxes the digestive system. The latter is poorly designed to eliminate meat in a timely fashion. Putrefaction in the colon, especially, has been shown to be linked to severe illnesses.

Finally, let’s not forget the impact on our health of the various antibiotics, hormones and other suspicious substances that the meat industry routinely injects in the animals we end up eating—whether we enjoy them as steaks, bacon or processed food. And that’s not even taking into account the various health-frights due to meat packers negligence that regularly pop up in the news.

ENVIRONMENT

“The livestock sector is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” United Nations report, 2006

    * resource consumption

Meat production is the least efficient way to provide food. It requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than plants per calorie output, according to a landmark Cornell’s ecologist’s analysis. It  also consumes up to 100 times (or more, depending on the studies) more water than plants per pound produced.

    * pollution

The meat industry is responsible for 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Worldwatch Institute. The main culprits are manure, the fossil-fuel energy intensive crops used for animal feed and deforestation.

The phosphates and nitrates contained in manure are also a major cause of water pollution. Hauled to sea by streams and rivers, manure is linked to the spread of dead zones in coastal waters around the world.

    * demographics

The consumption of meat has doubled in the past 30 years. The emergence and growth of a middle-class in China and India, especially, is linked directly to the steady increase in meat consumption. Simultaneously, the demand for cheap meat is on the rise, pushing the industry to expand “low-[financial]cost” (i.e. high-[environmental]cost) operations globally. In other words, air and water pollution as described above will keep worsening. Unless we keep meat consumption in check and change meat production practices.

LABOR ISSUES

Once a rival to the auto industry in terms of working conditions and benefits, the highly consolidated American meat packing industry has destroyed its unions in the name of lowering labor costs. Working conditions have been steadily deteriorating for the past 30 years, resulting in levels of injuries not seen since the early 1900s and leading to a high employee turnover. Undeterred by their critics, including Human Rights Watch, American meat packers recruit their cheap labor from more and more distant lands and don’t shy away from smuggling illegal immigrants from Mexico. The movie “Food, Inc.” has some rather revealing scenes on the subject—well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

There you have it in a nutshell. Feel free to pick and toss all these ingredients as you wish and to create the recipe that works for you.

As for me, I believe I may have finally found a line of action actually anchored in time immemorial: MEAT IS A SPECIAL TREAT TO BE ENJOYED WITH RESPECT.

1/ keeping meat consumption to a minimum. My body benefits while the small amount keeps any potential health-related concern at bay.

2/ choosing only meat from an antibiotic-, hormone-free animal that was raised on a real farm (not CAFO) and that ate solely what it was designed to feed on—like grass.

Tip: “pasture-raised” in the keyword (“natural” means nothing and “free-range” hardly more).

Also, I want to support the small farmer rather than the big conglomerates, so I make sure that the meat was produced locally. It’s actually as simple as ASKING the butcher or the waiter at the restaurant (if you feel self-conscious about that, bear in mind that consumer demand is a direct factor of sustainable meat availability).

Tip: you can go the extra mile if you eat meat often and join a meat CSA or share a farm-raised animal with other families.

3/ when challenged by the price premium of sustainable meat, being present to the high “external costs” (environmental, social and health-related) associated with cheap meat.

These are among hundreds of “green actions” you can take to reduce your carbon footprint, and contribute to a healthier planet. Take your free assessment on GoingGreenToday and receive your customized plan of action tailored to your household, with tips, links and easy access to a wealth of resources.

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