Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Environmental Impact of Meat

The New York Times on Sunday ran an analysis of how our food economy may have to change in response to environmental and energy pressures:
A sea change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store — something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn’t oil.
It’s meat.
No this isn't another number crunching analysis of the food chain from Michael Pollan. It's by food writer Mark Bittman, who writes the popular "Minimalist" column in the Times. His piece, called "Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler," compares eating beef to driving an inefficient car:
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. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days. Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.
This graphic describes some of the environmental impact of livestock:
We may be used to such analysis from earnest policy wonks, but reading it from a popular food writer is another matter. These guys are supposed to make food fun, not spoil our appetite:
Because the stomachs of cattle are meant to digest grass, not grain, cattle raised industrially thrive only in the sense that they gain weight quickly. This diet made it possible to remove cattle from their natural environment and encourage the efficiency of mass confinement and slaughter. But it causes enough health problems that administration of antibiotics is routine, so much so that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten the usefulness of medicines that treat people.
Those grain-fed animals, in turn, are contributing to health problems among the world’s wealthier citizens — heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes. The argument that meat provides useful protein makes sense, if the quantities are small. But the “you gotta eat meat” claim collapses at American levels. Even if the amount of meat we eat weren’t harmful, it’s way more than enough.
So the way we raise livestock is wasteful, harmful to the environment and makes us sick. Now what?
What can be done? There’s no simple answer. Better waste management, for one. Eliminating subsidies would also help; the United Nations estimates that they account for 31 percent of global farm income. Improved farming practices would help, too. Mark W. Rosegrant, director of environment and production technology at the nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute, says, “There should be investment in livestock breeding and management, to reduce the footprint needed to produce any given level of meat.”
The good news is that we can reduce the environmental impact of our food without resorting to a diet of alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast. If you're hungry, and want to cook some good meals that don't require an intimidating list of ingredients and melting what's left of the polar icecaps, Bittman has a website, which features his books, including the best seller How to Cook Everything.


Blogger Brian Shields said...

I highly recommend the movie Fast Food Nation. It gives insight to the meat packing industry, the fast food industry, and illegal immigration, tying them all together.

I watched it 4 days ago and haven't been able to eat meat since. (Available right now on demand if you have Comcast, btw.)

8:25 AM, February 03, 2008  

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