October 2009: Red Meat and the Environment

For years I have wheeled my shopping cart along the meat counter and felt good about selecting grass-fed beef and bison for its lower fat content, its rich supply of beta-carotene and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), its vitamin E and A, and its ideal one-to-one ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 essential fatty acids.link. In September, we looked at the two separate issues covered by the labels of animal productshow humane was the treatment of the animal and how healthy is the product for us to eat. But todays labeling practices do not talk about sustainability or bring energy and environmental considerations into our focus. While animal products may vary in how they affect our health, even the very best of them such as 100% grass-fed beef, affects the health of our planet in a negative way simply because of the sheer volume that we raise.

Research points to two simple truths:
No matter how hard we might try to buy our food locally, these efforts can never make up for the spectacular energy and environmental savings to be achieved by curtailing our consumption of red meat.
No matter how sustainable an animal is raised, our current rate of red meat consumption is not sustainable.

Do Organic and Grass-fed Reach Far Enough?
Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination.Alan Watts

We have become schooled to search for the organic label, and this is certainly wise when it comes to buying plant-based foods, since organically-raised plants can be healthier both for ourselves and for the environment. But the picture is mixed for animal products. Yes, when we buy organic animal products, we avoid steroid hormones which are often given to cattle, as well as antibiotics (in meat and dairy) that can weaken the immune system and lead to antibiotic resistance, two conditions that can make us more vulnerable to disease. But organic and grass-fed labels for red meat and dairy give less comfort when it comes to protecting the health of our planet.

Organic can be deceiving. Cattle may be hormone- and antibiotic-free but raised in crowded feedlots under conditions that harm the environment through greenhouse gas effects and wastes that pollute rivers and streams. Compared to feedlot cattle, it is true that grass-fed range animals do, on balance come with a variety of energy and environmental positivesthey require less petroleum inputs than feedlot cattle and their wastes recycle into the soil. Sadly and surprisingly, though, a grass-fed range cow actually produces more methane to harm the atmosphere than one that is grain-fed. Methane is 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; and, its concentration in the atmosphere has tripled since 1950, a fact largely explained by the global expansion of cattle herbs.link

In addition, while foraging and trampling vegetation through range-grazing, free-range cattle render cow burnt vast territories in our Western frontier. (More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland.) Cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.link

Despite these reservation, when comparing grass-fed to feedlot beef, it is true, in the words of John Robbins, that grass-fed animals are far healthier, more humane, and more environmentally sustainable. Nevertheless, people in the developed world will be supportive to cut back on the consumption of red meat.

This fact is brought home by calculations of David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who focuses on energy and agriculture:
Animal protein production requires more than 8 times as much fossil-fuel energy as does the production of plant protein [yet] animal protein is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein.

Beef cattle require an energy-input-to-protein-output ratio of 54:1, while the same ratio for broiler hens is just 4:1. In addition, feedlot beef requires 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of meat, in contrast to just 3,500 liters per kilogram for broiler chickens.

The seven billion livestock animals in the United States today eat five times the amount of grain as is consumed by people. If this grain were all exported [a $80 billion boost to our balance of trade] and all livestock were then grazed on grasslands, less beef would be available and the animal protein in the average American diet would drop to around 30 grams per day from the current level of about 80 grams. Moving to a mixed diet of both plant and animal protein would still meet the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 56 grams of protein.link)

Quick Roads to Environmental SavingsMeat and Dairy Eclipse Buy Local Efforts
Although red meat consumption has dropped from its high in the 1970s, the United States leads all nations as the worlds greatest per capita consumer of meat and dairy. We eat meat at more than three times the global average yet are 17th in the world in terms of life-expectancy. (Japan ranks number one in life-expectancy and 33rd in global beef consumption.) There is, of course, a silver lining to our high meat consumption. As a nation, our rich, high-protein diet gives us great wiggle room for relatively effortless savings in the future.

Recall David Pimentels statistics of the enormous energy and water requirements to raise beef compared to broiler chickens (p. 3). Fortunately, as a nation, while not curtailing our consumption of animal foods, we have at least started to shift preferences in the right direction: At 66 pounds annually per capita, we consume one-quarter less beef than we did at 1975 peak levels, while over the same period we doubled our intake of both chicken and turkey (chart, p. 3). Still, the average American eats 60% more meat today than in 1950 50% more beef and more than four times the chicken and turkey.

What about buying local? Buying local brings with it many positives. Beyond the energy saving question, it serves to enrich the fabric of life in local economies and communities. But on the simple question of energy saving, what one chooses to eat is far more important than where a food is grown and how far it is transported. Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon calculate that when considering greenhouse gas (GHG) effects, buying local pales compared to the massive environmental saving available through cutting back on meat consumption:

We find that although food is transported long distances in general, the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase (83%), while transportation represents only 11% of the life-cycle emissions, with the 4% balance consumed at the retail end.Shifting less than one day per weeks worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.link

In simple wordswhat we eat can be 8 times as important as where our food is grown.

Systems Theory and Environmental Solutions: Plants, PeoplePossibility and Policy
Travelers, there is no path, paths are made by walking.Antonio Achado

Plants, the ultimate complex adaptive systems, offer to us so much possibility. Even with the best microscope, it is unlikely we will fully unravel and comprehend the inner workings of a carrot, a head of broccoli, or a fractal fern, but what we do know is that plants, as complex systems, are innovators and the protectors of life. Plants are at the forefront and the first to adjust to shifts in environmental conditions. When we eat plants, they surrender to us their adaptive powers, delivered by way of their antioxidants and assorted array of other phytonutrients.link to encourage a shift in our national preference from red meat and animal proteins to a diet that is more energy-sparing and plant-based in nature. If we can shift from SUVs to smaller cars, we certainly can begin to shift our diet from one of burgers to one that is more welcoming to beans, legumes, and grainsparticularly since burgers contribute more to global warming than SUVs.link

Making meaningful strides when it comes to beef, dairy, and animal proteins will not be easy. Like Detroit, the sticky side of the supply/demand food equation will most likely lie at the production end. With good information, consumers may be able to adjust rather quickly. We have seen this in the way people have curtailed their beef consumption in the last 30 years, switching to poultry as more of a mainstay, as well as in the way households are downsizing to smaller cars.

But, if consumers do shift away from beef and dairy, this is bound to create dislocations for the farming sector and rural America. To ease this adjustment may require some of our best minds and our best thinking. To appreciate the complexity of the issue, we can skim farming sector data published by United States Department of Agriculture.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows that beef and dairy, the two key contributors to our food-related environmental and energy problems, just happen to also be the two key mainstays of farm income. Cattle, the biggest cash crop, accounts for 18 percent of total farm income, with dairy at 12+ percent holding second position (just ahead of corn, at 12 percent, ranking third). Combined, meat and dairy explain 30 percent of total farm income. Together they generate four times the income that poultry offers to the farming sector as a source of income broilers, the fourth largest cash crop behind beef, dairy, and corn, accounts for just 7.5 percent of total farm receipts.

These statistics suggest that shifts in consumer preferences in the area of food, similar to evolving consumer tastes for smaller cars, would create near-term disruptions for our nations farmers. The 2007 Census of Agriculture reveals that many farmers operate at marginal levels, with annual farm receipts for the majority of farms totaling less than $10,000 a year.link But, on the brighter side, the Census of Agriculture also shows that 90 percent of all farms in this country are still owned by individual farmerscommercial farms may explain a huge amount of acreage, but there is still a broad network of small, individual farmers who may be able to adjust rather well and rather quickly to shifts in consumer preferences for organic products and locally-grown foods.

Environmental studies point to one simple factno matter how sustainably raised, our current level of meat consumption is not sustainable. To begin to address this, American consumers might consider spending more time in the kitchen, which is our best way to know where our food comes from. We may also want to acquire some new cooking skills and learn to prepare meals that use animal protein as a side dish rather the center attraction. To facilitate this shift, the internet can be a wonderful resource, as a variety of contributors in this field provide cooking techniques and innovative recipes that emphasize quick and easy meals based on plant-based proteins such as beans, grains, and legumes, nuts, and seeds,link as well as dishes that use meat more as a secondary component rather than the primary attraction.

At the same time, innovative computer minds schooled in science of algorithms might design user-friendly programs to help us make better choices in order to minimize our carbon/methane footprint. We could use the internet to assess our current habits and make adjustments. Just imagine how behaviors might change for the better if we could all log on and frequent a website to check and evaluate the environmental implications of our food habits and lifestyle choices.

Another possibility might be expanding barcodes to provide environmental impact information. Perhaps barcode labels, whose initial digits already code the country of origin, could also code the environmental footprint of a product. Shoppers could scan this information, which would rank an items environmental cost, at stations within a store prior to checkout. In addition, if Washington levied graduated taxes on items with deep environmental footprints these tax receipts could act both as deterrents to consumers (similar to taxes on tobacco, alcohol, and gasoline), while the funds could be plowed back to environmental causes. [I invite you to think of even better strategies.]

As a nation and as citizens of the world, we face a host of challenges posed both by economics and the environment. If we look at the major scope of the issues we face, it might be easy to conclude that we as individuals can do little to bring change. Yet, systems theory would teach us otherwise. Margaret Wheatley likes to point to the fall of the Berlin wall, when individual actions at the local level brought about change to a huge and entrenched system that had previously refused all major political efforts for change. Margaret Wheatley is an inspiring voice for the power of the individual to affect change within a system. These are just a few thoughts from her book, Leadership and the New Science:

When we choose to act locally, we may want to influence the entire system. But we work where we are, with the system that we know, the one we can get our arms around.

Order is never imposed from the top down or from the outside in. Order emerges as elements of the system work together, discovering each other and together inventing new capacities.

An individual without information cannot take responsibility, but an individual who is given information cannot help but take responsibility. Information provides true nourishment; it enables people to do their jobs responsibly and well.

Equilibrium is neither the goal nor the fate of living systemsto stay viable, open systems maintain a state of non-equilibrium, keeping them off balance so that the system can change and grow. The processes of change and growth keep a system viable over time.

As individuals, we can do our part by learning to stretch protein sources through innovative cooking and by supporting local organic farmers with our dollars. When we do this, we honor the expense, time and effort these individuals take to restore the soil, provide compassionate conditions for animals, and provide us with nutritious food. And in so doing, we take important steps to provide a healthy future both for ourselves, our children, and for our world.

Recipe: A Simple, Economical, Nutrition-Packed Substitute for Red Meat

Sauteed Chicken Liversnothing could be easier!link
1 pound organic chicken livers
Butter, ghee or unrefined coconut oil

In a large skillet, saut chicken livers until cooked through, but still tender. Serve over toast with panjuices.Or, to eat later as a snack or appetizer, allow to cool and refrigerate. When chilled, slice livers diagonally and serve on sourdough rye crackers or toasted bread. With fresh organic chicken livers,the sensation is similar to the buttery-smooth sensation of French fois gras.

Chicken livers are a wonderful substitute for red meat and honor the concept of using all edible parts of an animal. Organ meats supply many vitamins and minerals not available in muscle meat. In fact, traditional cultures, understanding the rich health benefits of organ meats, prized these animal parts over steak, which they viewed as inferior and less sustaining.

Chicken livers provide a real boost when you feel a little rundown. They have 6 times the iron and 8 times the vitamin B12 as an equivalent serving of steak. Just one ounce of chicken livers provides 75 percent of the recommended daily requirement (RDA) of vitamin A and 40% of the folate, while a steak provides no meaningful amounts of either of these two nutrients. And, ounce-for-ounce, a steak can cost between three and six times as much.

In summary, comparing each by similar weight units, chicken livers contribute as much protein but with fewer calories and total fat than a steak. At the same time they are a rich source of vitamin A and C, riboflavin, folate, vitamin B12, iron, phosphorus, and selenium. A steak has no vitamin A or C, no meaningful riboflavin, folate, and far less iron (one ounce of chicken liver has 18% of the daily requirement of iron, compared to just 3% for an ounce of red meat). True, that chicken livers are high in cholesterol, but cholesterol is needed for the brain and nervous system, for the creation of sex and adrenal hormones, digestion (bile), and the formation of vitamin D. Your body makes cholesterol. You cannot eat enough to supply your bodys needs.link

Vegetarian Substitutes for Red Meat
If you are worried about cholesterol, there is of course the cholesterol-free vegetarianlink option. Because beans supply a different set of amino acids than grains, you can create complete proteins by mixing combinations of beans and grains, as well as legumes, nuts, and seeds. Vegetarian meals are economical and often involve no waste except perhaps a simple throw-away plastic bag. Beans and grains can last for days in the refrigerator, so you can cook simple ingredients in advance, and then create endless combinations with fresh or cooked vegetables or fruits, nuts, seeds, seaweeds, and/or herbs throughout the week. This kind of cooking invites personal creativity.

I am not a vegetarian, but I do rely on vegetarian dishes to complement the animal proteins that we do eat. With a big stock pot, a rice cooker (for everything from porridge to all types of grains), and some pre-planning and presoaking to eliminate phytic acid,link you can prepare many basic foods in little time. I like to soak beans and grains overnight and cook them first thing in the morning when I am having breakfast. They are ready in no time. This works better for me than trying to cook at night when I am famished. Having to wait an hour for a pot of beans or grains to cook is just too difficult and time consuming. Or, you might prefer soaking beans and grains overnight and then using a slow-cooker, set at breakfast, for meals that can be ready when you come through the door in the evening.

I got my start in the world of vegetarian cooking years ago when I discovered Annemarie Colbins Book of Whole Meals. It was an inspiration to me. You may already have your own favorites. These are treasures I love to keep near me on my kitchen bookshelf:
Book of Whole Meals, Annemarie Colbin
The Natural Gourmet, Annemarie Colbin
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison
The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, Peter Berley
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman
The Complete Vegetarian Cuisine, Rose Elliott
The Kripalu Cookbook, Atma Joann Levitt
The Splendid Grain, Rebecca Wood

Copyright 2009 Pathways4Health.org

  1. See September09 [link]
  2. John Robbins, What About Grass-Fed Beef? Methane is significantly diminished by rotating grazing pasture. [link]
  3. Environmentalist quoted in John Robbins. [link]
  4. Cornell University Science News, U.S. Could Feed 800 Million People With Grain that Livestock Eat, www.news.cornell.edu/releases/aug97/livestock.hrs.html [link]
  5. Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States, Environmental Science and Technology/ Vol. 42, 2008. [link]
  6. See Plants as Adaptagens, Resources Tab and July08 Newsletter)

    The human body is also a complex adaptive system, ideally suited to assimilate nutrients and calories from plants in their whole, natural form. The body adaptsit can learn to become a protein sparer in times when meat is scarce. Similarly, of course, the body can (albeit through a far greater struggle and expenditure of energy) adapt to the modern world of fast food, trans fats, diet soda, and synthetic chemicals and drugs.

    Just as plants and the human body are complex adaptive systems, so are cultures and the collective mind of societies. As a critical mass it takes roughly 12% of a population, empowered by the media (like the familiar voice of Michael Pollan), to bring about a paradigm shift in thinking. The sense of urgency that we collectively feel today about the environment and about energy conservation, combined with our widespread concerns about the U.S. and global economies, can offer the positive impetus to change. Perhaps, if change can bring with it a more environmentally-efficient redistribution of resources, we will look back upon this time and this sense of urgency as a gift.

    Signs of redistribution are popping up in several encouraging fields. We see todays difficult job market, particularly as employment opportunities evaporate in the financial services industries, working to send more of our talented college graduates into teaching and into careers in agriculture and environmental sciences. The number of college graduates donating time to Teach for America, for example, has grown from 500 at its inception in 1990 to an active teaching force today of 7,300. More than 15% of the 2009 Yale College graduating class volunteered to teach in this program for this coming year, versus 11% of all students graduating just one year before. Not only are more of our brightest minds offering their talents to educate and enrich our capital stock of people, but also many more bright minds are flocking to the fields of environmental studies and sustainable agriculture.

    Policy and Possibility.
    Change always brings possibility. Our culture, a complex adaptive system, will continue to find innovative ways to adjust. We instituted the Cash for Clunkers program to breathe new life into Detroits automobile industry. Now we need innovative minds in Washington and on the university campus to retool policies ((This need not cost vast sums to the Federal governmentParticularly since total farm income is less than one percent of total national income. Perhaps it would only require shifts in current farm subsidy programs, costing little to nothing more. [link]

  7. Diet, Energy and Global Warming, by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, Department of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago. [link]
  8. http://www.ers.usda.gov/StateFacts.US.htm [link]
  9. Interestingly, the American Dietetic Association in its July 2009 Journal, just endorsed appropriately planned vegetarian diets as being nutritionally adequate. The ADA also allowed that vegetarian diets may provide health benefits in the prevention of certain diseases [link]
  10. Because the function of the liver is to filter the blood, it is wise to buy only organic liver. [link]
  11. See Mary Enigs Eat Fats to Lose Fat and February07 and March07 Newsletters. [link]
  12. Plant-based foods are free of cholesterol, since plants do not have livers. [link]
  13. Phytic acid is a mineral blocker and enzyme inhibitor. Soaking eliminates phytic acid. Grains can be cooked in the soakingliquid. Beans should be cooked in fresh water to eliminate enzyme inhibitors that create gas and hamper protein digestion. [link]