Sunday, May 3, 2009

Which meat harms our planet the least?

WARNING TO MY VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN FRIENDS. Skip today's article. Or at least skip paragraph three (counting this warning paragraph).

Today I ran across an interesting article online at Slate, by Nina Shen Rastogi, a regular Tuesday eco-blogger (link below). I gathered from the article that she's not a meat-eater herself, but even so, she addressed the question of one of her carnivorous readers: Which meat harms our planet the least?

With apologies to my vegetarian readers (if you're still reading - you were warned), I confess a taste for lamb chops, my grandmother's brisket (marinated, slow cooked second cut - oy vay!), home-smoked barbeque beef ribs, medium rare burgers (no cheese - I keep kosher). I love the smell of turkey roasting in my oven, and I make a wonderful chicken and matzah ball soup. Meats are rarely on my table these days for reasons of health and expense, but they do still occasionally punctuate my life with joy. Yes, joy. So I, too, wanted Ms. Rastogi's advice.

Ok, veggie pals. Come on back.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the livestock industry is big business, responsible for 40 percent of the global agricultural gross domestic product, employing 1.3 billion people - of those, creating jobs for 1 billion poor. And of course, the industry supplies protein, one third of the world's intake to be specific, and can be both a contributor to health problems and a potential solution to hunger.

On the other hand, the industry also contributes to ecosystem degradation through deforestation for pasture lands and feed crop fields (a whopping 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial land surface!), and through erosion and the loss of native plants to invasive species due to over-grazing. Obviously, less livestock production would free up land for agriculture to feed the world's hungry. And unless you've been hiding in a cave for years, you surely haven't missed this fodder for every stand-up comedian: Cows contribute to acid rain and climate change by simply, well, burping, farting and pooping (er...eructating, flatulating, and defecating). ("excmoooos me!") Between the cattle bodily functions and the land use, the industry is responsible for 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions - more than the transportation sector! And lastly, there's the matter of all the pesticides and hormones used to raise feed crop, traces of which end up in our soil, waterways and bodies.

Maybe all this enlightenment makes you feel guilty. Maybe not. As an aside, I don't need all this information to feel guilty. Every time I eat a piece of meat, I ask God what must have been going through that Vast Eternal Mind when God decided humans should kill other species to feed themselves. And yet... still I eat meat.

So, returning to the beginning, when I ran across Nina Shen Rastogi's article discussing which meats cause less global harm, I decided I had to share it with you. If you don't have time to read it, here's her verdict: eat chicken and turkey. Otherwise, it's a very informative read.

The link: Which meat harms our planet the least? - By Nina Shen Rastogi - Slate Magazine

One last note: I was hoping to discover that healthier meat (organic, free range, grass-fed meat) reduced the carbon footprint, if not the belching, farting and pooping. The jury is out on this. An English study seems to suggest that humane farming methods such as free ranging livestock actually utilizes more land and more feedcrop, because cows that move (exercise) are hungrier than cows raised with less consideration for their happiness (inside enclosures). On the other hand, certainly cows fed on organic feed or grazed in organically grown pastures reduce the amount of pesticides, hormones and other toxins into the environment.

So, hmmm... I vote for replacing as much of your red meats with fowl as you can bare to do, and for buying local, organic meats, wherever possible. And then, there's this one other idea I have for reducing greenhouse emissions. How about Beano? I found this statement on the Beano site: "Beano is a natural food enzyme that can help prevent gas before it starts. It helps you to digest the complex carbohydrates in your favorite healthy foods. By taking Beano at the beginning of a meal, you can help prevent gas, bloating and other discomfort." What do you think of that?
(btw, apologies to the beano folks, but kudos to my amazing graphic designing daughter Jody for turning a pic of beano into a brand new product! She did the logo too...)

Organic purveyors:
Beano site:
UN Study:
On the confusion around the benefits and definitions of organic beef:
Enviro impacts if everyone ate vegetarian for just one day:


  1. somehow I think the link between cattle and other factory raised animals and their natural emissions hurting the environment is more about the quantity of the animals and not that they emit. If there weren't such a huge market for pigs, cows, and yes-even fowl, then we would not have factory farms, enormous herds and concentrations of animals. Free range and organic small farms are great and go a long way towards helping address the problem, but demand is a major issue that you can't evade with fowl. Maybe chickens don't fart, but they crap and the tens of thousands of chickens in factory coops create a lot of foul fowl.

  2. I'm sure you're right. I mean, nobody's called out humans for a link between our flatulence and the environment. Hopefully, education on the health and environmental impacts of meat-eating will move all of us toward a less meat-intensive diet. On the other hand, I believe fish consumption is up (health reasons), and as much as I love sushi, there's another environmental story there.

  3. Why not switch to a plant-based diet and vastly reduce your food carbon footprint? While I understand your desire to continue eating meat for the taste (nobody argues it doesn't have a good taste), don't you feel that the environmental benefits far outweigh the desire of your pallet?

    Also, chickens and turkeys suffer the most of any farmed animal. They aren't even covered under the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 (requiring they be knocked unconscious before slaughter). Chickens make up 95% of animals raised on factory farms each year. The average person eats 20-40 chickens in a year, but only about a third of a cow. So if you want to talk about a "footprint", perhaps consider the "suffering footprint" you cause by eating more poultry. If you care about reducing suffering try cutting back on all meat, but especially chicken and turkey.

  4. I just googled chicken slaughter, and think you may have just made a vegetarian out of me.