What you eat matters. Not only for your health, but for the health of the environment too. As more people begin to realize the seriousness of the climate change issue they are looking for ways they can make a difference. What we eat has a huge effect on the climate. So let's take a fork and knife to the omnivore/vegetarian/vegan debate and and see what it's all about.
The conventional system of raising meat is terrible for the environment. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) use the quickest and cheapest methods to produce meat in order to secure the largest profit. This includes feeding animals large amounts of grain, which cows for example can't digest properly (causing them to fatten quickly), and dramatically increases their likelihood of getting sick. The grain in this conventional system requires is highly energy-intensive, requiring large amounts of petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and water. So many animals are crammed into these CAFOs that they often get sick from standing in each other's shit, and manure ponds aren't exactly revitalizing reservoirs for Mother Earth. The animals are often given antibiotics to prevent sickness. When they are slaughtered, their meat is often washed with chemicals to kill any potential diseases, then shipped to your neighborhood supermarket and, finally, tossed onto the grill.
The carbon footprint of a feedlot manufactured animal is quite large, much larger than eating plants would be. So a common response to diet as it relates to helping the environment is to choose a vegetarian or vegan one. This is great, but it oversimplifies the issue. You do not have to eliminate meat from your diet in order to keep your food's carbon footprint low. I repeat, you can eat meat. But it must be the right kind.
Animals are necessary in order to fertilize our crops if we want to eliminate petrochemical fertilizers. Organic fertilizer means that the material came from something that was once living. And nitrogen levels in composted plants aren't high enough to fertilize plants at a great enough level that we could feed the entire planet. When we support animals in a system where they have the space to graze on pasture and live like they have evolved to do, they can be incredibly beneficial to the environment, moreso than not only factory-farmed animals, but also than taking animals out of the food system entirely. Consuming locally produced, pastured meat can improve the environment by enriching the soil, which fixes more carbon than the animals can release.
So it is up to you. Eating conventionally raised meat is extremely hard on the environment (and your body) for many reasons. Eating locally produced, pastured meat and dairy can actually help improve the soil and environment (and your body). Fortunately for us, there is a large shift to a more sustainable way of producing animal products, a sort of return to the old ways of doing things. Sites like eatwild.com and foodsprout.com are great ways to find local producers near you. Support ranchers and farmers who are doing it the right way. And do not support the big companies that provide the cheapest product at a huge cost to our environment. Tell the government you want to change the Farm Bill and stop subsidizing conventional corn and other crops that perpetuate our unsustainable meat production processes. And if necessary hit the streets to make your voice known. It turns out we can have our steak and eat it too…
- Mitchell Flexo
Photo: Grass-fed beef cattle at pasture. (Wade Snyder / USDA)