The Environmental Cost of Meat

One of the strongest arguments against meat consumption is its environmental effects:

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

(via The New York Times)

As someone who eats around 600 pounds of meat a year (three times the intake of the average American, which is already twice the global average), I can’t help feeling a little guilt. The agriculture-industrial complex is so environmentally destructive that simply reducing meat intake 20% would be the equivalent of switching from a standard sedan to a ULEV like a Prius.

Most if not all of the article’s qualms with beef, however, disappear when you consider grass-fed, pastured animals rather than grain-fed factory farms.

Another suggestion is a return to grazing beef, a very real alternative as long as you accept the psychologically difficult and politically unpopular notion of eating less of it. That’s because grazing could never produce as many cattle as feedlots do. Still, said Michael Pollan, author of the recent book “In Defense of Food,” “In places where you can’t grow grain, fattening cows on grass is always going to make more sense.”

Most of the greenhouse effects of meat production actually come from the grain and soy raised to feed the animals, concentrated, poorly managed waste, and long-distance transportation. Grass-fed meat is more expensive, but given that it converts entirely inedible cellulose (grass) to yummy nutrition for humans, it’s even more sustainable than most plant agriculture (more on that at Eat Wild). As a bonus, it’s healthier for you as well.

So what’s the solution for people who can’t afford grass-fed? Probably, as the article says, simply eat less meat in general. With grass-fed beef available as low as $5/lb, even those living on food stamps can afford 4-6 ounces a day. Choosing fattier cuts of meat and using bones and trimmings for soups and other dishes lets you extract more calories from each serving, too.

A carbon tax on meat producers would do a lot to internalize the environmental costs that factory farms create, while making grass-fed beef comparatively more affordable. Good luck passing it and surviving the ag lobbyists, though.

Despite its dismissal of meat as a necessary and wonderful part of the human diet, the full Times article is pretty good.