What’s the Environmental Impact of the Meat You Eat?

Written By: Gloria Tsang, RD

Title: Founding Registered Dietitian

Alumni: University of British Columbia

Last Updated on:

The Environmental Working Group, a consumer group that focuses on public health and the environment, has just released a “Meat Eater’s Guide” that contains some surprising environmental points to consider when choosing which meat and dairy products to eat.

Most surprising is that Americans’ yearly meat and cheese consumption contributes as much pollution to the environment as 46 million cars. If you’re picturing big trucks hauling meat to the grocery store as the source of much of that pollution, think again: Transportation accounts for only 10% of meat’s carbon footprint. So where does the rest of the pollution come from? Some pretty shocking sources. Here’s what the guide’s researchers found.

Sources of Meat’s Climate Impact

  • Methane: Cows, sheep, and other animals with similar digestive systems create methane as they digest their food. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • Fertilizer: To grow enough feed for our livestock, we use 149 million acres of cropland, 167 million pounds of pesticides, and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer. Fertilizer on soil creates nitrous oxide, which has 300 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.
  • Manure: Livestock in feedlots produce 500 million tons of manure each year – more than three times the waste of the human population.
  • Water pollution: Eight slaughterhouses consistently rank among the top 20 industrial polluters in the USA, and in 2009 combined to dump 30 million pounds of contaminants like nitrogen, phosphorus, and ammonia into our waterways.

Reading these statistics, you could start to think that maybe it would be best to avoid meat altogether – but even the guide’s writers don’t suggest going that far. That’s because meat is certainly part of a healthy diet. It’s an excellent source of protein and contains many other important nutrients, including the B vitamins, which are difficult to get from other sources. The good news is that not all animal products are equal when it comes to climate impact. Here’s how some of the most common animal food products’ greenhouse gas emissions stack up based on the equivalent number of car miles driven per 4 oz. consumed:

  • Less than 1 mile: Milk and yogurt
  • Less than 2 miles: Eggs, tuna, chicken
  • 2.5-3.5 miles: Turkey, salmon, pork, cheese
  • 6.5-7 miles: Beef
  • 9.5-10 miles: Lamb

So, to make the biggest environmental impact in your diet, you can start by cutting back on items that pollute the most, like lamb and beef, and incorporating other options, like pork and chicken, into your meals. Here are the Environmental Working Group’s best suggestions for enjoying meat while minimizing your diet’s impact on the environment.

Best Tips For Reducing Your Meat’s Environmental Impact

  • Meatless Mondays: If a four-person family skips meat and cheese one day per week, that’s like taking your family car off the road for five weeks.
  • Buy better: If you can, buy local, organic meat, dairy, and eggs, and grass-fed or pasture-raised meat. These options are all more expensive, so focus on this strategy for the worst offenders: beef and lamb.
  • Waste less: Nearly 20% of meat ends up in landfills, meaning we could significantly cut the environmental impact of meat simply by eating all that we produce and buy.

The Bottom Line

I’m certainly not going to tell you to stop eating meat! I firmly believe that meat is part of a healthy diet. By following the three tips above (especially waste less, the easiest of the three), you can reduce the environmental impact of your meat consumption without depriving yourself or your family of foods you enjoy.

What do you think of this report?  Will you change the way you eat, after reading this report?  Leave us a comment below!


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