Gidon Eschel, a professor of climate physics at Bard College in New York, spent much of his youth in Israel with cows — tending to a dairy farm as a boy and his own beef cattle farm years later. “I loved it,” he said. “It’s too bad it is so unequivocally bad for the environment.”
That message is not all that new. From the documentary Food, Inc. to Michael Pollan's bestselling books to the cautions of many doctors, meat — red meat in particular — has gotten a bad rap in recent years. A report published on Monday by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, adds to the criticism, providing a comprehensive "cradle-to-grave" assessment of 20 popular protein-packed foods.
The group took into account the environmental impact of production, processing, transportation, cooking, and waste (20 percent of edible meat winds up in landfills), before reaching a relatively familiar conclusion: people should eat less meat and dairy. In particular, the EWG points to lamb, beef, pork, cheese and farmed salmon as the protein-packed foods that take the largest toll on the environment.
“Although this issue has been reported on for a long time, Americans continue to have really high rates of meat consumption, particularly children,” said Kari Hamerschlag, senior analyst at EWG and author of the new report. "As a country, we're producing and consuming 60% more meat per person than Europeans.”
Such splurging has had detrimental effects on human health, including increased rates of heart disease, cancer and obesity. But we aren't just harming ourselves when we choose a hamburger and milkshake, noted Hamerschlag. The production of meat and dairy requires the use of large amounts of pesticides, fertilizer, fuel, feed and water, and it releases greenhouse gases, manure and a range of toxic chemicals into our air and water.
While the environmental consequences of eating meat are frequently discussed, the fact that cheese is also one of the top climate culprits may come as a surprise to many. But it takes 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese, Hamerschlag explained. That equates to a lot of methane and manure from dairy cows.
“We’re not advocating that people stop eating meat and cheese, we’re just suggesting that people consider eating less,” said Hamerschlag. "Ultimately, we need better policies and stronger regulations to reduce the environmental impacts of livestock production. But personal shifting of diets is an important step."
Fortunately, even small changes can have a significant impact. The report estimates that if each American cuts meat and cheese from their diet for one day a week it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road. Indeed, neither Hamerschlag nor Eschel are proposing that we get rid of cattle altogether.
“The world is better off with than without cattle,” said Eschel, who was not involved in the new report. He explained that optimal land use includes predominantly plants — "foods that feed people directly rather than indirectly through animals." But cattle, he added, are key for cycling the nutrients in the soil and maintaining long-term crop fertility.
As it stands today, cattle are also eating a large portion of those crops. Production of feed for the animals takes up nearly 150 million acres of U.S. land.
"Even if you don't directly clear land to grow feed crops, you are using land that could otherwise go to other purposes like food or biofuels. Somewhere forest or grassland will be cleared and carbon will be released into the atmosphere," added Simon Donner, a climate and agriculture expert at the University of British Columbia in Canada, who was not involved in the report.
Biology can also be partially blamed for the large environmental footprints of sheep and cows. During the digestive process, the ruminant animals naturally generate methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Still, Donner thinks a lot can be done to mitigate the methane issue. "We can grow our meat more efficiently," he said. "More grass-feeding and the use of less processed feed would be one way."
But what if we could grow meat without the need for any fields, fertilizers or feces? That may be a reality within the next five years, according to a team of European researchers who recently studied the use of tissue engineering togrow meat in a lab.
"The climate impacts, water use and land use are substantially lower compared to conventionally produced meat," Hanna L. Tuomisto, a Ph.D. student in zoology at the University of Oxford and lead researcher on the report, told The Huffington Post in an email. "However, greenhouse gas emissions from cultured meat production are higher compared to many crops."
She added that when the impacts are allocated per unit of protein, the greenhouse gas emissions become only slightly higher than crops. Further, if the land released from livestock production were put into greenhouse gas mitigation, the overall climate benefits of the lab-grown variety would be even greater.
Donner is a bit skeptical of the concept, given the energy required to run a lab, but he didn't dismiss the possibility of some slaughter-free meat in our future.
In the meantime, there are still a few other natural meat options. Pound-for-pound, chicken requires far less feed than cows and produces about an eighth of the greenhouse gas emissions. (The processing of the birds, however, uses more energy and water than beef.)
The environmental impacts of consuming fish vary widely; wild local species are typically best, according to the report.
"Farmed salmon, as much as we love it, is probable one of the least environmentally-friendly," said Donner, noting that since salmon live at the top of the food chain, fish farmers must trawl the oceans to collect fish for their feed. He recommends opting instead for plant-eating species such as tilapia.
"There is a reason we chose to farm cows hundreds of thousands of years ago," said Donner, noting their diet of grass. “We’re now at the cusp of domesticating fish, and some of the ones we've chosen are frankly quite stupid."
What's more, the report found that 44% of farmed salmon are thrown away by retailers and consumers.
The EWG promotes the increasingly popular idea of meatless Mondays. Eating local and grass-fed meats, they suggest, can also trim your diet's environmental footprint. Still, Donner noted that eating less meat in general will have a bigger impact climate-wise than simply eating meat that was raised nearby.
When asked what he recommends people eat for a healthier body and planet, Eschel, who has been a vegan since leaving his cattle farm 27 years ago, simply looked outside at his garden and listed the foods ripe for picking: oats, lentils, chickpeas, beans, cabbage, onion, garlic and kale.
“If there were 9 billion people eating like me," he said, "the earth would look real big."