Report on Kitchen Table Talks: The Meat of the Matter

Last week, Kitchen Table Talks gathered in San Francisco to discuss “The Meat of the Matter”: How our food system is structured to support industrial animal production and what alternative solutions exist, including reducing our meat consumption and supporting sustainable ranchers. We also heard new data underscoring meat’s deleterious environmental effects.

Leading us in conversation was Kari Hamerschlag, a Senior Agriculture Analyst working in the Environmental Working Group’s California office, who explained how she came to work on this subject 25 years ago after reading Francis Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet: “I was struck by the information in the book about the massive resources—water, fertilizer and pesticides, and fuel that goes into growing the feed that goes into producing a pound of beef and how highly inefficient and environmentally harmful the process is to get the protein we need,” Hamerschlag said. “Lappé argued convincingly to me that it would be much better to use at least some of those resources to grow food for hungry people rather than for animals.” She was so inspired that when she graduated from college, she drove cross-country and went to work for Lappé’s institute—Food First.

In Hamerschlag’s view, Lappé’s arguments are now more relevant than ever as meat production is central to a growing global water, energy, climate change—and food crisis. Next year, EWG will publish a “Meateaters’ Guide to Climate Change and Health,” which will quantify the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with a typical serving of beef or pork or chicken—from the production of the fertilizer to the processing, transport and cooking, and waste of that product—so that the public can understand with greater certainty how changes in our individual diets affect the planet.

Bottom line: Eat lower on the food chain. Factory farmed lamb and beef, have the highest GHG impact—more than twice that of pork and chicken and more than five times that of veggie proteins—like beans, lentils and tofu, which have very low emissions. Cheese consumption has the third largest impact, when compared by weight. Waste accounts for about one-third of overall emissions associated with a pound of beef or chicken. “This is because a tremendous amount of resources go into producing wasted food which then ends up in the landfill generating additional methane,” Hamerschlag said. “Besides reducing our demand, reducing waste would be the other critical thing we need to do as a society to combat climate change and reduce the negative impact of agriculture.”

Hamerschlag explained the myriad problems with industrial animal agriculture: Nearly 149 million acres (or half of all crop land) is used for growing animal feed for U.S. livestock. Roughly 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer is needed to grow the feed—which generates nitrous oxide, a GHG 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. “The pesticides and fertilizers often end up as runoff which pollutes our groundwater and waterways,” she said. “We now have a ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey—where no marine life can live due to the lack of oxygen, largely a result of the phosphorous and nitrogen fertilizer used for grain production. And all of this grain is subsidized with our tax dollars—$45 billion worth over the past 10 years.”

Animals also generate huge amounts of manure, which creates nitrous oxide and methane, a GHG gas 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide. “Iowa’s 5,000 confined hog facilities generate over 50 million tons of raw waste or 16.7 tons of animal manure for every resident,” she said. “But unlike human waste, waste from animals is not generally regulated and the manure, which is either stored or spread on the fields, can leach all kinds of pollutants—such as antibiotics, metals like arsenic and selenium, and especially nitrogen and phosphorous directly into groundwater that affects drinking water.”

Hamerschlag noted that the meats that are most energy intensive are also worse for our health and may be contributing to the increased burden of chronic and acute disease in the U.S. Between 1950 and 2007, per capita meat consumption in the U.S. increased an astounding 78 pounds per person per year and world meat consumption is expected to double by 2050. The health consequences from the overconsumption of meat—obesity, coronary heart disease, and cancer—are now well documented. In addition, the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animals (70 percent of all antibiotics used in America are used in meat production) is also posing a serious threat to human health.

Kim O’Donnel, a trained chef, longtime journalist, and the author of the new book, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook, took the conversation from the theoretical to the personal: She grew up eating meat at every meal (her mother gave her T-bone steaks to gnaw on when she was teething as a baby), battled high cholesterol, and lost her father to a heart attack when he was 37. Her mother is now with a partner who loves meat and who has had several heart attacks.

O’Donnel explained the importance of reducing meat consumption for health, personal, and environmental reasons and said she wrote the book for her mother’s partner and for others, the hypothetical “Mr. Sausage”—the person who can’t imagine not eating meat every day, several times a day. “The idea is that you can still have your meat—still have your T-bone if you want it,” she said. “But I wanted to give creative, delicious ways for meat eaters, like myself, to take at least one day off a week from eating meat. And once you start, you feel better and your body will thank you.” She noted that reducing meat consumption by just 15 percent is good for your health and the planet.

O’Donnel’s own journey crystallized when the environmental impacts of meat eating were made clear in the 2006 United Nation publication, Livestock’s Long Shadow. “I was struck by a comment made by Nobel Peace Prize winner and UN climate expert Rajendra Pachauri that one of the most important things you can do to help the planet is not trade in your gas guzzler for a Prius, but go meat-free once a week,” O’Donnel said.

Her book has 52 menus (one for each week of the year), organized seasonally. She eats meatless several times a week and noted that even her mother is cooking less meat-centric meals. “I want people to get into the kitchen and put these ideas into practice,” O’Donnel said. “A little bit at a time and we can chew a little bit less meat.” Noting that one of the most well-known of meat-eaters, Bill Clinton, has recently professed his new plant-based diet, O’Donnel explained the trend around eating less meat and the growth of Meatless Monday, an initiative of Healthy Monday and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

From eating less meat, to eating “better” meat, Marissa Guggiana, the author of Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers and president of Sonoma Direct, a family business providing sustainably raised meats, explained the importance of supporting small, sustainable ranchers, such as California’s Marin Sun Farms and Prather Ranch. She explained the expense and complication of raising and slaughtering meat and how local cattle ranchers must rely on the Bay Area’s last remaining slaughterhouse, Rancho Veal in Petaluma, built 80 years ago, or send their meat off to a larger Midwest slaughterhouse.

Guggiana detailed how in the last 20 years, slaughterhouses have consolidated (from 1976 to 1996, the number of federally inspected plants processing beef decreased by more than half), and have grown from facilities that killed fewer than 100,000 animals a year to ones that are designed to kill 10 times as many. “Doing less bad is different than doing good,” Guggiana pointed out, referring to the current status of slaughterhouses. “The USDA sees the need for more affordable and expandable infrastructure and has created guidelines for mobile slaughter units, after seeing the success of many, like the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative in Washington state,” Guggiana noted.

A lively conversation ensued about the importance of supporting local ranchers and what “sustainable” ranching means by learning to ask meaningful questions from retailers: Who grew this livestock? Where was it raised? What did it eat? How was it treated? Was it purchased from the farmer or aggregated by a middleman? And of course: Was it treated with non-therapeutic antibiotics? (Guggiana also wrote this guide to understanding some meat labels out there, such as “free range” and “grass fed.”) The question of ethical eating of meat was raised and folks brainstormed ways to bring the meatless message to a wider audience—especially those outside of the Bay Area—and how to support farmers. One participant suggested a “Farmer Friday” along the lines of Meatless Monday.

In the end, all three panelists gave timely recommendations for direct action. O’Donnel urged everyone to keep it simple and take incremental steps, and if you live alone, to cook with others. Guggiana noted that it’s important to enjoy eating and slow down and taste your food, while learning how food was made. “When you taste non-industrial meat, you’ll want to support ranchers who’re doing the right thing, and be willing to pay a higher price and eat it less often,” she said.

Hamerschlag ended by noting that changing our consumption is important, but changing our policies would have an even greater impact. “We need to reduce subsidies for animal production by reforming the subsidy system that underwrites feed production and when farmers do get subsidies, they need to play by certain environmental rules to protect the soil and water,” she said. “We need to elect politicians who have the courage to enact and enforce climate change policy. But when our politicians don’t listen, we need to lead by example. Not everyone can buy a Prius—or put solar panels on their homes—but we all can reduce our meat and dairy consumption and go meatless on Mondays, and perhaps on Thursday and Fridays, as well. Besides helping the climate and our environment, it’s good for our health, our waistlines, and our pocketbooks.”

Photo: Skinnyde via flickr

6 thoughts on “Report on Kitchen Table Talks: The Meat of the Matter

  1. It appears that the arguments that Hamerschlag give are the same ol’ black and white arguments against animal production. However, the research shows that things are never that clear. For example, Elferink et al. (2007) show that the environmental impact of meat consumption are negligible if the animals are fed on food residues. Their impact only starts increasing exponentially when given dedicated feed crops. So if pigs are fed the food wastes of society, of which there is a lot (roughly 50% of what we grow gets wasted) then they are highly efficient converters of waste into nutrient-dense food. As for ruminants, if they are raised on grasslands and shrublands instead of on feed grains, their environmental impact goes way down and in many cases the rotational grazing of these animals is good for the landscape.
    I agree with Kim O’Donnel that we shouldn’t eat meat with every meal- the planet is not big enough for everyone to eat like that. But instead of going vegetarian, omnivorous people would do better to reduce their consumption of CAFO-raised meats and increase their consumption of locally-produced, humane, pasture-based livestock & poultry.
    To get a much more in-depth and scientifically-rigorous understanding of animal production and meat-eating, read Simon Fairlie’s new book called “Meat: A Benign Extravagance”, due out in January 2011.

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful article Naomi. I have been a butcher for most of my working life, which amounts to almost fourty years. I just got back from Terra Madre in Italy, and the refrain that I heard over and over while there, that made sense to me was that we don’t have to stop eating meat, but we should be eating about twenty percent less and be paying about twenty percent more for what we do eat. This seems like a simple formula that would keep me in business and start us back in a more prudent direction. Thanks again.

  3. Thanks for a very informative article.

    Rebecca – the article very clearly states the issue is with industrial animal agriculture, factory farmed lamb and beef, and that people should go to their local farmers and ranchers and ask questions about how sustainable they are.

    She isn’t suggesting everyone “go vegetarian”, only that we could reduce our meat consumption by one day a week or more in order to make a better system for everyone. Please go back and re-read it, you seem to have missed the point.

  4. It sounds like it a fascinating and powerful event. I look forward to reading the EWG report I’ve been a fan of O’Donnel’s work on the topic, especially her promotion of what we can eat to to make a difference (more fun than thinking about what we shouldn’t eat) – as in the Tofu and Tempeh Challenge earlier this year.

    Bernard Brown
    The PB&J Campaign

  5. I’m not sure why you don’t think you can limit your meat consumption today? Certainly you aren’t asking for the government to force people to eat less meat.

  6. I agree with Rebecca that IF animals are fed on food residues or grass in a well managed pasture system, the environmental impact is significantly reduced. There is no doubt that we can reduce the environmental benefit IF we switch to pasture raised meat and EWG wholeheartedly supports that approach. In my presentation, I focused on the specific environmental impacts associated with the way 98% of our meat IS currently produced. At the same time as we advocate reducing overall meat consumption, we also must craft policies and build consumer and institutional demand for AND SUPPLY of healthier and more sustainable meat so that consumers have the option to choose a better product.