Eating Less, Better Meat: Yes We Can

I’m a vegetarian. But my husband’s not. And, go figure, my kids aren’t either. Which is exactly why I care about the meat I buy. Yes, I buy meat. I’d rather not, but if it’s coming into the house–and into my kids’ bodies–then I need to know exactly what I’m buying. And I not only want to know how it’s affecting my family’s health, I also care deeply about how it’s affecting our family’s environmental footprint (including climate change).

Enter Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) new Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health. In it, EWG took a close look at how a variety of protein foods rank when their total, “cradle-to-grave” greenhouse gas emissions are calculated. Then we factored in the non-climate environmental impacts (like water pollution) and health effects of meat and confirmed that, indeed, not all meat is created equal.

Different foods generate different amounts of green house gases

Our lifecycle comparison shows that, pound for pound, lamb, beef, cheese, and pork generate the most greenhouse gases (GHGs) of the protein foods we looked at; beef emits four times as many GHGs as chicken! They also tend to be higher in saturated fat and have the worst overall environmental impacts because producing them requires the most resources, mainly chemical fertilizer, feed, fuel, pesticides, and water.

If you’re scratching your head, wondering how exactly eating meat generates GHGs, there are three main sources: Feed production, ruminant digestion, and manure. In other words, growing animal food, farting animal food, and pooping animal food. (Excuse our language, but it’s clearest–and likely more memorable–this way. Plus, my eight-year old son thinks it’s hilarious.) For a bite-sized description of the climate and environmental impacts of each stage of meat production (there are many: Growing feed, grazing, slaughtering, transporting all of it, eating, and wasting), see the meat lifecycle graphic on EWG’s Web site.

It’s Clear: We’re Eating Too Much Meat

For many, meat is a regular, familiar part of their diets. Eating meat in moderation can be a good source of complete protein and key vitamins and nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamins B-12, B-6, and niacin. That said, we eat far more protein than we need: Kids get three to four times the recommended amount and adult men get twice the amount they need. And, of course, the nutritional benefits of meats can be reaped from other, less environmentally damaging food sources (like lentils and beans).

The scientific evidence is increasingly clear that eating too much meat–particularly red and processed meat–contributes to a wide variety of serious health problems like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), most human exposure to dioxins comes from food, almost entirely through animal fats. The best way to reduce the health risks associated with dioxins and other toxins is by limiting your dietary exposure to them.

Eating Less and Better Meat

If your health and the planet are on your “to do” list at all, you’ll accomplish a lot by trimming your portions, skipping it here and there (why not every Monday?), and choosing leaner, greener meat. Just like reducing home energy use or driving less, skipping meat once a week can make a meaningful difference in GHG emissions if we all do it. According to EWG’s calculations, if everyone in the U.S. chose a vegetarian diet, it would be the equivalent of taking 46 million cars off the road or not driving 555 billion miles. To present a likelier option, if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles–or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

At the same time, keep in mind that although important for improving your health and reducing your personal carbon footprint (of which you’re, thankfully, the boss), eating less (or no) meat, by itself, won’t stop climate change or eliminate environmental damage. The fork is powerful, but not all-powerful. But don’t let that stop you. Wield it anyway and support policy change to invest in greener energy and cleaner, more sustainable food production.

EWG’s Tips for Meat Eaters: Finding the Good Stuff

Often, it’s not our goals (often good), but rather lack of specific, trustworthy knowledge about smart consumer choices that stands between us and our best intentions. Which is why EWG put together our top tips for leaner, greener meat shopping (we also have a wallet card, available on our Web site). If you buy less meat overall (our top tip for meat eaters), you can more easily afford healthier, greener meat.

When shopping, always read the labels (and check our label decoder)! Look for:

• Grass-fed or pasture-raised meat: Has fewer antibiotics and hormones and in some cases may have more nutrients and less fat; the animals live in more humane, open, sanitary conditions and well-managed systems reduce erosion and water pollution, conserve carbon and preserve biodiversity and wildlife.
• Lean cuts: Less fat will likely mean fewer cancer-causing toxins in your body.
• No antibiotics or hormones: Reduces unnecessary exposure and helps keep human medicines effective.
• Certified organic: Keeps pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified foods off the land, out of the water and out of our bodies.
• Certified humane: Means no growth hormones or antibiotics and ensures that animals were raised with enough space and no cages or crates.
• Unprocessed, nitrite-free, and low sodium: Avoid lunchmeats, hot dogs, prepackaged smoked meats, and chicken nuggets.
• Sustainable seafood: Avoid airfreighted fish, most farmed salmon, and consult Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list of the most sustainable seafood choices.
• Local: Supports your local economy and protects farm land.

If you can’t find these healthier products (we know that in some places it takes a little hunting), ask your grocer to carry them (as more and more people ask, they will become more readily available). And consult eatwellguide or eatwild, both terrific online resources, to find a nearby store with greener, pasture-raised meat.

Wasting less and eating less and greener meat is a powerful investment in yourself and our planet–that’s easier to make than you might think. Start today by taking EWG’s pledge to eat less meat. (and hey, it’s Monday, why not make today your first Meatless Monday?). It’s good to be part of the solution, isn’t it?

12 thoughts on “Eating Less, Better Meat: Yes We Can

  1. You might have more credibility if you stopped repeating nonesense about saturated fat being unhealthy. It’s not. Lean cuts of meat are not the healthiest either; stick with the tastier, fatty cuts. Grass-fed red-meat fat tastes wonderful and is healthy, far healtheir than any chicken you’ll ever eat. Further, and this is the important thing you seem incapable of understanding, locally produced grass-fed beef, lamb, or goat, is good for the environment, good for your health, and is a direct attack against factory meat, the corporate food system and the medical health industry. Buy a big freezer and then stock it with quarter, half or whole animals that you buy from your neighbor.

  2. I like the recommendations but it is not feasible for everyone to eat only the lean cuts of meat. Even if the meat is free-range chicken grown by your neighbor, if you only eating the breasts and throw away the thighs you are being wasteful. If you are determined to eat meat, buy the best meat you can and don’t sneer at “gross” or “fatty” pieces of meat. Eat as much of the cow as you can.

  3. I love reading about nutrition, animal welfare, environmental causes, etc. It’s all really interesting– even though there are so many opinions and statements out there it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the good and the bad. Lately I’ve been fascinated with the concept of an evolutionary diet. Eating what our ancestors have eaten for not just centuries, but hundreds of thousands of years. Clearly there are variables like region, climate, seasonality, etc, but one thing is for sure: animal protein and fat was essential. And just as the author has proclaimed: “all meat is not created equal”, so too does the statement “all fat is not created equal” reign true. If you are buying meat at the store, even somewhere like Whole Foods, it can be difficult to understand the implications. “All natural” has been thrown out the window, meaning an “all natural” animal can still be fed genetically modified feed. “Organic” is great, but that still says nothing about the type of diet the animal was consuming. Whether or not it was eating what is has genetically evolved to eat. So I guess the point I’m trying to make is that if you are going to buy meat at the store, even a health food store, look for 100% grass fed and local, and don’t worry about the fat content. After all, fat is flavor! If you are going to buy something organic and not grass fed, you might want to go with the leaner cuts because it’s likely that animal was fed grain. Something which it has not evolved to eat, therefore lowering the nutritional content and quality of its fat. And lastly, even though I work for a meat company, I am all in favor of not consuming meat one day a week. Can’t afford the quality grass fed stuff? Stop complaining and re-prioritize your life!

  4. I agree that eating lean meat is much healthier but I would love to have someone do an article on how “green” it is to hunt, process and package your own meat. Venison and most game birds for example are very lean, totally hormone and antibiotic free. If you take into account the amount of public land dollars the license fee’s return back to land and animal preservation it would easily be in the billions of dollars every year. It also is a great way to spend time with your spouse and kids out in nature as well as at the dinner table. You still have the fuel usage to transport yourself to the hunting site but it may not be any farther than going to the store to buy it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good steak, Venison or Beef just as much as a good salad, vegetable dish, pasta, etc, but if you really want to be green, think about going back to your roots and enjoy nature.

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  6. As the lead author of the Meat Eaters Guide, I wanted to make two comments especially in response to Richard. We encourage folks to eat lean because of the toxins that are found in animal fat–not primarily because of the saturated fat. According to the FDA most human exposure to dioxin like compounds (DLCs) comes from our food, almost entirely from animal fat. And sadly that goes for organic meat and grass fed since the toxins are deposited on the grass or the organic grains that the animals eat. But since grass fed meat tends to be leaner, it is far better. Overall, our report is crystal clear–as is Lisa’s post, that we encourage folks to eat less, but to eat greener, grass fed when you do eat meat. Our report dedicates an entire section about the many health, environmental and animal welfare reasons for choosing pasture raised meats, even though the jury is still out about the relative benefits of pasture vs grain fed animals when it comes to climate change.

  7. While I take issue with some of your (most) of your statements about grass fed beef…I won’t belabor you with my “issues”…most everyone before me, here, has made my points.

    However, I am just plain FED UP with the cow fart “thing” having some kind of huge impact on green house gas…It’s Bull s__ (no pun intended)! The stated impact by the “Global Warming” crowd is…hyperbole.

    Using the “greenie” method of carbon offsets, bovines more than offset their gas emissions with what they return to the environment…
    -They “harvest grass” and poop the seeds, thus spreading oxygen emitting grass/plants.
    -Their poop/urine is a fantastic source of nitrogen, one of the essentials of life itself, and is a natural fertilizer in and unto itself.
    -Their weight and hoofs act as “plows” scraping and tilling the soil thus allowing seeds to germinate faster

    Furthermore, the fat thing is WRONG on grass fed as well. The beef that is unhealthy is the feedlot beef that has been fed grains…over use of grain in a ruminant animal changes the chemical structure of the fat content to an unhealthy fat…Grass fed fat has certain levels of Omega 3 and cancer fighting CLA.

    Oh, and you trust the findings of the USDA, “Really?”…AND the jury is not “out” on grass fed vs grain fed….Many independent studies prove GRAIN FED IS BAD, Grass fed is NATURES NATURALLY PREFERRED METHOD and better for you.

    I could go on……Your book will cause further harm to the individuals who are the backbone of our what’s left of our “healthy” food production system…the quickly fading, American icon known as the Family Farm…Well, done, this book will help to drive yet another nail into their coffins by driving more people away from beef.

  8. Pingback: How Cow Farts Cause Global Warming « We*Meat*Again

  9. It’s great to see all of your passion on this subject. The debate could go on forever though I think.

    I found this blog while reaching out to meat lovers online because my company, Saveology, is doing a great deal today on our site: http://bit.ly/pFvpjw

  10. Reading this all, I am astonished of the amount of “you have to” and “this is best for you”. Did you ever think of eating almost every part of an animal? there are many tasteful and delicious recipes from the old days, and if you use grass-fed, good meat, the amount of toxins you ingest is certainly very small. Have your plate of liver or “trippa alla romana” once a month, that’s resource saving and delicious, especially if combined with fresh vegetables. And it’s cheap as well.

  11. So what happens to rural communities as you strive to drive farmers and ranchers from the land? Somehow through all of this, the people who earn their living from selling meat or milk are invisible to the urban eye. In NY, we’ve lost a 1/3 of the dairy farms in the past decade to the point that Audubon NY is concerned about the loss of grassland bird species occurring as grassland dairy farmers are driven from the land. As the farms fall, large lot subdivisions tear apart unfragmented wildlife habitat leading to other changes. Goodbye dairy farms, hello sprawl! Not sure if this is what you intended net net. But just have to say it is very disappointing that EWG doesn’t bother to talk with the dairy stakeholders. I had approached them a few months ago to see what could be done to encourage grassland dairy, only to be told they don’t do dairy policy. There are more positive ways to work with stakeholders than to blast sound bytes out into the media. The wildlife and farm families of my state will end up being the losers.