The article discussed a recent study published this month in the Journal, Climatic Change, examining the effect your meat consumption had on your carbon footprint. Unsurprisingly, the article found that the more meat products you consumed, the larger your carbon footprint.
This was not news to me. If you are a farmer, this is just a simple fact – obvious from every perspective. Let’s consider acreage, for example. One 2.5 acres, we grow more than 20 weeks worth of produce (organically, nonetheless) for over 100 households. Throw cattle on that kind of acreage and we could maybe raise two. And that would be pushing it. And we would have to buy feed. It is not uncommon for families to purchase a quarter of a cow to provide them with a year’s beef supply. So if we assume two cows, give eight families 52 weeks’ worth of beef, then it should give 20 families 20 weeks worth of beef. And so with those very generous assumptions (that exclude land and energy for growing supplemental grain), that is still only 20% of the number of people we could feed with vegetables on that amount of acreage.
Or you could consider nutrient consumption. I am not sure how many of you remember your trophic hierarchies from high school biology. I certainly don’t remember all the nitty gritty details, but the basic concept goes something like this. Imagine your oldschool classic food pyramid, only instead of carbs on the bottom, think plants, then herbivores in the middle tier and carnivores on the top. The members of the lowest level (i.e. plants) convert available resources from the earth to energy the most efficiently. As you move up the hierarchy (to animals that eat the plants), that energy is diffused, quite significantly, and those herbivores are only able to capture a fraction of the plants’ available energy. The carnivores who eat the herbivores lose even more. And so on and so on.
As a farmer, this concept is perfectly illustrated by fertilizer needs. Imagine a one acre plot. The nutrient requirements to turn that field into a field of broccoli or into a field of grain corn (destined for a feed lot) are very similar. Come harvest time, however, you find very different outcomes. One acre of broccoli would feed a lot of people. We are talking tractor-trailor loads worth of broccoli. One acre of grain corn is barely a drop in the bucket. I am not even sure it would be enough corn to get one cow through one winter (we will have to call up some cattle farmers to cement some of these stastics). But trust me, it is not a lot.
So why do people even raise meat or grow grain, you might wonder. Well, there are obviously a number of reasons and I have very clear biases being a vegetable farmer and all, BUT, even though you need more land and more resources to raise meat and grain to help feed your meat, you need less labor. Way less man hours. Harvesting one acre of broccoli would take one person several days, but there are guys out in Iowa who can harvest hundred or even thousands of acres of corn in a few hours. I guess there are some legitimate arguments buried in here as to how to add in the calculated human energy burned to raise vegetables, but hey, isn’t the US overweight anyway?
Ok, so clearly I have digressed. Back to my article. What surprised me was not that meat production left a large track of wasted carbon in its trail, but how dramatic the difference was. According to this article, the difference in the size of the carbon foot print between someone who was a vegetarian and someone who ate at least a daily average of 3.5 ounces of meat (for reference, the average American eats 4 ounces daily) was nearly double. Vegans were almost a third!
For all those times we sit around feeling helpless to stop the world from what feels like its inevitable march towards something unstable and frightening, this seemed like such an easily accessible solution. If everyone in the world became a vegetarian, this article seemed to imply that our impact on the earth would be halved!
Now that is clearly a dramatic and unrealistic solution. But what if everyone just halved their meat intake? Or at least reduced? Would we actually be able to see our impact? Or what if we switched to a predominantly grass-fed meat production model? Grass-fed meet requires less energy to raise because grass has smaller energy requirements than corn. Plus, for most of the year, it doesn’t need to be transported or harvested. Animals can eat it right out in the field. If we all ate less meat, that required less energy to raise, what sort of impact could we expect to see?
I truly don’t consider myself an extremist, and I have a very big soft spot for all pork products, but I think we really could cut our meat consumption without any major sacrifices, simply by rearranging our plate. All we need do is stop centering our meals around meat and the culture of what’s for dinner? Beef or Chicken? And start considering more-well rounded plate, where the sides take on more of a central role. If that feels impossible, keep an eye on the recipes we send out all season. Most of them are main courses, where meat plays little or no role in the dish.