Believe it or not, it can be pretty challenging for even the more advanced and savvy eco-friendly shopper to figure out ways to continue to reduce their carbon footprint. While it can be pretty easy going green in certain places of your life (like personal care products and household cleaning products), it starts to get a lot more difficult to address less obvious areas that we don’t even realize are wasteful.
We all have blind spots when it comes to our consumption habits, and it can take a lot of time before we have a reason to even begin to see where and how they exist.
This is all too apparent when it comes to grocery shopping, especially because there are competing, equally strong messages when it comes to buying sustenance. Unfortunately, the “be healthy, buy the healthy things!” and “save the planet! consume consciously!” missions don’t always align when it comes to each’s fad of the week.
In fact, once I started actively thinking about my food buying habits, I started noticing a lot of areas where I could improve.
Let’s continue our thought exercise from the last post. Imagine you’re entering a grocery store, and you’ve done your produce and veggie shopping.
Let’s go check out the meat and fish. If you eat fish, what do you go to grab? If you’re a meat eater, do you stop at the counter, or do you buy prepacked meat? What kind of meat do you buy, and how much of it do you get?
I promise that I’m not biased about meat consumption. I’m actually pretty confident that the whole world would not be better off if we were all vegan or vegetarian, even if I myself am a vegan (and I was a vegetarian for 15 years prior to making the switch). I do think, though, that it’s important for us to recognize that the sheer quantity of meat we consume globally, per year, isn’t sustainable.
There are several reasons for this, but here are a few:
it takes a lot of land mass, water, and energy to produce feed for livestock (there are now concerns that raising livestock is one of the biggest culprits behind global deforestation);
- it’s a running joke, but all the cows we currently raise to satisfy current consumption demands actually produce a lot of methane gas (they have four tummies, so they fart a lot) while they’re being raised;
- due to a number of factors (overfishing and other unsustainable fishing practices, pollution, and loss of biodiversity due to the former issues), it’s estimated that 29% of the seafood species that humans consume have crashed (source).
- it takes energy to process and prepare meat after its been slaughtered;
- it takes energy to move the meat from the processing facility to grocery stores.
Now, I won’t tell you to stop eating fish, meat, dairy, or eggs, despite my being vegan. I suggest that if you want to make an earnest effort towards reducing your footprint, though, you should at least consider reducing how much of these products you eat per week — especially cow-derived products. In 2014, this study showed that “beef production demands about 1 order of magnitude more resources than alternative livestock categories.”
Since “1 order of magnitude” didn’t mean much to me either, let’s look at the “explain like I’m 5” version from The Guardian
red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact […] is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases.
— The Guardian
If you look at the Carbon Footprint PDF (embedded, right on desktop, below on mobile) from University of Michigan shows the same results in 2017 — three years after the previous study was published.
Another study, which focuses on diets in the United Kingdom, demonstrated that there exists
a positive relationship between dietary GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and the amount of animal-based products in a standard 2,000 kcal diet [and that] reducing the intake of meat and other animal based products can make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation
Overfishing, National Geographic
Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS)
Climate Change and Food Systems, Annual Review
Note: you’ll need to create at least a trial account to access the full publication.
Organic Livestock Requirements, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
* The Overuse of Antibiotics in Food Animals Threatens Public Health, Consumers Union
Note: I would recommend clicking through to this site and reading this, but I think it’s even better to go through their references and read some of the works cited
All this, of course, doesn’t touch on the numerous issues plaguing our marine ecosystems or the humane issues associated with factory farming and animal welfare.
Some suggestions to meat eaters who want to be more environmentally responsible:
- try to minimize the amount of meat, poultry, and fish you buy per week. An easy way to do this is to portion out your meat in smaller quantities so that it lasts you longer during the week, but allows you to still build a meal around your protein of choice. If you don’t want to lose the total net calories, add more veggies or healthy carbs to your plate to help you feel full. (My boyfriend, as an example, will make two pounds of meat last him up to ten days, but he adds rice and other small sides to his plate to help him feel fuller).
- try to buy organic meat whenever possible. For those of you who didn’t already know, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that animals not be given antibiotics or growth hormones in order to be considered and labeled organic. If nothing else, this is important because (despite what factory farmers will tell you), these antibiotics and growth hormones can transfer over to you when you eat them. This can result in gradual-long term issues like increased resistances to antibiotics in humans*, nevermind the fact that over-treating anything with antibiotics encourages the development of stronger, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Lastly, because animals can only be fed organic feed in order to be considered organic themselves, it follows logically that they also require less energy overall to produce, since organic food requires less energy to produce.
- when you do buy meat, try to buy directly from the butcher, rather than from one of the refrigerators. Butchers typically wrap meat up in waxed paper, which is better than the plastic used to package deli meats kept in open refrigerators.
- if you’re going to buy beef, consider going for ground meat. Not only is ground meat typically cheaper, it often includes more parts of the animal that are considered less appetizing as their own cuts. This is great because it encourages use for all the edible animal parts.
- if possible/within reason, avoid eating meat out. In order for meat and dairy to get to a restaurant, there are potentially extra steps that need to be taken from the origin point to the time it gets to your plate (think more fuel used to get the meat from the farm, to wholesalers, to the final point of sale, plus all the energy required to keep it edible and uncontaminated). This probably varies from restaurant to restaurant, but unless the restaurant is a legitimate farm-to-table operation, it’s better safe than sorry. Perhaps more importantly, you’re at a greater risk for buying factory farmed meat at a restaurant than when you buy it and cook it yourself. Even if you ask, it’s a likely scenario that your waiter doesn’t know with 100% certainty where your meat came from.