Many of you know about my “tree-hugging hippie” side of me, or as I like to think of it – someone who cares about their planet and tries to be responsible for their actions. This is why you won’t see me anytime soon driving an SUV or eating a hamburger.
The whole connection between meat-eating and the environment is hard for many people to understand. The easiest way I can explain it is to think of saving energy. We buy energy-saver appliances and, build energy-efficient buildings and cars, but no one thinks of saving energy when it comes to the food we eat. Probably because none of us want to think about our industrial food system (or perhaps aren’t very aware) and block out everything that happens before that food item appears on your grocery store shelf. There are many, many ways that energy is consumed in our food system. Here are the basic categories (taken from Kate Geagan’s book “Go Green Get Lean”):
- Production – think of how much fossil fuel is required to make all those pesticides, fertilizers, as well as the energy used for farm equipment
- Harvest – energy required for all the harvest machinery on farms, feedlots, slaughterhouses, etc
- Heating/Cooling – think of this is a big fridge to keep fresh produce cool after it’s picked
- Processing – obviously the more highly processed a food product is, the more energy has been used
- Transportation – this is the big area that locavores target. It’s crazy to think that we fly foods all over the world so we can have year-round access.
- Storage – energy is spent storing the food in warehouses and trucks before it gets to your local market.
So, by taking a look at those above categories, you can see how many different paths you can take to lower the energy cost of your food choices. The great part is that in most cases, any decision you make to save the environment is better for you too! Greener diets tend to be lower in calories, higher in nutrition, and cheaper. So, a win-win for us all! :)
For example, eat organic, and you’re looking at the production side of things. One quick word about organics – yes, it is a better choice for the environment, growing things in a more sustainable manner to protect the soil/environment, but it does not automatically mean that organic food products are any less processed, traveled, or necessarily more nutritious (a highly debated topic I don’t want to get stuck in). Think of highly-processed snack foods that are full of added sugars and/or fats and trucked/flown in from around the world, that may happen to be “organic” – is this automatically the best choice?
Follow the local foods movement, and you’re tackling the energy cost of transporting foods around the country/world. I’ve been fortunate to have many local farmers markets here in East Tennessee, and try to support these local farms when I can. Of course, fresh produce are also minimally processed (if at all), so even better!
Now, where does meat fit into all of this? The production of animal products (and this includes eggs and dairy in addition to meat) uses huge amounts of energy as compared to plant products. Beef and dairy alone account for ~50% of all our food-related greenhouse gases. So…. If you’re want the biggest bang for your buck, switching to a more plant-based diet will have the most profound effect on the environment. I like to use the car analogy:
The energy from the average meat-eating American diet is the equivalent of driving an SUV
Switch to a plant-based diet (lacto-ovo vegetarian or flexitarian) and you’ve traded to a small car.
Get the guts to become a vegan (bravo!) and now you’re driving a super-efficient hybrid car.
So, for all of you who ask why I don’t eat meat, this post explains why. I hope my brief explanation makes sense. It’s a huge area to read more about (I’d recommend the above-mentioned book by Kate Geagan, MS, RD (!) “Go Green Get Lean” but also Mark Bittman’s book “Food Matters”). And as always, I welcome your questions or comments. I could talk about this topic for days, but I thought I’d be safer with a basic post to get started.
You can also read a post I wrote last year on the same topic “Save the World, Eat a PB&J Sandwich!“