When we think of the rise of climate-warming greenhouse gases, it’s natural to picture big oil companies as one of the biggest culprits.
However, new research shows that what’s in your refrigerator and kitchen cupboards — namely meat and dairy products — might be more worrisome from a climate standpoint. In essence, the research makes the case for vegetarian and vegan diets.
A startling new report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a nonprofit called GRAIN indicates the world’s top five meat and dairy products now emit more greenhouse gases each year than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP. Exacerbating the problem is that most of the world’s top 35 meat and dairy behemoths either underreport their greenhouse gas emissions or don’t report them at all, according to the report.
Where are the dairy- and meat-spawned greenhouse gases originating from? The report pins much of the geographic blame on the U.S., Canada, the European Union, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.
“To avert climate catastrophe, we must reduce production and consumption of meat and dairy in overproducing and overconsuming countries and in affluent populations globally, while supporting a transition to agroecology,” the report warns.
A new study from researchers at the University of Connecticut, Tufts University, the University of Missouri and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service supports the notion that reducing our consumption of meat could help reduce greenhouse gases.
In a news release, University of Connecticut researcher Rebecca Boehm, lead author of the study, says she and her colleagues found that households spending a considerable chunk of their food budgets on beef, chicken, pork and other meats are generating more greenhouse gases than households where meat is less prevalent.
The study, published in the journal Food Policy, points out that food purchases accounted for 16 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, compared with 12 percent for commercial and residential activity and 21 percent for industrial activity.
Industries that produce beef, pork and other red meat created the greatest share of greenhouse gas emissions from household purchases (about 21 percent), followed by fresh vegetables and melons (11 percent), cheese (10 percent) and milk and butter (7 percent), the study says.
Scott Burgett, founder of vegan recipe and wellness website plantbasedscotty.com, advocates a decrease in meat consumption to help alleviate the harmful effects of greenhouse gases. The process of raising animals for slaughter requires an inordinate amount of resources “that will not be sustainable for the generations that follow us,” he says.
As explained by Texas A&M University, the livestock sector produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation sector does. According to the university, 110 grams of beef equates to driving a little over 10 miles in a midsize car. With the average American eating 270.7 pounds of beef per year, beef consumption alone works out to driving a little more than 11,000 miles in a midsize car, Burgett says.
“Now, add in chicken, pork, fish and other meats, and you see how that number could easily approach the 20,000-mile equivalent. That’s just from one person!” Burgett says. “That amount of carbon emissions released on a yearly basis is unsustainable.”
To bolster sustainability, Burgett recommends eating meat alternatives such as plant-based burgers and veggie stir-fry dishes. “We can still eat delicious food and decrease our carbon footprint at the same time,” he says.
In the name of preserving our climate, Aly Moore eats protein-rich bugs and even hosts bug dinners and bug events.
“Bugs are easier on the environment than traditional protein sources, are packed with nutrition and can taste great,” Moore says. “They are not the only solution to sustainably feed our growing population, but they are the most provocative. And they open a dialogue about how what we eat impacts our bodies and our environment.”
To make her case, Moore stresses that bugs consume 12 times less food than cows produce, generate 100 times fewer carbon emissions and use 1,000 times less water.
“To put this in perspective, a pound of beef takes about 2,000 gallons of water from the farm to your table. A pound of crickets takes only 1 gallon of water,” Moore says.
If you do want to include meat in your diet, Barnes recommends grass-fed or free-range meats such as beef, chicken and pork, as some research shows they contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions than traditionally raised meats do. However, other research debunks the idea that grass-fed beef is a climate savior and that it actually contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
“You’d be doing better for the environment driving a Hummer to get a falafel sandwich than a hybrid to get a hamburger,” she adds.