How to eat well and save the planet too

Eating used to be simple. If you liked it and could afford it, down the hatch it went. But the days of carefree consumption of food, are a thing of the past, especially for meat lovers. (Left: click on image for enlarged view)

If nonstop -- and contradictory -- pronouncements by doctors as to what you should or shouldn't ingest don't spoil your appetite, dire warnings about the ruinous impact of your favorite dish on the environment or the climate probably will.

The fact that a billion people in the world live in or close to the edge of hunger is also a sobering reminder that even basic needs should never be taken for granted.

So what's a person to eat?

For those who enjoy the luxury of choice, help has come in the form of what may be the most wide-ranging overview so far on how different foodstuffs -- from lentils to lamb chops -- impact the environment, the fight against global warming, and the human body.

Americans’ appetite for meat and dairy – billions of pounds a year from billions of animals – takes a toll on our health, the environment, climate and animal welfare. Producing all this meat and dairy requires large amounts of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, fuel, feed and water. It also generates greenhouse gases and large amounts of toxic manure and wastewater that pollute groundwater, rivers, streams and, ultimately, the ocean. In addition, eating large quantities of beef and processed meats increases your exposure to toxins and is linked to higher rates of health problems, including heart disease, cancer and obesity. (Left: impacts of beef; credit: Environmental Working Group)

U.S. meat consumption has held steady for the past several years, but Americans consume 60 per cent more than Europeans (FAO 2009) and the global appetite for meat is exploding. From 1971 to 2010, worldwide production of meat tripled to around 600 billion pounds while global population grew by just 81 percent (US Census Bureau, International Data Base). At this rate, production will double by 2050 to approximately 1.2 trillion pounds of meat per year, requiring more water, land, fuel, pesticides and fertilizer and causing significant damage to the planet and global health.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You can do something about it. By eating and wasting less meat (especially red and processed meat) and cheese, you can simultaneously improve your health and reduce the climate and
environmental impact of food production. And when you do choose to eat meat and cheese, go greener. There are many environmental, health and animal welfare reasons to choose meat and dairy products that come from organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed animals. It may cost more, but when you buy less meat overall, you can afford to go healthier and greener. Need more information? The Environmental Working Group has produced a down-loadable manual to help you get started.

"A Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health" is a 90-page no-nonsense manual to help define a personal comfort zone between what your taste buds crave and what your conscience will allow them to experience. (Click link for a downloadable copy of the PDF formatted report)

Start with the rising threat of climate change, fueled not just by gas and oil combustion but methane-belching animals and the long chain of production that brings their selected body parts to middle-class dinner tables the world over.

"Our assessment calculates the 'cradle-to-grave' carbon footprint of each food item based on greenhouse gas emissions generated before and after the food leaves the farm," said Kari Hamerschlag, a senior analyst at the non-profit Environmental Working Group in Washington D.C.

The analysis, jointly conducted with the Portland, Oregon-based CleanMetrics Corporation, also includes the pesticides and fertilizers used to grow animal feed, the raising of livestock, as well as the processing, transportation and cooking that follows.

Even disposal of leftovers -- a major source of emissions and pollution, as it turns out -- are taken into account.
The same criteria are applied to various farmed fish, grains, dairy products and vegetables too.

No surprise, meat is the prime offender across almost all categories considered.

But as is true of George Orwell's bestiary in "Animal Farm", not all edible critters are equal, at least not when it comes to their harmful impact.

Pound-for-pound, lamb is the worst carbon polluter, generating nearly 40 kilos (86 pounds) of CO2-equivalent for every kilo (2.2 pounds) eaten. The next most carbon-intensive animal -- also a cud-chewing ruminant -- on the list is beef, with emissions of 27 kilos (60 pounds) per kilo.

Looked at another way, eating a modest 110-gram (four-ounce) slice of braised lamb shank is the equivalent of driving a mid-sized car for 21 kilometers (13 miles). The same amount of beef works out to just over half that distance.

"If your family of four skips steak once a week, it's like taking your car off the road for nearly three months," Hamerschlag said.

Americans eat more meat -- exceeding Europeans by 60 percent -- than most other developed nations, with 100 kilos (220 pounds) produced each year for every man, woman and child.

But burgeoning middle-class appetites in rapidly emerging economies, led by China, are closing the gap with frightening speed, recent studies have shown.

In terms of health, the study reviews the well-known hazards of excess meat consumption, including heart disease, diabetes and obesity. It also highlights the widespread and controversial use of antibiotics for livestock and, in the United States, growth hormones.

The next culprit on the scale of climate and environmental impacts is cheese, mainly because of the large quantities of milk needed to produce it.

Pork, farm-raised salmon, chicken and turkey are all on a par when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, but pigs -- the most widely-eaten meat in the world, with China accounting for half of global consumption -- are in a category of their own when it comes to environmental impact. Runoff from waste into fresh water sources and even the ocean are especially problematic.

As is the fact that global consumption of all meats combined has soared, from about 70 million tons in 1960 to about 300 million tons today.

Wasted food, the study found, accounts for fully a fifth of the carbon emissions linked to meat and dairy products in the US, with other rich
countries not far behind. Americans waste an astounding amount of food — an estimated 27 percent of the food available for consumption, according to a government study — and it happens at the supermarket, in restaurants and cafeterias and in your very own kitchen. It works out to about a pound of food every day for every American. Fresh produce, milk, grain products and sweeteners made up two-thirds of the waste. The rotting food that ends up in landfills produces methane, a major source of greenhouse gases.

"Reducing waste and buying only as much as you can eat is the easiest way to reduce greenhouse gases and other environmental impacts," it said.

Inescapably, inevitably, ineluctably, the report arrives at this conclusion: vegetables are virtuous. Especially lentils (at left).

That's a hard truth for meat lovers. But there is advice here even for hardcore carnivores who cannot, or will not, kick the habit.

"Meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane or
grass-fed are generally the least environmentally damaging," Hamerschlag said, with some studies pointing to health benefits too.

In the end, American nutritionist Michael Pollan's seven-word mantra may be all the
advice one needs: "Eat [real] food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

For a short pamphlet on how to Eat Well and Sustain the Planet click here. This pamphlet gives seven guidelines to eating better and reducing the carbon footprint of our food choices:

In the opinion of Sustain, the organization for better food and farming, consumers wishing to support a sustainable food system should:
1. Buy local, seasonally available ingredients as standard, to minimize energy used in food production, transport and storage. To see which foods are in season, see,

2. Buy food from farming systems that minimize harm to the environment, such as certified organic produce. For information about organic certification, see the website of the UK’s largest organic certification body, the Soil Association.

3. Reduce the amount of foods of animal origin (meat, dairy products and eggs) eaten, as livestock farming is one of the most significant contributors to climate change, and eat meals rich in fruit,
vegetables, pulses, whole grains and nuts. Ensure that meat, dairy products and eggs are produced to high environmental and animal welfare standards. See the website of Compassion in World Farming’s Eat Less Meat campaign: for more information.

4. Stop buying fish species identified as most ‘at risk’ by the Marine Conservation Society, and buy fish only from sustainable sources – such as those accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council.

5. Choose Fairtrade-certified products for foods and drinks imported from poorer countries, to ensure a fair deal for disadvantaged producers. For information about Fairtrade products, click here.

6. Avoid bottled water and instead drink plain or filtered tap water, to minimize transport and packaging waste. For information about the environmental problems associated with bottled water, see Sustain’s report: Have you bottled it? How drinking tap water can help save you and the planet -

7. Protect your and your family’s health and well-being by making sure your meals are made up of generous portions of vegetables, fruit and starchy staples like whole grains, cutting down on salt, fats and oils, and cutting out artificial additives. The Food Standards Agency of the UK has a wealth of advice on all these topics.
And remember Michael Pollan's advice: "
"Eat [real] food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
France International News 24/7,"How to eat well and save the planet too", by Marlowe Hood, accessed July 24, 2011
Environmental Working Group, "2011 Meat Eaters Guide", accessed July 23, 2011


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