Thursday, June 27, 2019

Coming To Terms With The Beef Problem

One of most perplexing things to me is disregard for the environment. Whether people chose to believe the science behind global warming, in general there are more immediate, local impacts to not caring about what we and businesses do and don't do. Drinking water, wildlife, recreation all are impacted by how we act as consumers. While far from perfect, I am no hardcore environmentalist rather a pragmatist, I am always looking to reduce my family's impact.

Image courtesy gentlebarn.com
One new area I have begun to explore is the impact of diet on the environment, namely in the form of livestock. The more I look into human impact on the environment, the bigger the argument to try to give up the consumption of beef products, as well as other livestock. Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation, uses up more land and resources than the growing of plants, and creates immense waste. So for me, it is time to seriously consider reducing or fully removing the consumption of cattle products.


I am right on the cusp of being Vegan/Vegetarian due to my animal welfare attitude, if it weren't for bacon and cheese I could probably fairly easily switch. But, as I said I am a pragmatist and also have a naturalist view of the circle of life, meaning I get the difference between predators and prey and where animals - humans included - fall along those lines. My concern has always been more about how we care for livestock while alive rather than if it is 'right' to consume them. So for a while I have tried to be as organic/free-range as possible knowing the product is better and also has much less impact. But the more I read, and see, and investigate, the more meat - especially beef - looks to me to be another area to reduce. Maybe not fully eliminate, but definitely reduce. Taking the idea of Meatless Mondays (Who promote that "Skipping meat one day a week is good for you, great for your nation’s health, and better for the planet.) to a new level.

It is important to note that the problem with livestock is not just from greenhouse gases, so any lack of belief in climate change is unimportant. The production of meat also greatly impacts water quality in the form of waste, antibiotics and hormones, pesticides and fertilizers, all going into our waters. It also uses a great amount of resources, nearly 1/3 of all our grain grown, and immense tracts of land. 

So what's the beef? 

What is the issue with cattle specifically? Why not all livestock? Quick answer: of course we could look at all, but cattle have a bigger impact by far than others so if you are still okay with eating meat, just cutting out beef can be a way to start and still have results.

Gas - from both ends of a cow, surprisingly more from burping - has a direct impact, then there is the gas from their manure decomposition.

“Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems,” senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official Henning Steinfeld said.

The UN report continues "When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 per cent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 per cent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure." While we focus on CO2, there are other harmful gases and as stated above, cattle are the biggest factor to one of the worst gases in nitrous oxide.

Livestock uses 30% of all the land surface which includes pastures but also feed grain land of which 33% is used to feed livestock versus what we directly consume. Forests are often cleared to make pasture and grain farm land, which reduces the natural mechanisms to reduce CO2. And it impacts water by using huge amounts of it in production and then polluting it.

Of course, cattle are used for more than just beef. Dairy (which has its own healthfulness questions), even leather are byproducts we use. So for me I am going to try to not buy anymore real leather. 'Vegan' or faux leathers not only don't use the hide of cattle, it gets rid of the need to tan leather which itself is a pretty nasty business. I am fine with most milk replacements, except for coffee at cafes where I really only like half-and-half versus other dairy milks or replacement milks, maybe I will just have to try black. The hardest thing for me will be cheese. I'm in Wisconsin after all. That more than beef meat will be harder to reduce, but I can try to limit myself to good cheeses, free-range cattle as well as goat and other milk cheeses, when I have cheese and charcuterie and greatly reduce my cheese in ingredients of other meals.

Bacon & Eggs. Ribs & Wings.

It seems that, as least for now, breakfast is safe, good thing for me as I am a big fan. Chicken and pork are on the menu for other meals as well. If you are going to eat meat regularly, pigs and poultry are the way to go since they account for only 10% of total livestock greenhouse-gas emissions yet contribute more than three times as much meat globally as cattle, and require up to five times less feed than the same volume of food as a cow, a sheep or a goat. So I can still have my ribs and wings, and bacon. Did I say bacon?

Lamb and goat look good from the resource usage, goat is far less than pigs, but they look bad when it comes to greenhouse gases: Goat is worse than pig, but lamb is worse than cattle- THE worst in fact.

Better Beef?

The industry, and watchdogs, are trying to find ways to reduce the impact. Diets can be improved that will reduce gases and waste, seaweed for example is being looked at to replace grains. Soil conservation methods and biogas plant initiatives to recycle manure can reduce the impact on our air quality. So in the future I may feel better about consuming beef.

What's My Plan?

P&P. Pigs and poultry. And dairy, because cheese. That's my plan.

Maybe one day I will still get the conviction to go vegan, but for now I am not going to give up all meat, all animal products. But I do plan to go let's say 90%+ beef-less. I won't buy any beef, but if someone serves it, or that occasional steak or burger at a restaurant I won't say no. I am already pretty much off milk, except in my coffee, but I can't - just can't - give up cheese. I can reduce it more than I do now, and try to use more goat cheese, but I love me some cottage cheese as a snack, I love artisinal cheeses, and grilled cheese and mac n cheese. And yogurt, and sour cream, and ice cream and custard. I am also going to try to not buy leather. Shoes, belts, jackets, all are pretty easy to find in textile or faux leather alternatives - even my motorcycle jackets are usually better as a textile.

And even with pork and poultry I am going to try to reduce. I am not a proponent of replacement items - making veg versions of sausage, patties, bacon, etc. usually doesn't turn out great. Instead just look for new recipes. Nothing will make you reverse course on a diet change than a bad, bad alternative to the food you enjoy. But try something new, with different ingredients prepared how they should be, and you probably will enjoy it and be more likely to have it again. When my wife went gluten-free (and me with her) we didn't initially even try any gf made products - no gf pasta, bread, etc. - we just made recipes that didn't call for wheat-based products. I mean we did do zucchini pasta, cauliflower crust, cloud bread, etc. but they still have their own qualities, they aren't trying to be a wheat product like corn or rice pasta and other replacements.

I'll circle back with some updates later.

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