The Low-Carbon Meat Diet

Cows in a concentrated feedlotIf you’re like me, you like meat.  Especially red meat, like a pepper-crusted steak or a juicy burger drizzled with bleu cheese.  But if you’re also like me, you’re concerned about climate change and the impact that our lifestyle has on the planet.  While hyrbids and CFL light bulbs get a lot of attention, Ezra Klein rightly points out that cutting back on meat would have a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  It’s not just that cows burp up methane, a powerful GHG (which is a big problem: over half of all GHGs from California agriculture come from methane).  It’s the emissions from our entire industrial food system that goes into that meat.

To feed cows, the United States has turned whole regions into monoculture mania, growing scientifically-engineered corn at dense volumes and high yields.  To grow this corn, agribusiness produces industrial fertilizer, with a production, transportation, and application process that all emit significant levels of GHGs. (According to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the use of petrochemical fertilizers became widespread after World War II, when we had a lot of extra bomb-making chemicals lying around that needed a profitable use.)  Then the cows are fed the processed corn in concentrated feed lots, which is not compatible with their digestive systems that were adapted for grass.   Hence: more methane burping and much illness and cow suffering.   Finally, after being fed antibiotics, their increasingly shorter (i.e. more profitable) lives come to an end at the slaughterhouse.  They’re nicely packaged and delivered to your supermarket, where you’d hardly know what the animal looked like in the first place or that each feedlot cow requires over 200 gallons of oil to produce.

Given the bovine and GHG horror of it all, what can meat-eaters do?   Klein suggests cutting back on meat:

The pity of it is that compared with cars or appliances or heating your house, eating pasta on a night when you’d otherwise have made fajitas is easy.

This is a simple solution that oddly enough the major environmental groups seem not to want to push.  After all, for those of you who, like me, love your meats, how hard is it to reduce consumption?  (Full disclosure/excuse: I have a food allergy to legumes so the vegetarian lifestyle would be impossible for me.)

Another option is to make sure, if possible, to eat only grass-fed beef.   Cows that eat grass are healthier and happier, and by not eating corn, these cows are not contributing as much GHG emissions from our industrial food system.

So if you want to dig into that delicious tri-tip, rubbed in seasoning salt and olive oil and barbecued to a crisp exterior with a juicy center, and you don’t want the climate change guilt, just make sure it’s a rare event (pun intended) and grass-fed to boot.

(There are of course other valuable reasons for not eating meat, but this is LegalPlanet, not AnimalPlanet or HinduPlanet.)

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Reader Comments

2 Replies to “The Low-Carbon Meat Diet”

  1. I don’t know if we could eat as much beef as we do if our beef was strictly grass fed. And that, to my mind, would be a good thing. There is no way we could raise animals at the density we do today without intensive agriculture practices. There just isn’t enough food energy in grazing land and cattle, in particular, are much less efficient utilizers of that energy than other things, like chickens. Beef has historically been more expensive than other meats because of the basic energy equations that apply as food energy transfers from plant to animal, or from animal to animal. I believe Pollan writes that, in olden days, beef was primarily available in only the fall.

    We raise the billions of animals consumed each year in the US by feeding them lots of grains. We used to raise grains to feed ourselves. Now most of it goes to animals. The grain itself has lots more energy per kernel and there are lots more kernels per acre.

    When you hear Monsanto talk about developing ever higher yielding varieties, do you ever ask yourself, energy in, energy out, where does the extra energy come from to provide that extra yield? After all, the orignal input–solar energy–doesn’t change. What biological process has the plant given up? What new dependency does the plant require from us? How much more of that plant’s energy has to come, in the form of fertilizer, from fossil fuel?

    It’s not magic. It’s a zero sum game. I take that back. As long as we keep pumping the oil, it can still be magic.

  2. Much of this boils down to consumers not paying the true costs of their meat purchases. Beef is cheap, which enables us to buy more of it (that and rising incomes). But when you factor in the environmental costs, which we will all have to pay down the road, it’s not such a good deal. And unfortunately, the problem will get worse. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), total world meat production doubled from 1977 to 2002, and meat consumption per person grew by 35 percent during that same time. The FAO projects that world meat consumption will grow another 40 percent by 2030. That’s a lot of Big Macs.

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

READ more