Examining the Price of Meat

Meat production and its byproducts carry a cost. Responsible, realistic dietary choices can help moderate the environmental outcomes.

What we buy and wear leaves an impression on the planet, and not surprisingly, so does what we eat. The environmental impacts of meat consumption are increasingly well-documented. Producing meat requires inputs like water, feed and fuel, along with lots of land.

Forests are often cleared to make way for cattle ranches. In the Amazon, ranching accounts for 80 percent of current deforestation rates. Livestock, particularly beef, are water-intensive. Beef requires 145,000 gallons of blue water (surface and groundwater) per ton produced – that’s thirteen times as much required by vegetables.

The byproducts of livestock production are also costly. Large amounts of waste are produced, and if not handled properly, manure can pollute surface and groundwater resources. Industrial pig farms are notorious polluters. Waste-spill events contaminate water and contribute to fish kills, and the associated air pollution has implications for human health.

Greenhouse gas emissions are another significant byproduct. The amount attributable to livestock production has been a hot topic of discussion for the past decade. Recent figures estimate this contribution to be 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The United States leads the developed world in meat consumption. On a per-capita basis, we eat twice as much now as we did a century ago, and total meat consumption has increased fivefold. Even if you cannot see yourself going full veggie, hopefully we can at least agree that reducing intake is a realistic goal and a responsible choice for the planet – not to mention your wallet and health.

My current approach is to cook vegetarian at home, and allow myself the option of preparing meat for special occasions or ordering meat if we eat out. But lately I have found that I don’t miss meat much at all, and I have been seeking out vegetarian options on restaurant menus more often. Maybe someday I will go fully vegetarian, but offering myself some flexibility without the expectations of perfect adherence works for me right now.

At first, reducing meat intake can seem daunting, particularly if you are used to cooking with animal protein as the center of the meal. Here are some ways to smooth the transition:

  1. Start small. Set goals that are realistic for your lifestyle. Even modest reductions can benefit the planet. Start with one dinner or day a week, like the traditional “Meatless Monday,” and when you do eat meat, try reducing portions.  
  2. Plan ahead. Until you have a few go-to favorites, invest some time in reviewing vegetarian recipes that sound appealing, and try them out.
  3. Focus on hearty alternatives. This was a big one in our household, as my husband was initially under the impression that vegetarian meals would leave him feeling hungry. You will be more likely to stick with this dietary adjustment if the meals you make are satisfying and flavorful. Some of my favorites use sweet potatoes, peppers, eggplant, mushrooms and beans as a base, and I never miss the meat.
  4. Try meat substitutes. There are plant-based versions of just about anything – burgers, sausage, carnitas – you name it. I prefer these as a treat because substitutes are often high in sodium, but I do love the Beyond Meat burgers (great for a BBQ!) and using tofu in stir-fry. I used to say that I didn’t really enjoy tofu, but many people told me that I just hadn’t tried properly prepared tofu. Turns out they were correct.
  5. Fish is tasty, but … It has its own issues, primarily in the form of over-exploitation. When first trying to eat less meat, I fell back on fish as a replacement. Now I’m making a concerted effort to eat less fish and test out more vegetable-centric recipes. When I do eat fish, I try to make sure it’s responsibly sourced. Seafood Watch is an excellent resource, and they have an app. You can reference it on-the-go to help ensure you aren’t eating endangered species. I think of it this way: If given the option of ordering bluefin tuna, pause and ask yourself if you’d consider eating giant panda. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you probably would not. At-risk aquatic species deserve the same consideration as terrestrial ones.