Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Eat Less Meat

Here's an early New Year's resolution: eat less meat. Actually, I've been largely vegetarian for a while, but why not use the new year to declare it? My policy: don't choose to buy meat, but don't inconvenience or offend others I'm with.

There are many reasons for going vegetarian, but mine is mainly a matter of ecological footprint. I don't have many moral qualms about killing animals for food, but I am concerned about the many different costs associated with producing meat - costs which I'm not sure are adequately reflected in the dollar price at your butcher.

Everyone's concerned about greenhouse gas emissions - we ride bicycles to work, we buy energy efficient lightglobes, we offset our flights and concert tickets. But those cuts pale in comparison to the emissions from raising livestock. Raising livestock accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide - more than all forms of transport combined.
The main problem is a type of gut microorganisms called methanogens in ruminants that convert hydrogen and carbon dioxide - byproducts of digestion - into methane, a gas with 25 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.
In general, red meat emits 2.5 times as much greenhouse gas as chicken or fish. But if you want red meat, try kangaroo - thanks to different gut flora, kangaroos produce hardly any methane. Kangaroo is also lean, causes less environmental degradation from grazing, and - equally importantly - it really does taste good!
Research is under way to produce anti-methanogen vaccines, optimise livestock diets, or introduce alternative, harmless microorganisms that can outcompete the methanogens. Ultimately, though, these approaches seem to me like carbon sequestration for coal-fired power-plants - useful technology if we must burn coal or eat meat (which, realistically, we will continue to do) but far better to minimise the need for it in the first place!

Greenhouse emissions aside, meat - in particular red meat - is simply a frighteningly inefficient way of feeding yourself.
Only 5 to 25 per cent of the nutrients fed to an animal are converted into edible meat. It takes 2.3 kg of grain to produce 1kg of chicken; 5.9 kg of grain for pork; and 13 kg of grain plus 30 kg of forage for beef!
For the past eight years, global demand for grain has been increasing faster than supply, and that's largely due to rising demand for meat in increasingly prosperous countries like India and China. Rising populations and incomes are expected to double the global demand for meat and milk by 2050.
Then there's water use, an issue becoming increasingly sensitive here in Australia and around the world. It takes 1000 litres of water to grow 1 kg of wheat, 2000 litres per kg of rice... and 96,000 litres per kg of beef.

Of course, not many people are willing to go entirely vegetarian - truthfully, I'm not either. The good news - to put a positive spin on it - is that the cost of red meat is so great that any cuts you're prepared to live with will likely be the largest lifestyle contribution you can make to going green: A kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home.

Information shamelessly taken from New Scientist:


melanie said...

thursday, 1 january, 2009 14:30 MAT

do you consider pork to be red meat ? in america there are ads on tv for 'pork - the other white meat'.

i don't particularly like the taste of lamb and did not grow up eating much in america. is lamb red meat ?

eating veal makes me sad. isn't veal baby lamb ? killed so young for us to eat. sadness.

i've always heard kangaroo is good meat and good for you. the iga in rocky sells it and the price is quite comparable to that of beef or pork. maybe we'll have to try that.

of course, on the whole, chicken is still the cheapest. i would prefer chicken over any other meat anyways, so i'm definitely ok with that.

good luck with your new diet !

,` )

Nick said...

Yes, I know how much you like chicken and it's the best out of chicken/pork/lamb/beef. :)
(arguably that's largely due to the extremely intensive raising of chickens, but that's another matter)