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July 11, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Food For Thought Eating Green

Many of us make some kind of supposed ethical decision on how they eat, be it avoiding factory farms, organic, cage-free, only eating local produce, additive-free (avoiding all preservatives, artificial colours and flavours), vegetarian or vegan.

Often the arguments for being a vegetarian or vegan are moral ones (some estimates put the number of vegetarians who don’t like meat at about 34 per cent, with the rest citing an ethical or moral decision). I will, at best, gloss over these with the emotional generalisation ‘we have no right to farm and murder animals’. When it comes to the environmental cost of raising livestock for food, as opposed to growing plants for food, direct comparisons are very hard to get. Further, no-one can comfortably compare—rainforest depletion in the lower Americas (for soybean production), and animal manure dumped into rivers (as a result of factory farming). It may come down to personal preference of where one would be more comfortable destroying the planet. As a result, no direct comparisons will be made here, but some good things to think about when purchasing food.

Many people are concerned with the distance travelled from farm to table in terms of greenhouse emissions. The most decisive report I could source on the benefits of consuming locally grown foods ended with a large question mark.

In terms of meat, a Lincoln University study has shown that New Zealand is so efficient at raising cattle and sheep that consuming NZ meat in the UK is less damaging than consuming meat from the UK. Unfortunately, once the meat reaches our supermarket trolley, what we do can account for up to 21 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Unless we really pack up the car on the way home from the supermarket, a significant portion of CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions comes down to how you transport and cook meat. But then again, you can say exactly the same for vegetables. Transporting vegetables once they are in your possession, and cooking them, can account for up to 67 per cent of the overall cost to the planet. Why is this figure so high? Because growing fruit, vegetables and grain is much more efficient than raising animals for meat production—not because the cooking method is different.

In New Zealand, obviously, most of animals raised for meat production eat grass, which requires minimal intervention in terms of chemicals being added to the eco system. In places such as the USA and Europe, however, animals are often fed grain, which has been grown for livestock feed. The amount of grain required for a cow over its lifetime is enormous—one thought experiment estimated that an 8oz steak can feed one person, while the grain required to get that single piece of steak would feed 72 people. Try this comparison: 1kg of potatoes uses 1.3MJ of energy throughout its life cycle, and 215g/100yr Global Warming Potential (in short, CO2 equivalent), compared to 1kg of UK lamb, using 23MJ of energy throughout its life and 17,400g/100yr GWP.

So we can eat meat in New Zealand! Well, not really. To happily eat meat in New Zealand, ignoring the huge methane emissions made by the animals, we need to know that the animals are reared sustainably. Manure needs to be treated well, preferably left in paddocks, and not washed into waterways either intentionally (as can be the case with dairy or factory farms) or unintentionally (with heavy rain, flooding, and badly set out farms). While agriculture has less of a problem with eutrophication—that is, chemicals, especially nitrogen, leaching into waterways—as a rough rule, meat production damages waterways more, and agriculture less—but it depends heavily on the farms. Another discomforting fact is that organic farming methods of either meat or agriculture cause comparable levels of eutrophication and pollution in general.

When it comes down to it, once we take out the amount of waste that the animals themselves produce, and the grain required to feed them, one could almost argue that eating meat is as good or bad for the planet as being vegetarian. Almost. But if you really want to feel better, be careful with your supermarket trip. Walk there regularly, or drive and make it worth it. Cook efficiently and consider your power use. Then feel bad for that 8oz steak.

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  1. Electrum Stardust says:

    (1) ———-“rainforest depletion in the lower Americas (for soybean production), and animal manure dumped into rivers (as a result of factory farming).” :

    —– And so do all those soy really get eaten directly by humans like you and me? Of course not. (“Soy provides cheap food to fatten our pigs and chickens […] “)

    (2) ———- “in terms of chemicals being added to the eco system”:

    —– Going organic not only reduces the amount of chemicals used. More importantly, it prevents genetically engineered material, the health and environmental effects of which are largely unpredictable, being released into our eco-system.

    (3) ———- “The amount of grain required for a cow over its lifetime is enormous”:

    —– Not to mention the amount of water needed– that could instead be used by you and me. (“it takes 4000 glasses of water to make 1 glass of milk”) Water used both during the rearing process itself, as well as water damage caused by post-production pollution of waterways etc. (“meat production damages waterways more”– indeed.)

  2. BFG says:

    This article struggles to make sense.

    “When it comes down to it, once we take out the amount of waste that the animals themselves produce, and the grain required to feed them, one could almost argue that eating meat is as good or bad for the planet as being vegetarian.”

    How is that possibly a conclusion from this article? Or from any source noted in the article?

    First you point our that 1kg of meat uses 20 times as much energy as 1kg of potatoes to produce and is far more damaging in climate change terms and then say: “So we can eat meet in New Zealand!”. Logic flow fail.

    Maybe the article could have looked at the sheer weight of evidence that indicates that eating meat is so patently worse for the planet than being vegetarian, beofre making such a concluding paragraph.

    Journalists are supposed to engage with the facts – which is more than just stating a couple of facts which tend to different conclusions and saying it is therefore inconclusive.

  3. Zoe Reid says:

    This article struggles to make sense.

    “When it comes down to it, once we take out the amount of waste that the animals themselves produce, and the grain required to feed them, one could almost argue that eating meat is as good or bad for the planet as being vegetarian.”

    How is that possibly a conclusion from this article? Or from any source noted in the article?
    —Because the parts of animal-rearing which we have to worry about in terms of the environment are waste (because waste disposal is by far the largest polluter), and how we feed the animals (because of the sheer amount of energy required to create that food). The processing etc of food is comparable in terms of waste and energy from animal to vegetable to grain.

    First you point our that 1kg of meat uses 20 times as much energy as 1kg of potatoes to produce and is far more damaging in climate change terms and then say: “So we can eat meet in New Zealand!”. Logic flow fail.
    –Because in NZ we technically have controls for waste management (I say technically, because in practise a lot does still end up in rivers and all the wrong places), and the food we feed cattle and sheep is grass, so there’s significantly less energy output and land wastage compared to, say, the UK (where most of my sources are from) or the US where they have to grow the crops to feed the animals.

    Maybe the article could have looked at the sheer weight of evidence that indicates that eating meat is so patently worse for the planet than being vegetarian, beofre making such a concluding paragraph.

    –The conclusion is supposed to point out that the massive weight of evidence shows meat-eating is horrendous for the environment. When it comes down to it, kilo for kilo, the way we move our food from supermarket to plate (incl cooking) is by far the part which uses the most amount of energy. Which means more fuel/oil/gas is used in the home, proportionately, for your steak than previous to your purchasing it. Sorry if the sarcasm is a bit over your head.

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