On November 22, 2016 MindBodyGreen (MBG) outlined 6 ways to help save the planet. In the post MBG quotes The Union of Concerned Scientists. They list the three biggest things Americans can do to help address global warming in order of importance: “switch to a car with better fuel economy, manage energy use at home, and eat less red meat.”
DO AMERICANS REALLY EAT TOO MUCH MEAT?
In the first place, I invite anyone who claims Americans eat “too much” red meat to reconsider the data, which is quite confusing and often alarming until you realize that it’s very easy to distort the numbers depending on the point you are trying to make.
Data reported by alarmists report food availability data ( and even raw carcass weights) and sloppily label it consumption. The USDA regularly tracks how much food is available to purchase, known as “availability”. However not everything that is purchased is consumed.
Americans are notoriously wasteful, with a full 28% of waste occurring in our kitchens at home and in restaurants. More accurate food availability data corrects for estimated food waste, with the USDA warning that this effort is complex and still evolving.
I spent the better part of the afternoon tracking down the numbers at USDA and found that availability of meat per person, including veal, pork, lamb, poultry and fish totaled 133 pounds per capita per year.* At a total of just under 6 ounces a day, this figure accounts for typical cooking loss and waste. Red meat alone totals 69.2 pounds a year for an estimate of just over 3 ounces a day, contributing about 21 grams of pure protein (most animal products deliver about 7 grams of protein per ounce of weight). Is this really excessive?
US Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) figures listing that a 170# 5’10” average male requires 56 grams of protein a day, basically 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Women at 120 pounds and 5’4″ require 46 grams a day. However, most critics fail to recognize that these figures represent what is necessary to maintain homeostasis, the body’s work of growing new cells and repairing tissue. They do not address equally important goals such as supporting better metabolic health, nor the additional protein needs for competitive and recreational athletes, pregnant and lactating women, and other special conditions.
WHEN WE EAT PROTEIN A BIGGER ISSUE
Three ounces equals a serving of protein health professionals have recommended for decades, basically the size of a deck of cards. Sure, some consumers eat less protein, and others eat more. And a few eaters consume too much too often. However, in my experience a larger person often needs more than a three ounce portion of protein to feel satisfied, and a bunch of other folks do, too.
More often than not, people eat too little protein during the day, and then eat much larger portions at night–of everything. Poor distribution of protein throughout the day often drives overeating, especially excessive starch and sugar. This is especially true when someone is insulin resistant and struggling to metabolize fat for fuel. Eating more protein and good fats can help restore metabolic health.
PRODUCING BETTER MEAT HELPS THE ENVIRONMENT
Despite the fact that Americans don’t necessarily eat obscene amounts of meat, eating more animal food clashes with conventional thinking about the environment, GHG emissions, and climate change. Ironically, emerging research tells us that eating better meat may save us all.
A recent article published by Richard Teague of Texas A&M throws common assumptions about eating less red meat into question. For decades we have relied on simple mathematics, adding up total carbon emissions, water use, or other singular measures to determine environmental damage from raising cattle and eating beef.
Dr Teague opens our eyes, inviting us to consider GHG emissions within the more complex cycles of an ecosystem. His group calculated greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of current agricultural practices (see Figure 2, scenario 1) compared to several other scenarios: the impact if we cut livestock production in half (scenario 2), and then estimated the impact of three progressively more regenerative practices for both crops and livestock (scenarios 3, 4 and 5).
In this exercise Dr. Teague demonstrates how grazing animals contribute to sequestering carbon in the soil where it belongs, increasing organic matter and enhancing soil ecology. By adapting more regenerative cropping and grazing practices, eating better meat could make a drastic impact on mitigating GHG emissions and climate change compared to the often repeated advice to eat less meat.
COUNTERING CONVENTIONAL THINKING ABOUT RED MEAT
Dr. Teague’s work provides scientific gravitas to the observations of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, and scientific journalists speaking to the benefits of regenerative agriculture. I’ve learned from many.
Allan Savory opened my eyes to truths regarding animals, the land, the water, and climate change. Judith Schwartz reinforced the message that cows can save us. Kristin Ohlson filled in missing pieces and taught me how the soil saves us.
Nicolette Hahn Niman echoed my own findings in her excellent book, Defending Beef. Both of us recognize distortions in the scientific literature. Many frame red meat as a primary cause of disease and environmental harm. The literature is quite weak regarding the impact of red meat on health. When it comes to the environment, cattle aren’t so much the problem as the conditions in which they are raised.
NATURE GETS THE SCIENCE RIGHT
Michael Pollan’s seminal work, the Omnivore’s Dilemma, prodded me to learn more about how our food is grown. As a dietitian I have come to believe that more than any one diet, our best bet is eating close to the earth. His writing reinforces my own thinking.
Over the years I’ve come to respect nature’s inherently complex yet efficient systems for nutrient recycling. I discovered the wisdom of those who work the land and understand that nature gets the science right. I keep reading, and visit farms and ranches both near and far.
Some of my most memorable lessons come from the time spent at Polyface Farms, and with Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures, Scott Stone of Yolo County Land and Cattle Company, and Molly and John Chester of Apricot Lane Farms. I appreciate more local support from the farmers that feed me including Bill, Delia and Romeo Coleman of Coleman Family Farms and Greg Nauta of Rocky Canyon Farms.
When it comes to eating meat, our best bet is eating better meat and other animal products including milk, yogurt, butter and eggs. Yes, our grocery bills will be higher. However, that’s a rather small price to pay to save the planet.
Adding eggs and cheese intake to meats brings per capita animal protein intake to 187 ounces per year, just under 9 ounces a day. Updated to correct initial calculation error 12/1/16.