Eat right and save the planet

The difference less meat might make

May 19, 2008

So Anna Lappé has a new project in the works, called Take a Bite out of Climate Change. That mouthful of a name sums up the project’s goal: to save the planet via better food choices. Yup, that’s right: this is the bestselling 1970s book Diet for a Small Planet — written by Lappé’s mom, Frances Moore Lappé — updated for our global-warming times. Lappé even has a new book on the topic coming out soon, titled Eat the Sky: Food, Farming, and the Climate Crisis.

Huffington Post writer Kerry Trueman thinks that Lappé’s project and book are the neatest thing since sliced multigrain bread. But over on Alternet, George Monbiot begs to differ, saying that encouraging everyone to become vegetarian isn’t the way to stop industrial agriculture. He finds himself getting into a bit of head-scratching:

If we eat less meat, we must eat more plant protein, which means taking more land away from animals. On the other hand, some livestock is raised on pasture, so it doesn’t contribute to the grain deficit.

One of the many arguments against the modern industrial feedlot system is that animals raised on grain are, obviously, eating food that could be eaten by humans — not a niggling concern when grain prices around the world are going through the ozone layer. Eating feedlot meat is costly in so many ways: to the environment, to your health and that of the animals you’re eating, to your wallet.

As a recent study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh concluded, even purchasing locally raised meat doesn’t do much to reduce carbon emissions because, in general, raising meat for food produces a ton of greenhouse gases. As NPR pointed out, quoting Chris Weber, one of the study’s researchers:

“Despite all the attention given to food miles, the distance that food travels is only around 11 percent of the average American household’s food-related greenhouse-gas emissions.”

But neither Monbiot, Carnegie Mellon, or NPR raises the question of grass-fed vs. grain-fed meat. Grass-fed advocates say that raising ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, and goats, that have evolved to eat grass (and only grass — not grain!) on scrubland otherwise unsuitable for farming is the perfect way to avoid the problems of the feedlot. The animals are healthier, the land isn’t polluted by lagoons of manure, and the meat, some say, is not only tastier but better for you.

Of course, meat raised in this way is more expensive — which is just what Monbiot thinks it should be. “Let’s reserve [meat] as most societies have done until recently: for special occasions,” writes Monbiot.

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