Meat and Dairy Illustrate Resource Limits: EWG Report

Even as co-ops and other local food providers promote meat and dairy from pastured livestock, these advocates are confronted with drawbacks to a diet centered on those resource-intensive foods. “Meat-Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health,” an Environmental Working Group (http://www.ewg.org) report released on July 18, provides a comprehensive analysis of the lifecycle of common foods, and meat and dairy are at the top in their impact.

Concerning personal health, ill effects from heavy consumption of meat and dairy have been argued and researched for many years. But arguments about resource limits tend to get lost in the U.S., and the Environmental Working Group report is a reminder that at least since the 1960s (think Diet for a Small Planet), a primary argument for minimizing meat and dairy has been that these foods consume far more resources than vegetarian alternatives. That is still a strong argument, and we now can see the consequences of high resource consumption in climate instability.

In “More Weight on Less Meat,” Mark Bittman, food columnist at the New York Times, comments in reviewing the EWG report that it is further evidence of what we already have heard about over-consumption of meat and dairy: http://bittman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/18/more-weight-on-less-meat.

However, the health evidence is much disputed, and generations of study also point to a vital role for livestock in both farming and diet. What kind of meat and dairy, in what kind of diet, and in how active a lifestyle? It’s important to make distinctions:
red meat vs. fish and chicken;
local and pasture-based and clean meat and dairy vs. food from grain-fed animals in distant, concentrated animal feedlot operations that overuse antibiotics;
moderate consumption that is balanced with other foods vs. eating meat and dairy at nearly every meal;
and, often unmentioned, a lifestyle with regular exercise vs. a sedentary one that makes most any eating habits amount to over-consumption.

The worst health statistics, and the most resources used in production, apply to daily consumption of red meat from grain-fed industrial operations. Pasture-based livestock is lower, sometimes much lower, in its use of water, fuel, feed, and other components of farming that consume resources and generate global warming gases. The rules for organic dairy, a nutritionally superior product, require that a major portion (though not all) of the animals’ diet be from pasture. But such cleaner meat and dairy products are still at the top of the food chain, and moderating consumption can impact both personal health and environmental health.

Bittman adds a necessary final cautionary note about environmental impact: “The guide’s addendum to the personal consumption platform is that even if everyone in the U.S.…eliminated meat but continued to eat dairy at our current rate — it would make only a small (though significant) dent in overall emissions. The subsequent recommendation is that to significantly reduce emissions we all have to lobby our elected officials to adopt a comprehensive energy and climate policy that puts the U.S. on a path to green energy. Needless to say, that hasn’t happened.”

See other articles from this issue: • Endcap Articles