Bad News For Meat Lovers

Big news just came out today for anyone who eats (i.e., everyone): The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) made a historic shift today by directly linking our eating habits to negative environmental effects. The report goes on to advise against eating all forms of meat — both red and lean — which is a major change from previous years. Miriam Nelson, one of the committee members, is quoted as stating, “We’re not saying that people need to become vegans, but we are saying people need to eat less meat.”

The DGAC report is the groundwork for revised versions of the USDA Dietary Guidelines. 
Predictably, this has got the meat lobby in a tizzy, and they have released various statements calling this report "flawed" and "nonsensical" (North American Meat Institute), adding that the DGAC has gone beyond its mandate and area of expertise.

It makes sense that any food consortium would take issue with a report whose guidelines are not in its favor. DGAC reports are significant, because they serve as guidelines for federal food programs such as school lunches — and that means big money is at stake. For example, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services Purchase Summary shows that in 2014, these programs bought close to 115 million pounds of beef commodities worth over $300 million, and 254 million pounds of chicken worth over $260 million (Forbes). 

The question of what is the most environmentally friendly diet might seem simple, but it is actually a total Rubik’s Cube. For example, while vegetarians and vegans are not responsible for emissions related to meat production, many use tofu as a protein source, and that is linked to the deforestation of the Amazon (a source of indirect emissions). And, what other complicated external factors have to be taken into account? For example, fruits and vegetables are 80 to 90% water, so when we ship them from farm to market over long distances, we are basically burning a lot of petroleum to ship cold water around. Is it better, as far as environmental impact is concerned, to eat a local, organic steak from 10 miles away or an avocado from 1,000 miles away? The list of complicated factors such as these goes on and on, and getting to an empirically tested, data-based answer has been difficult.
Photographed by Ben Ritter

It was not until July 2014 that a food study from EPIC-Oxford looked into the food habits of 55,504 meat eaters, pescatarians (vegetarian diet + fish), vegetarians, and vegans, and concluded that vegetarian and vegan diets are the most environmentally friendly. Through extensive data analysis and number-crunching, the study concluded that the average 2,000-calorie meat diet produces 2.5 times as many emissions as a 2,000-calorie vegan one. It’s also important (and upsetting) to note that the study defined “high-meat diet” as more than 3.5 ounces — the equivalent of one chicken breast — per day. 

So, what to do? In the opinion of this food editor, if you are trying to make environmentally responsible choices with your food, the best bet is to focus your diet on whole grains and local, seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Additionally, if giving up meat altogether is an impossibility for you, eating LESS meat can also have a significant impact. And, when you do eat meat, consider enjoying it as a side dish, rather than as a main course. If everyone ate meat as a side dish, a single animal would be able to feed many more people. You can also get involved by showing your support (or voicing your dissent) on the DGAC’s first draft, as it is now a public document. 

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