By MARK BITTMAN
Today the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health,” a comprehensive report that suggests what’s become a common refrain here and elsewhere: we all need to eat fewer animal products – not just meat, but dairy as well. The guide tracks the lifecycle of the food we eat, from production and processing to consumption and waste disposal. It’s tricked out with enough features, graphics, and factoids to keep you busy – or equal parts hopeful and despondent – for a while.
– Of 20 common proteins and vegetables analyzed, cheese has the third highest greenhouse gas emissions. Lamb and beef have the two highest, lentils have the lowest. (An aside: as it turns out, lentils and lamb are great together. The key is to use small amounts of flavorful, fatty lamb, just enough to infuse a big pot of lentils with tons of flavor as you cook them low and slow.)
– If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, over a year, the effect on emissions would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road. (Another aside: if for two days a week you don’t eat any meat or cheese until dinnertime, you’ll accomplish something similar.)
– A 2009 National Cancer Institute study of 500,000 Americans found that the people who ate the most red meat were 20 percent more likely to die of cancer and at least 27 percent more likely to die of heart disease than those who ate the least. (No aside needed.)
The EWG recommends that consumers buy right-size portions to reduce waste, avoid eating meat and cheese at least one day a week and choose “greener” options like grass-fed, organic and pasture-raised animal and dairy products that are produced in a more ethical manner and without antibiotics or hormones. (Clearly, equitable access is a big issue here.)
The guide’s addendum to the personal consumption platform is that even if everyone in the U.S. went “vegetarian” — that is, 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.
Eating less meat and dairy doesn’t require any additional time or effort. Calling your congressman does. I’d say start with the first: with the energy you gain from eating a plant-based diet you might be ready to lobby ‘til the cows come home.