Are you trying to eat healthier? Then stop eating red meat.
That’s the message that we’ve see in the past few years: dozens of news articles and medical journals tell us the dangers of red meat–beef in particular. The recent scare over pink slime has further increased distaste and caution around ground beef, and the suspicion is beginning to spread to other types of meat as well. Amidst all of the hype about meat in our diets, sustainability- and health-conscious consumers might wonder why scientists are focusing on red meat. Why not chicken, pork, or fish? The answer is two-sided: one relates to health concerns, and the other relates to environmental impacts of cattle-raising. Let’s briefly look at both.
First, let’s define red meat. Red meat is meat that is red when it’s uncooked and that does not turn white when cooked. The most common types of red meat are beef, lamb, duck, and horse. When we turn our focus to beef in particular, we are faced with a growing body of scientific evidence about its adverse health effects.
There are two main health concerns about red meat consumption: cancer and cardiovascular illnesses. A wide range of studies have identified a link between red meat consumption and serious, chronic diseases–in particular, heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. How strong is the link? According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, the World Cancer Research Fund, and numerous other medical journals, there is “convincing” evidence linking red meat consumption with colon cancer. Some evidence also suggests red meat also causes other types of cancer, but these reports are not as concrete. While this post will not be long enough to address the extent of this evidence or its credibility, the volume of peer-reviewed research studies identifying this link forces the public to think hard about how much beef it eats.
Now what about the second aspect of concern: environmental impacts? It may seem strange to abstain from eating beef because of sustainability, but there is likewise overwhelming evidence that points to cattle as a driver of climate change. Don’t believe it? Let’s take a look at some of the components of cattle livestock raising and their associated environmental impacts.
- Feed. A pound of beef requires, on average, seven pounds of feed (more that twice that of pork or chicken).
- Land use. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identifies cattle land grazing as a major cause of deforestation and the loss of unique plant and animal species.
- Water. The volume of total water required to produce one ton of beef is around 16,000 cubic meters, which is more water than is required to produce the next three greatest animal products–pork, cheese, and poultry–combined.
- GHG emissions. According to the FAO, 9% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, 37% of methane emissions, and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions stem from livestock production. Red meats are 150% more greenhouse gas intensive than chicken or fish. In addition, large volumes of methane are attributed to cattle manure and flatulence; note that methane has a much higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide does.
- Waste. Poor management of manure can cause water contamination. However, properly managed manure can have positive environmental impacts like use as fertilizer and biogas harvesting.
With the way that it is commercially being produced today, red meat is not a sustainable thing to eat. Eating beef every day–or even at every meal–would be very unwise, in view of its health and environmental impacts. To preserve long-term health (and to curb climate change), we would all be better off with diets that lean heavily toward vegetarian options.