If you're going to "make" a quarter-pound hamburger, here are the ingredients you will need: A cow, of course. But also, 6.7 pounds of feed, 52.8 gallons of water for the cow to drink and to grow the feed, 74.5 square feet of land for the animal to graze and to grow the feed. And then the big one: 1,036 BTUs of fossil fuel energy in order to transport the feed, the animals, and ultimately deliver the hamburger to wherever you're eating it. Oh, and that doesn't account for the portion of the 80 million metric tons of methane that livestock produces on an annual basis.
There's no way around it: If you eat meat, you're causing climate change. If you're driving a Prius, or making sure to take public transit, or conserving water and using flourescent lightbulbs, that's great. But if you're serious about the state of our planet, your meat consumption has to change.
The latest reminder comes courtesy of a new study from the U.N. that looks at the relationship between "food choices" and nitrogen emissions. As you'd expect the relationship is huge, with 80% of the reactive nitrogen -- that is, nitrogen released by humans into the atmosphere, causing smog, acid rain, ozone depletion, and increased greenhouse gases -- released by the European Union is done so through agricultural production. And of that amount, a vast majority -- between 79% and 88% -- is due specifically to livestock production.
In other words, if you want to keep emission levels down, there is no quicker and better way than by cutting meat consumption from everyone's diet. (And keep in mind, that's in the E.U., where the average person eats 66.2 kilograms, or 145 pounds, of meat per year. In the U.S., we bump that consumption up to 92.4 kilograms, or over 200 pounds, of meat per year.)
Of course, it isn't entirely realistic to tell everyone to stop eating meat altogether. So instead, they took a more modest approach:
[A] 50% reduction in livestock product consumption and production would reduce current European agricultural reactive nitrogen emission by around 40%.
Cut meat consumption by half, and it will help the environment a whole heck of a ton. Which is why, as the Climate News Network points out, maybe it's time to reintroduce the concept of demitarianism.
Essentially, demitarianism is the midway point between vegetarianism and acting as a "normal," red-blooded, meat-eater. It's not cutting meat completely out of your diet, but instead being more mindful about the amount you ingest. Rather than automatically ordering a meat entrée with every meal, take a few meals off. Sure, Meatless Mondays are worthwhile, but even better are adding Meatless Thursdays and Fridays into the mix as well.
However, the way to go about convincing people to not eat so much meat isn't necessarily by offering up visions of an apocalyptic future. As Professor Mark Sutton, a co-author of the U.N. report, told the afore-linked Climate News Network, people may be more convinced if their own personal health was at stake:
My sense is that the health drivers are more important than the environmental ones on this issue.
And if that's the prodding you're looking for, well, there's plenty of that too, including a recent study concluding that people who eat high-protein meat diets are more likely to develop cancer in middle age. Which is all to say: Anyway you slice it, it's time we all stop slicing so much meat.
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