Today I’m going to talk about something that most of us don’t typically want to hear: how our meat consumption is having disastrous consequences on our environment. Yeah, I went there. But wait! Don’t go clicking out of here just yet. I’m not telling you that you have to give up your steak and chicken tenders and devote yourself to a life of lettuce. Rather, lets leave the option on the table to still eat a variety foods, but recognize that in order to do so and keep our planet intact we do need to be mindful about what we eat and the impacts that our food choices have on our environment.
A change in how we produce our food is necessary for the sake of our health, the humane treatment of animals, and our climate. But that does not mean that we need to make big or unpleasant changes in our everyday lives. Food is great. It is something to be savored and enjoyed. Sitting around the table and sharing a meal with loved ones has been a source of tradition, connection, and pleasure since the beginning of time (or, more accurately, the invention of tables). Removing the joy from eating should not and does not have to be part of the solution, and choice is a big part in that. But with that said, if we are going to be agents of choice, we should eat well by doing well, making sure that we aren’t contributing to the destruction of our planet, and being responsible consumers.
To be responsible, we must first be aware. So I am here to share with you some eye-opening facts about our current state of meat production, where we are headed if we stay on this path, and the steps we can take as advocates and educated consumers so we can still enjoy eating meat without wreaking total havoc on the environment. And, if you stick with me all the way to the end, I’ve created for you a delicious and easy meaty recipe that you can make at your next BBQ to dazzle the carnivores in your life.
There are so many troubling aspects to our current system of factory farming that I could devote an entire blog to just this; instead I will share with you my biggest concern: of all the consequences — to our soil, our water, our air, our bodies, our climate — the biggest problem we face is our disconnect. Our apathy to easily ignored consequences perpetuates a system where profitability trumps protection of the environment and public health. That is, unless we start educating ourselves and sharing that knowledge.
The biggest problem we face is our disconnect.
And according to some of the top researchers in this area, there really is a point of “too late” that exists in our lifetime if we keep this up. Based on our current rate of consumption, it is projected that production of meat will double globally by the year 2050 in order to keep up with the demands of the growing population. A major problem with this is that the amount of water we have on earth is fixed, and it takes a staggering amount of it to produce meat and animal products compared to plant-based foods. Did you know it takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef? Wheat, by comparison requires 25 gallons. We don’t want to reach the point where we’ve used and destroyed so much of our resources to meet demand that the world won’t recover.
And the problem extends well beyond a water shortage — land will be a scarce commodity too. The amount of land surface that would be required to support this amount of livestock would not only completely strip the land — but it would start outrunning our towns and cities too. The raising of livestock already uses 30% of the earth’s land surface. And we’re looking at a doubling in meat production in the next several decades? Yikes!
So, we will have to be more efficient with space, you might say.
Well, here’s why that’s unfeasible (and gross). Under current conditions, animals in factory farms are already living in cramped confines. (These sites aren’t called “concentrated animal feeding operations” for nothing!) Chickens that are raised for their meat, for example, are typically kept confined through their lifetimes in what are called “battery cages,” which are smaller than a piece of printer paper. Pigs are raised in such crowded conditions that it is routine practice to cut the tails and teeth off of piglets because they bite each other out of aggression from living in such close quarters. So, if anything, there is a need from an ethical standpoint to give livestock more space; certainly we cannot be crowding them even further.
If the humane treatment of animals argument doesn’t resonate with you, then consider the effects on your health. Animals raised in such tight quarters, living directly in their own waste are surrounded by disease. A large percentage of these animals are sick. And with conventional raising, the animals are regularly given high doses of antibiotics. So much so, that 80% of all antibiotics are used on factory farm animals. Not very appetizing — especially if you follow the mantra ‘you are what you eat.’
And then there is the controversial issue of the liberal use of growth hormones. When animals are not given the ability to roam around and exercise while simultaneously given steroids to promote maximum growth, they become unnaturally large and fat. And did you know that toxins are stored in fat cells? A disconcerting fact when you keep in mind that not all antibiotics and foreign substances are destroyed from cooking heat. Plus, new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are developing on the regular. So you have to stop and think: is this really what I want to be putting in my body? My children? My loved ones?
For these and other reasons, many people choose to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. If this is something that resonates with you, that is truly wonderful. But a problem I frequently encounter is seeing plant-based eaters aggressively trying to change the eating habits of their carnivorous comrades. One cannot force a lifestyle change upon another. More often than not this leads to resistance and does not further the cause. I don’t know about you, but I get angry when people tell me what I should and should not eat.
But I am also angry at the mainstream meat and dairy industries for their dirty and destructive practices. The government is not going to step in here for our best interests because these mega-industries funnel billions of dollars to our legislators annually. And let’s face it — just like people cry outrage when the government tries to put bans or taxes on soda, the masses would rage if the government turned around and said to stop eating meat.
So it’s up to us to enlighten ourselves on this dirty truth, even if we don’t like what we hear and see, and to start changing our own behaviors and positively influencing those around us to help mitigate the destruction of our climate, land and health.
There is more success to be had as agents of change for our food system by spreading the “how” rather than the “why.” Graphic images of animal brutality and nauseating facts are eye-opening, but shoved in someone’s face, they are more likely to be turned off and to tune out. Personally, I’d rather gain troops for the cause by inviting some friends over for bean burritos or portabella burgers, or taking someone with me to the farmer’s market and encouraging them to give grass-fed beef a try.
Creating realistic change on the micro-level lays in encouraging people to choose quality over quantity when it comes to the consumption of animal products. We live in a society of ‘bigger is better,’ and this most evident when you look at food portions at American restaurants. If giving up meat sounds awful to you, then consider taking a path of moderation.
Despite the current diet fads that stress the importance of consuming more protein, most of us are already getting enough if not more than we need. In fact, the average American eats almost 50% more than the recommended daily amount. And with the exception of Luxembourg we eat more meat than any other country. We can’t be a leader for change if we continue to lead on the wrong end of this statistic.
Cutting down on your meat portions does not mean you have to start skimping on meals and feeling deprived. There are several ways to go about this. One easy way is to load up your plate with more vegetables and whole grains. Most countries use meat as the accent instead of the main event on the plate. Using meat to flavor a meal lets you still enjoy your favorite meaty dishes while helping the environment and your health. Double the veggies and halve the meat in your next stir fry, or try making a lasagna that substitutes half of the meat for chopped mushrooms. These little tweaks really add up in the long-term, they are good for your health, and they don’t involve much sacrifice.
Another way to reduce your meat consumption which has rapidly gained popularity in recent years is to adopt “Meatless Monday” in your home. This initiative, originally introduced during the food shortages of World War II has been the biggest single factor in reversing our trends of meat consumption because it is so doable on the individual level but adds up greatly in sum. Check out the official Meatless Monday page for more information and to join the movement!
A lot of us have this conception that there is something missing in a meal without meat, or that the options are limited. But there are so many hearty and interesting vegetarian meals to be savored. In fact, many vegetarians eat a more diverse diet than their carnivorous counterparts because they experiment with alternative sources of protein and are often more adventurous when it comes to trying different plant-based foods. For a ton of ideas for exciting meatless recipes hand-picked by yours truly, check out and follow our Meatless Monday board on Pinterest!
So now that we’ve talked about quantity it’s time to discuss quality. It is crucial that when we do opt to eat meat that we choose the best options available to us. Buying from a local farm is always the best, since you can talk to the producers right at your farmer’s market and find out how exactly your meat was raised. This will eliminate any doubt if you are concerned about the ethical treatment of the animals, how they were raised and fed, and the conditions of the farm. You may have noticed that in many places this has spawned into a pretentious hipster-foodie trend that is frequently met with laughter and sarcasm. But when over 90% of our meat is raised in deplorable conditions and we are faced with a myriad of confusing labels and terms, it really does pay to know what we’re eating.
Whether or not you have are able to buy your meat local, I cannot stress enough the importance of choosing organic whenever possible. Animal products that are certified organic, pasture raised, humane and/or grass-fed are typically the least environmentally damaging. They are also healthier, more nutritious, and tastier. I have a whole blog post coming your way on this topic in the near future, so you’ll have to stay tuned for the details on this. But, in a nutshell, raising animals traditionally helps the climate because this method produces less greenhouse gas emissions and pollution across the entire production process. Pesticide use is also significantly reduced because animals raised under these conditions must be given organic feed.
The obvious flip side to traditional, organic farming is that it is much more costly to run, and so the price of organic grass fed and grain fed meats are often significantly more money than their conventional counterparts. To make matters worse, subsidies are given to factory farms for corn and soy feed, but no such support is currently offered to small farms for grass-fed operations. Not everyone can afford to buy this kind of meat at our current rate of consumption. But I would like to point out that by integrating meatless meals and meat-accented dishes into your regular diet, the cost of sustainable meat evens out. And by voting with our dollars away from the factory farms, we can then only hope to see change.
One last thing to keep in mind in your gastronomic quest for sustainability is that different kinds of meat produce more emissions and are more harmful than others. Processed meats are the most energy intensive and pollution creating due to the intensive production involved. Sticking with natural cuts is a better choice for your health as well. Within that realm, the raising of lamb and beef emits significantly more pollution into the air than chicken or pork, with poultry being on the lowest end of this spectrum. Notice how the foods that are better for your health are also better for the planet’s health as well. Coincidence? I think not!
We’ve covered a lot of ground today. My hope is that this leaves you inspired to be more conscious when it comes to what you are putting on your plate. We are busy people living on the go and it isn’t reasonable to expect that everyone can always take the time and money to choose the most environmentally sound food options at every single meal. It’s just not realistic. But if we strive to be more thoughtful in our efforts, the cumulative impact of all of the better choices we make are the building blocks of lasting, achievable change. This is a critical time in food politics, the state of our food system, and the state of our environment. I encourage you to be part of the movement.
Ready to get started? Great! I’ve created a recipe just for you based on the principles I have outlined here today. It’s a perfectly satisfying and flavorful meal for the next time you fire up your grill, and it is an exciting change from the typical burgers and dogs summer fare. It incorporates fresh, seasonal veggies, grains, as well as a modest amount of meat, so it is sure to please carnivores, and is filling enough to satisfy vegetarians if you serve the meat on the side (or decide to forego it all together).
Grilled Polenta with Caprese Salad and Balsamic Chicken Skewers
Don’t be daunted by the long list of ingredients. This recipe is a breeze to put together!
For the chicken:
- 1 lb uncooked organic free range chicken breast, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes
- 4-6 bamboo or metal skewers
- 1 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 tbsp dried basil
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp pepper
For Caprese salad:
- 2 large organic tomatoes, seeded and diced
- 8 oz pearl sized or diced fresh mozzarella
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 10-12 basil leaves, chopped
For grilled polenta:
- 1 tube pre-cooked polenta
- olive oil, for brushing
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 cups arugula, washed and dried
- 1/4 cup pesto
Prepare the chicken. Arrange chicken on skewers, leaving an inch of space on either end for handling. In a large shallow glass dish, combine the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, basil oregano, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Place chicken skewers in dish, turning to coat evenly in the liquid. Cover and refrigerate for 30-60.
While chicken is marinating, heat your grill on high.
Combine all salad ingredients (tomato through basil) in a bowl and set aside.
Slice the polenta into six even rounds. Place on a cutting board and brush liberally with olive oil on both sides. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
When grill is hot and ready, transfer the chicken to one side of the grill, and the polenta to the other.
Cook chicken until fully cooked, turning as needed.
Cook the polenta for about 20 minutes, carefully flipping with a metal spatula halfway through (tip: the polenta will stick to the grill and fall apart if you try to flip it before it is fully crisp).
The polenta should look like this:
Place polenta rounds on a large serving platter. Top with arugula. Add caprese salad on top of the arugula. Drizzle evenly with pesto. Top with chicken skewers and serve immediately.
Author: Lindsay Golderg