Save the Earth by… eating plants?

“Livestock, especially ruminants such as cattle, produce methane (CH4) as part of their normal digestive processes,” the EPA describes. An additional 12% of greenhouse-gas emissions—both methane and nitrous oxide—come from “manure management,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (Illustration by Emma DiMaggio | Signal Tribune)

Buying less red meat reduces greenhouse gases that cause global warming

Beginning with your mom, you’ve been told all your life that eating vegetables is good for you. But did you also know eating less meat—especially red meat—is one of the best things you can do for the environment?

That’s because less beef produced means less greenhouse gases that cause global warming. That means less melting glaciers that make sea levels rise—of interest to Long Beach residents—and fewer weather anomalies that contribute to California wildfires.

Depiction of how greenhouse gases create global warming, courtesy Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Greenhouse gases consist of carbon dioxide (80%), methane (10%), nitrous oxide (7%) and industrial fluorocarbon gases (3%), according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Though methane and nitrous oxide are less prevalent than carbon dioxide, they trap a lot more heat in the atmosphere.

Breakdown of greenhouse gases by type in 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Though carbon dioxide is the most prevalent, the other gases trap significantly more heat by volume. (Courtesy EPA)

“Each of these gases can remain in the atmosphere for different amounts of time, ranging from a few years to thousands of years,” the EPA says.

While we all know that car exhaust adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the EPA says 10% of greenhouse-gas emissions actually come from agriculture, particularly methane from cows.

The agriculture industry produced 10% of all greenhouse-gas emissions in the US, especially from cattle farming, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (Courtesy EPA)

“Livestock, especially ruminants such as cattle, produce methane (CH4) as part of their normal digestive processes,” the EPA describes. An additional 12% of greenhouse-gas emissions—both methane and nitrous oxide—come from “manure management,” the EPA adds. 

“Meat production is the primary source of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period,” the Sierra Club says. “And beef cattle produced over 70 percent of it via enteric fermentation—belching and farting—in 2016.”

Activist organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) cites a study on how “you can reduce your carbon footprint more effectively by going vegan than by switching from a conventional car to a hybrid.”

And a 2018 Lancet medical-journal article cites another study in the journal Science saying that “even the lowest-impact meat causes ‘much more’ environmental impact than the least sustainable forms of plant and vegetable production.”

If you think switching from industrially raised beef to organic beef will skirt the problem, think again.

While organic, grass-fed beef may be better for you in terms of higher nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids and lower pesticidal residue, it isn’t necessarily better for the environment. It still involves more land use than growing plants and produces more gaseous emissions per head of cattle than regular beef.  

Grass-fed cattle grow slower and are slaughtered 6 to 12 months later than grain-fed cattle, increasing their lifetime methane emissions, a 2017 analysis in Environmental Research Letters states. 

Ruminant meats—especially bovine but also goat and sheep—negatively impact the environment by 3 to 10 times more than other animal-based foods, they say, and 20 to 100 times more than plant-based foods.

Therefore, they find switching to more plant-based foods more beneficial to the environment than switching from industrial to organic beef.

“Feeding massive amounts of grain and water to farmed animals and then killing them and processing, transporting and storing their flesh is extremely energy-intensive,” PETA summarizes. “And forests—which absorb greenhouse gases—are cut down in order to supply pastureland and grow crops for farmed animals. Finally, the animals themselves and all the manure that they produce release even more greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.”

Aerial view of the Harris Ranch in Coalinga, California (Courtesy Harris Ranch). If you’ve driven the 5 Freeway between LA and San Francisco, you probably know its aroma.

An even better way to help the environment, PETA says, is becoming completely vegan—eating no animal-based products at all, such as dairy and eggs.

“An Oxford University study, published in the journal Climatic Change, shows that meat-eaters are responsible for almost twice as many dietary greenhouse-gas emissions per day as vegetarians, and about two-and-a-half times as many as vegans,” they cite.

And if that isn’t enough, the World Cancer Research Funds advises limiting red meat to avoid getting cancer. And Harvard Medical School reports that close to 90% of Americans don’t eat enough vegetables. 

“Adults are not eating enough legumes, like beans and lentils, nor are we consuming enough seafood,” they report. “The good news is that replacing some red and processed meat with whole grains, vegetables, and marine and plant-based proteins may help you live longer.”

Photo by Bulbfish from Pexels

Long Beach resident Brett Fischer told the Signal Tribune that he made the switch to mostly plant-based foods six years ago when he moved into a new apartment. He now minimizes meat, cooking mostly vegetarian at home, saying he feels better and has saved money, too.

“It’s hard at first,” he said. “But it gets easier over time as you start to learn the recipes that you really like.”

His favorite dish to make now? Spicy tofu tacos. Sounds like a delicious way to save the planet. 

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