To Meat or Not to Meat?

Now that barbecue season is officially here, this is a particularly good time to take stock of what manner of food you’re going to be grilling. In your efforts to grapple with global climate change—changing light bulbs, recycling, driving hybrids, bringing your own bags, lowering thermostats, and maybe even installing solar panels and additional insulation—you may want to seriously consider eliminating or significantly reducing your meat and animal product consumption. And for good reason.

A little known fact is that diet affects climate change even more than transportation. The United Nations calculates that 18% of greenhouse gas emissions are generated from animal agriculture, whereas 13% come from the whole transportation sector, (Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2007). As far back as 1999, the Union of Concerned Scientists cited the top three climate change concerns as transportation, food (meat), and household operations.

Animal agriculture is a major contributor to heat-trapping greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Energy requirements for meat, egg, and milk production encompass the rearing, slaughtering, and processing of animals, as well as the energy-intensive fertilizer needed for growing animal feed. Deforestation is a major culprit in CO2 release. Internationally, deforested land for growing feed or grazing amounts to twice the size of Portugal in the last 10 years. But other greenhouse gasses, such as methane and nitrous oxide, are produced by an animal’s digestive system, which produces significant gas emissions by way of flatulence and manure—especially cattle. Animal wastes also play havoc with water quality. (To find out more about this whole ugly mess check out Industrial Farm Animal Production, Antimicrobial Resistance and Human Health, a report just out by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health at

Eighty percent of the world’s soybeans and more than 50% of its corn are fed to livestock. Since it takes about 700 calories worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie serving of beef, a meat eater consumes a good deal more grain (and therefore energy) than a plant eater. The scale of meat consumption is already staggering and is expected to more than double worldwide by 2050 as growing economies in countries like China and India allow for meatier diets. Globally 63 billion farm animals are raised and killed each year. The United State has 4.5% of the global population and raises 15% of the animals.

By giving up meat in favor of a plant diet you will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.5 tons per year, according to the University of Chicago study “Diet, Energy, and Global Warming,” keeping calories equal. For the sake of comparison, let’s see how a plant-based diet compares to heating a New England household. On a plant-based diet, a household of four people would be saving 1.5 tons of CO2 per person, or six tons CO2 total per year. Heating the average New England household generates 11 tons CO2 per year. To achieve the same carbon savings in heat that you would get by moving everyone in the household to a plant-based diet, you would have to lower the thermostat over 14 degrees, such as from 68 degrees to 54 degrees.

While many of us are not ready to eliminate meat from out diet, we can make a serious effort to rethink our relationship with meat and make it figure far less in our meals. The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health says the average American man eats 1.6 times as much meat as the government recommends. The American Dietetic Association advises that eating a well-balanced plant diet is nutritionally often superior. To explore this subject both practically and philosophically, visit the Small Planet Institute’s website at Author and activist Frances Moore Lappé and her daughter Anna Lappé founded the institute, whose website directs us to books and other websites that take a refreshing and savory approach to food and our ability to effect change one person at a time. Both mother and daughter have authored or co-authored several such books. Francis is considered one of twelve living "women whose words have changed the world" by the Women's National Book Association. Her 1971 three-million-copy bestseller Diet for a Small Planet continues to awaken readers to the human-made causes of hunger and the power of our everyday choices to create the world we want..

Other diet-related steps to lower your carbon footprint include buying more local foods, eliminating over-packaged foods, and composting food scraps. For more information on global warming issues, go to