EWG Releases Its Meat Eater's Guide

EWG, Meat Eater's Guide

I'm starting to wonder if anyone at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) ever sleeps. This year, the organization released its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, updated its Farm Subsidy Database, created the 2011 Sunscreen Guide and today launched the Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health. As a bigshot blogger, I was offered a sneak preview of the guide last week. Naturally. (Reality: the sneak preview invitation was extended to a colleague who passed it along to me. But I'm sure this was just an oversight. Right?)

I entered the super-secret sneak preview website with skepticism – because how much good stuff can one organization produce in six months without cutting corners? Apparently, a whole lot – the site is beautiful, the guide is solid and the underlying analysis is sound. It’s also quite comprehensive; for instance, EWG used a cradle-to-grave carbon footprint assessment (i.e., measuring not only the GHG emissions generated by livestock facilities themselves, but also the GHGs associated with pesticides and fertilizers used to grow animal feed, transportation of final products, cooking and disposal of food waste).

Of course, the conclusions of EWG’s report won’t, for the most part, come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with industrial livestock production and the scientific literature regarding meat consumption. The main themes:

  • Meat has a big carbon footprint.
  • Vegetables have a small carbon footprint.
  • A super meat-heavy diet is bad for your health (especially if much of the meat is red and/or processed).
  • If you eat meat, eat small quantities raised sustainably – it’s better for the environment and better for your health.

Somewhat less obvious info from the guide: lamb and beef have the largest carbon footprints – this is because they're ruminants (and thus generate methane during digestion) and because they consume lots of feed and produce lots of manure. (Note though that since lamb constitutes only 1% of all U.S. meat consumption, its GHG impact is far smaller than beef’s). Cheese was the third most GHG-intensive food analyzed (it requires lots of milk - and milk production requires cows and plenty of feed). But perhaps most surprising is the fact that about 20% of all edible meat is thrown in the trash; this is a tremendous waste of resources - and a substantial addition to our carbon footprint.

I like facts. Do you like facts? Here are facts:

  • Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy, 12% of the chicken, 16% of the beef, 25% of the pork and 31% of turkey. On average, retailers throw out about 5% of the meat they purchase.
  • It takes 149 million acres of cropland, 167 million lbs of pesticides and 17 billion lbs of nitrogen fertilizer to grow feed for the U.S. livestock industry.
  • Lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon generate the most greenhouse gases.
  • In 2009, per capita U.S. meat consumption was 208 lbs (compared to 134 lbs in Europe and 54 lbs in developing countries).
  • If you eat one less burger a week for a year, it’s like taking your car off the road for 320 miles or line-drying your clothes half the time. As mentioned in the guide, you can learn more about reducing meat consumption on the Meatless Monday site.
  • If your four-person family skips meat and cheese one day a week for a year, it’s like taking your car off the road for five weeks – or reducing everyone’s daily showers by three minutes.
  • If your four-person family skips steak once a week for a year, it’s like taking your car off the road for nearly three months.
  • If everyone in the US ate no meat or cheese just one day a week for a year, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

In any case, EWG’s new guide is a pleasure to peruse. And certainly a welcome alternative to industry’s greenwash approach to GHG information. We were also pleased to note that EWG’s climate and health analysis underscores what we've advised for years: if you're going to eat meat, eat smaller quantities of higher quality meat from animals raised sustainably. Learn more on Sustainable Table.