Foodie Friday: On Reducing the Meat You Eat

The recent United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was incredibly depressing in its conclusions about the speed and impact of global warming, but left me with some clear ideas of what I can do in my own life to reduce emissions. Paramount among those is reducing how much meat my family eats.

According to the report, the world, and especially countries like the US with populations that consume a lot of meat, must cut down on the meat we eat. And not just a little bit, not just a ‘meatless Monday,’ but cut meat consumption by 90%.  This is because meat production causes the most destructive environmental impact of any industry, due to water use, land use, and methane, phosphorus and nitrogen creationAnimal-related agriculture has more negative environmental impact than all vehicles on earth combined.

For once, I felt like there was something simple I could do to help combat climate change. Obviously, to make a large impact on climate change there has to be cultural and systemic movement. The results of, say, a state legislature taxing red meat, or farmers not growing and grazing in the deserts of the Southwest or Southern California (!) would be much greater than anything I could do as an individual. Inevitably, though, scaling back the meat industry means we all need to eat less meat. It’s a very simple step we can take that all of us have to do on our own, no matter what legislation is passed, or what the livestock industry does (or doesn’t do).

Less meat eaten = less demand for cows, pigs and chickens = reduction of greenhouse gases. Right now, 45% of ALL land on earth is used for grazing or growing feed crops for livestock.  This is … crazy.

The transition to reducing our household meat consumption was greatly assisted by the frankly ridiculous amount of veggies (so. much. kale.) we produced in our gardens this summer. Because I’m a cheapskate who hates to waste anything, this meant we were eating a lot of vegetables every day. Although I love to cook, I hate grocery shopping. And due to the aforementioned cheapskatedness, if I could get food out of the garden, augment it with something from the pantry, and not have to pay out dollars OR go the grocery store? That is a win. So over the last few months I’ve found myself increasingly turning to beans, lentils and the garden for each meal.

This meant the October UN climate change report came at an opportune time to make the transition to largely vegetarian meals official. Now, we eat meat maybe once a week, sometimes less.

Of course, there are tons of reasons that people go vegetarian. Animal rights. Health concerns. But for me, the environment is #1, and the others are side benefits.

For now, I’m not going completely vegetarian. A strange fact about me is that I actually grew up vegetarian. That kind of commitment was no joke in the 1980s, before ANYONE was vegetarian. The only meat we would eat was when my dad would bring home a fish he caught, and boneless, skinless chicken breast once a week (and that was only because the doctor told my mom that my weight was way below the growth charts so I needed to get more protein). That was until I was eight years old! The first red meat I ate was a McDonald’s burger at a friend’s birthday party, which immediately made me throw up so much I had to be sent home. My childhood experience made me wary to give up meat altogether. I think there’s a reason my sister and I are the only people I know who are shorter than both their parents, and that it likely has something to do with not getting meat (and accompanying growth hormones) as children. Maybe this is a good thing, I’m not sure, but at minimum I wish I’d had a broader palate early on. I had to acquire a lot of tastes over time because of our restricted diet.

It’s a strange experience, backing off of meat, because it took me years to get used to meat at all, especially red meat. It wasn’t until college that I first started actually enjoying a steak.

But for a long time now, I’ve loved eating meat. Plus, cooking vegetarian meals is more time-consuming than a meal starring meat. You grill a steak, it takes all of ten minutes from the time you get it out of its packaging to the time it’s on your plate. And it’s good! With veggies, you clean, you chop, you steam, you season, and then it can be delicious. But it ain’t a steak, and you’re not going to get the type of glory you do when you make Bolognese. Or duck breast. And yes, this is why I’ve featured a few meat recipes! Because they are tasty and get you the glory.  This is all to say that giving up meat IS actually a sacrifice for me, not just some easy change. If you struggle with it, I get it. It’s hard. But it’s one thing to say “I am never going to run a marathon,” for example, vs. “I am never reducing the meat I eat.” A marathon may be a great way to get in shape, but ultimately running one only effects you. Reducing meat intake effects us all.

Environmentally speaking, it would be even better to go vegan. No cheese, no butter, no eggs – that would decrease demand for livestock even more. For me, this is too much. I love cheese. I love butter. I love eggs. Food is a great joy in life, and I don’t want to completely eliminate things I truly enjoy. I’ve tried to mitigate the impact of eating these items by, yes, also cutting back on how frequently I eat these items, but also eating only the eggs from our chickens and the milk and butter produced by our local dairy. Obviously we’re hugely lucky to have a dairy all of four minutes away, and to raise our own chickens. Not everyone can do this, but everyone can find their own way of reducing how far their food travels, and what they choose to eat.

As a wise man (*cough* Cookie Monster *cough*) said, some things are a “sometimes food.” And we’re adding meat to that list.