Dear EarthTalk: We've been hearing for years how producing red meat is bad for the environment while consuming it is bad for our health. How do other types of meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins stack up in terms of environmental and health impacts? -- Julia Saperstein, via e-mail
Not all forms of protein are created equal as to the environmental and health implications of raising and consuming them. A 2011 assessment by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that "different meats and different production systems have varying health, climate and other environmental impacts."
The quantity of chemical fertilizers, fuel and other "production inputs" used, the differences in soil conditions and production systems and the extent to which best practices such as cover cropping, intensive grazing or manure management are implemented all affect the amount of greenhouse gas emissions a meat product is responsible for generating. To wit, lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon raised "conventionally" (e.g. with inputs including hormones and antibiotics and feed derived from crops grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers) were determined by EWG to generate the most greenhouse gases.
EWG partnered with the environmental analysis firm CleanMetrics to assess the climate impacts via life-cycle assessments of 20 popular types of meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins. EWG's assessment calculated the full "cradle-to-grave" carbon footprint of each food item based on the greenhouse gas emissions generated before and after it left the farm -- from the pesticides and fertilizer used to grow animal feed all the way through the grazing, animal raising, processing, transportation, cooking and even disposal of unused food (since some 20 percent of edible meat gets thrown away by Americans).
According to EWG, conventionally raised lamb, beef, cheese and pork also generate more polluting waste, pound for pound. Of these, lamb has the greatest impact, followed by beef and then by cheese -- so vegetarians who eat dairy aren't off the hook. "Beef has more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times more than chicken and more than 13 times as much as vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu," summarized EWG.
On the health front, EWG reported that "eating too much of these greenhouse gas-intensive meats boosts exposure to toxins and increases the risk of a wide variety of serious health problems, including heart disease, certain cancers, obesity and, in some studies, diabetes."
Besides cutting out animal-derived proteins altogether, the best thing we can do for our health and the environment is to cut down on our meat consumption and choose only organic, humane and/or grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy.
"Overall, these products are the least harmful, most ethical choices," EWG stated, adding that grass-fed and pasture-raised products are typically more nutritious and carry less risk of bacterial contamination. "While best management practices can demonstrably reduce overall emissions and environmental harm, the most effective and efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts from livestock is simply to eat, waste and produce less meat and dairy."
For more information, check out EWG's free online "Meat Eater's Guide."
Contacts: EWG Meat Eater's Guide, www.ewg.org/meateatersguide.
Dear EarthTalk: Why were some environmental websites blacked out all day back on June 4? Was this some sort of protest, or did they get hacked? -- Ned Cooper, Detroit
It wasn't hackers this time. In fact, a group of environmental and social justice organizations representing millions of Canadians blacked out their websites for 24 hours this past June 4 to protest efforts by Canada's conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to push through a budget bill that would significantly weaken environmental protections.
Organizations leading the black-out include the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Greenpeace, Nature Canada, Sierra Club Canada and World Wildlife Fund Canada, and several others. More than 13,000 other websites -- including those of many major U.S. green groups including the Sierra Club -- also participated in the black-out and continue to support the effort calling for stronger, not weaker, environmental protections. Reported the Black Out Speak Out website: "The environmental changes are particularly undemocratic and worrisome given the extent to which the government is going to please powerful oil interests ... ."
Green leaders say Harper's motives stem from his interest in expanding and exploiting Canada's tar sands oil and gas deposits, which constitute the second largest petroleum reserve in the world (after Saudi Arabia's).
"Harper's attacks are happening for many reasons, not the least of which was the success of environmental groups in Canada, the U.S. and Europe in threatening what Big Oil wants most: unlimited tar sands expansion and pipelines like the Keystone XL to send its oil around the globe," reported Michael Marx, director of the U.S. Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign, on the Huffington Post website. "He put the interests of the oil industry first and looked the other way when it came to enforcing laws about air and water pollution, endangered species and the health of downstream communities."
Marx said that "tar sands oil companies are destroying a pristine forest the size of England, accelerating the rate of climate change, causing thousands of wolves, bears, migratory birds, and caribou to die, and leaching toxic chemicals into rivers, as downstream communities experience a spike in cancer rates."
According to Marx, Harper's government is trying to disarm its opposition by threatening the charitable status (and thus the fund-raising ability) of green groups who oppose tar sands, subjecting them to onerous tax reporting requirements to bog them down.
"`Black Out, Speak Out' is a warning that the Harper government has gone too far," Marx said. "This protest has brought together a diverse array of Canadians to defend their democracy and right to have an open debate about the future of their country."
"Hopefully Black Out, Speak Out will mobilize thousands of Canadians and Harper will learn that it's one thing to attack environmentalists and quite another to attack freedom of speech," Marx said. "If the Harper government pursues this repressive policy, it should expect the backlash to spread in Canada, the U.S. and in Europe."
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to email@example.com.