“Flexitarianism”: An Effort to Decrease the Environmental Impact of Meat Production

People give up meat for a multitude of reasons, but it is relatively uncommon to hear sustainability as the driving force.  Prior to looking into this issue I had only a cursory understanding of the negative effect of the meat industry on the environment.  American food journalist Mark Bittman summarizes the shocking global influence of the meat industry in a 2008 article in the New York Times titled, “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler”.  Industrial meat production consumes massive amounts of energy, pollutes water supplies, emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, and leads to rain forest destruction.

The variety of studies selected by Bittman form a frightening picture of how meat production is harming our environment.  The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that close to 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock production. According to a study by Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, Americans reducing our national meat consumption by 20% would equate to every American switching from driving sedan to a Prius.  Additionally, the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan calculates that production of just 2.2 pounds of beef requires the same amount of energy as a 100-watt light bulb for 20 days. One aspect of livestock production that I had not considered before reading this article was the effect of growing grain in order to feed the livestock.  The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly three-fourths of the nation’s water-quality problems originate in growing grain for animal feed.  Compounding the problem, resources needed to sustain the increase in livestock production are a major contributor to deforestation of the tropical rain forests.

Bittman advocates for “flexitarianism”, eating meat as a treat rather than a regular part of your diet.  Americans commonly have the impression that we must eat meat to consume enough protein.  However, Americans eat on average 110 grams of protein a day when the amount recommended by the federal government is is only 75 grams, and dietary experts recommend even less.  He argues that if you simply choose to eat less meat, rather than cut it out of your diet completely, the change is more likely to stick. It is not necessary to cut meat consumption down to zero, but the accelerating demand must be reversed to ameliorate the detrimental dangers of livestock production.