Is Meat Bad for the Environment?

By Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman
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Photo by thebittenword.com/Flickr CC


Chefs and farmers gathered recently in Chicago to exchange ideas about making the food system healthier and more environmentally sustainable. The summit was hosted by Chefs Collaborative, a Boston-based non-profit (of which Nicolette is a board member). Panels and workshops ranged from butchering whole hogs to food production's role in global warming.

Nicolette led a discussion focused on meat. Because there seems to be a growing perception that meat is inherently bad for the environment, she posed the question: Can meat be part of a sustainable food system? She led off with her own answer, an emphatic "YES!" It all depends on how and where animals are raised, and how meat is used. "Environmentally beneficial farming mimics natural ecosystems," she said. "Healthy ecosystems involve plants and animals functioning together."

Sustainable cooking means using meat that was raised using traditional methods and cutting back on portion sizes. "Eat less meat. Eat better meat."

Moreover, environmental statistics about meat production are often misunderstood. Take global warming. Because the greatest portion of meat's global warming contribution comes from deforestation in Latin America, India, and Asia, domestically-produced meat is unconnected to those emissions. Additionally, livestock raised without being fed fertilized crops are unrelated to another large part of the global warming equation: fossil fuel-based agricultural chemicals.

Nicolette also suggested that some animals are more easily raised in an environmentally benign way. Goats, for instance, can be raised entirely on naturally-occurring vegetation. Even better, goats prefer to eat woody brush that other grazing animals don't like. Thus, a cattle ranch can raise goats and cattle on the same pastures, making more efficient use of the land and naturally occurring vegetation.

She also urged that sustainable cooking means using meat that was raised using traditional methods and cutting back on portion sizes. "Eat less meat. Eat better meat," she encouraged.

Tony Maws, chef and owner of the Cambridge, MA restaurant Craigie on Main, and Matt McMillin, inventor of the big bowl concept, added the chef's perspective to the discussion. Tony talked about cooking with the whole animal, which makes it possible to purchase directly from smaller farms and puts every part of the animal-from nose to tail-to good use. Tony said that he and his sous chefs spend much of their time honing their butchering skills.

As a consultant to restaurants and former partner in the restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You, Matt has spent much of his career helping restaurants make their menus, especially their meat, more environmentally friendly. Greening menus will not succeed without a commitment to "telling the story," Matt said. "Educating the front of the house is absolutely essentially," he emphasized.

The panel was rounded out by Will Harris, a fourth-generation cattle farmer from Georgia. Will Harris described his own transformation from commodity beef producer into grass-fed organic farmer. Meat from his farm costs more now, he explained, because he no longer relies on the short-cuts of hormones and antibiotic feeding.

The meat session's lively dialogue was typical of the Chefs Collaborative conference, which was infused with a palpable enthusiasm. It was a heartening to know that chefs are returning to their communities energized with new ideas and inspiration for sustainability. The Chefs Collaborative board has decided to make the summit an annual event.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/10/is-meat-bad-for-the-environment/27504/