Carrying On: The sky is falling: Leaving red meat behind

October 22, 2014

It’s hard not to be pessimistic about the fate of the world, given the recent slate of depressing news—the Islamic State, protests in Hong Kong, Syria’s civil war, natural disasters, West African’s Ebola outbreak, just to name a few. In fact, it feels impossible to be optimistic at all. Maybe I’m more cynical than most, but I’m sure modern civilization as we know it is ending sometime in the uncomfortably near future. Most reports about climate change—assuming you are not getting your information from Fox News—contain a tone of unavoidable doom.

Seeing all this unfold is terrifying, considering there is, more or less, nothing I can do to stop the Islamic State, find those 43 students missing in Mexico, or help Syrian rebels win Aleppo. The world is falling apart and there is nothing I can do about it.

In an attempt to do my part in bettering the world, though, I recently decided to stop eating red meat (specifically beef, for those of you who consider pork to be red meat). No, eating red meat doesn’t have some strange butterfly effect that helps Mexican cartels or Bashar al-Assad’s government. It does, however, have a substantial impact on the environment.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or, again, watching Fox News), you know that climate change rhetoric is quickly evolving from “future consequence” to “current international crisis.” Recently, several large companies, such as Coca-Cola and Chipotle, have listed climate change as a possible issue for the future of their respective businesses. The Pentagon now considers climate change a threat to national security. The world is in turmoil and, as a college student who is trying to get her degree on time, there isn’t a lot I can do to stop that. But for right now, the one, simple thing I can do to at least reduce my contribution to all this is to not eat red meat.

If you’re reading the Voice, you’ve probably seen Food, Inc. or Supersize Me, and may have read all about the mess that is the American food production industry. But, for those of you who might need a refresher, here are some basic numbers according to National Geographic: beef requires about 30 times more land (pastures and cropland for growing feed) to produce the same number of calories as pork, and almost 50 times more land than eggs. It takes about 36.2 thousand calories of feed to produce a thousand calories of beef, compared with 11.3 thousand for pork and 8.8 thousand for poultry. Beef requires about 10 times more irrigation water than do pork or poultry, and it produces about five times the amount of carbon dioxide as pork and poultry do.

I know that not eating beef won’t automatically return a bunch of grain back to American cropland to be directly exported to countries experiencing food shortages—I’m an economics major and I know the system is more complicated than that. But, in a world where we need to cut down on emissions and try to figure out how to feed 9 billion people 30 years from now, it seems immoral to eat beef.

Every time I take a bite of beef, I feel a pang of guilt—or maybe just a spike in my cholesterol. Every time I take a bite of red meat, I know that I could be doing more to make one teeny tiny impact on one problem the world is facing right now. Not eating that steak really could save 120 gallons of water, 2.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide, about 430 square feet of pastures, and 10,000 calories worth of feed (these calculations were done assuming a piece of steak is about 300 calories—a little less than 3 ounces).

Those numbers may appear surprising, but I’m not writing this column to try to convince you stop eating red meat. I wanted to explain what I’m doing hopefully to have a small (or just non-negative) impact on a few recent headlines, so that you can look at your consumer choices and find that there are one or two things you find fault with. Maybe you decide that red meat, or non-organic food, or cosmetics tested on animals isn’t something you support. And maybe making that little change won’t have the most far-reaching impact, but at the very least if we start questioning what we support as consumers, we can be more informed about the impact we’re having on those distant headlines.

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