Cutting back on red meat has an outsized impact on the environment
Katherine Tellock was in no rush to give up meat. But when the Chicago resident learned that removing meat from her diet could reduce her carbon footprint even more than switching to a hybrid vehicle, she cut down her meat consumption overall and stopped buying beef entirely. That was almost a decade ago.
“If I go home to visit my family or am a guest in someone’s home and they happen to be making just burgers for dinner, I’m not going to force them to make another meal for me. They don’t always remember. But when I’m buying or ordering my own food, I don’t buy beef,” Tellock says.
Now, as co-founder of the group Chicago Environmentalists, Tellock offers encouragement to others. “I always liked red meat, but there are other meats that are just as good or better, and over time I lost any cravings,” she says. “I swapped out ground beef for ground turkey initially, and now I also eat Impossible Burgers to hit that spot.”
Tellock is doing exactly what scientists globally say more people need to do. In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission, a group of leading scientists and researchers from around the world, released a long-awaited report recommending a “planetary health diet.” The diet outlines the eating pattern necessary to feed the world’s growing population without destroying either the planet or human health.
Among the top recommendations: Reduce red meat consumption.
“Red meat production is associated with catastrophic deforestation, land degradation, and wildlife conflicts,” says Ray Dybzinski, PhD, associate professor at Loyola’s School of Environmental Sustainability. “The gigantic scale of animal operations leads to problems with animal waste and overuse of prophylactic antibiotics,” he adds. The heavy antibiotic use is a major contributor to growing antibiotic resistance.
Christie Klimas, PhD, is an associate professor of environmental science at DePaul University. “The carbon footprint of red meat is high, especially for beef, which some studies have calculated as releasing more than 30 kg of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide per kilogram of meat produced,” she says. In contrast, chicken produces only 6 kg of carbon dioxide per kilogram of meat. “The high impact of beef production is due to methane emissions from cattle and their inefficient conversion of grasses to meat.”
Globally, livestock takes up nearly 80% of land used for agriculture; yet, it makes up only 20% of the calories we eat. Producing 1 lb. of beef causes significantly more environmental destruction than the equivalent amount of protein from beans or chicken.
“Beef is undoubtedly the most environmentally damaging form of meat,” Dybzinski says.
Even compared to cattle grown in low concentrations on small farms, plant foods still have the lowest environ- mental impact.
But red meat’s impacts go beyond the environment. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., followed closely by cancer and Covid-19. Eating more plant foods and less meat greatly reduces the risk of common chronic diseases.
Joanne Kouba, PhD, associate professor of applied health sciences at Loyola University Chicago, is well versed in the health implications of red meat consumption. “About 55% of Americans exceed the recommended intake of both protein foods and red meat,” she says. “A high intake of red meat is associated with an increased risk for colorectal cancer as well as other cancers.
In a recent Compassion in World Farming report, the U.S. ranked no. 1 in meat consumption and no. 11 worldwide on the list of the top animal food consumers. To align with EAT-Lancet’s planetary health diet guidelines, the average American needs to reduce meat consumption by 82% and overall consumption of animal foods by more than half.
Kouba suggests plant proteins such as beans and lentils as a replacement for red meat. “Legumes are wonderful because not only are they nutrient-dense, they are also inexpensive, readily available, and they come in many forms. In addition to protein, they are a rich source of iron, and they contain prebiotic fiber, [of] which most Americans are not getting enough.”
Making the shift to a diet with less red meat doesn’t have to be done all at once. For many people, the process happens gradually as they create new shopping, cooking, and eating habits.
“Any reduction in meat consumption can help,” says Tania Schusler, PhD, an environmental social scientist at Loyola University.
With the world’s population projected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, people need to create resilient, sustainable food systems. At the same time, those systems must provide food that enhances human health and reduces disease globally. Science continues to show how cutting back on red meat offers a simple way to improve both individual and global well-being.
Red meat’s impact on human health
- Increased risk of cancer.
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Higher risk of stroke.
- Suspected higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
Red meat’s impact on environmental health
- Overuse of antibiotics, leading to antibiotic resistance.
- Methane production.
- Land degradation due to overgrazing.
- Wildlife conflicts.
- Air and water pollution due to enormous amounts of animal waste.
Tips to cut back on red meat:
- Cut your red meat portion in half.
- Eat chicken and fish instead of red meat.
- Go meatless one day a week.
- Eat meat only one meal a day.
- Substitute lentils for ½ the meat in a recipe.
- Try a plant-based meat substitute in place of red meat.
- Make meat a side dish, not the main focus.
- Start with small changes, and keep going.
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 print issue.