Red meat caught red handed

Animal-based diets hurt health, planet

Madeline Thiara, Copy Editor

While grabbing a burger at Shake Shack or substituting pesto sauce for bolognese at Italian Homemade may not seem like it would have a greater impact, the real cost of these decisions may be detrimental to one’s health, as well as the environment. 

With the dramatic increase of meat consumption since the 1980s, the livestock industry not only accounts for about 12 to 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, but also contributes to high water consumption and scarcity, according to the National Institute of Health.

Red meat is responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases,” Mike Martin, founder of Physicians Against Red Meat, said. “Red meat is a huge contributor to climate change through methane production by cows, which is 86% more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide itself.”

Martin established PhARM after studying the environmental impacts of meat consumption, but geared his focus toward the health effects of meat-heavy diets. 

“People are generally concerned with their own interests, so if someone thinks that red meat is going to be harmful to their health, it might be a bigger motivator than trying to address climate change,” Martin said. “The goal is to try to get people to change their behavior for health reasons, but also to have an impact on climate change.”

The World Health Organization has classified red meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning that high consumption is directly linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

“The more I research, the more I realize there are a tremendous number of health issues associated with red meat, including the most common forms of cancer,” Martin said. 

Environmentally, red meat is a proponent in land and air pollution, as well as water waste, as one pound of red meat can take up to 1,600 gallons of water to produce, according to Martin.

An NIH study reflects that  a red meat heavy diet may emit up to 7.19 carbon dioxide equivalents per day, a metric used to compare the global warming potential of greenhouse gas emissions, versus a vegetarian diet, which may emit around 3.81 carbon dioxide equivalents.  

Although the popularity of plant-based diets has increased over the last decade, the percentage of actual vegetarians and vegans in the United States has remained relatively steady over the past 20 years, according to Calla Schmidt, Chair of the Department of Environmental Science at the University of San Francisco. 

“I initially went vegetarian to minimize my own carbon footprint and was surprised at how easy it was for me,” senior Livi Webb-Purkis said. “I had been a big meat eater my entire life, so I had a few slip ups in the first couple of months but after a while, I completely stopped craving meat and can not see a day where I would want to eat it again.”

The general message on social media regarding plant-based diets is that there must be an all or nothing approach, meaning that one has to become fully plant-based, or not at all, according to Schmidt. This type of messaging can be a possible deterrent for those who are trying to make small changes in their behavior. 

“The step to going completely vegetarian or vegan is not as important as cutting one or two meat meals from one’s diet and reducing consumption a little bit,” Schmidt said. “That type of messaging is more effective because it’s attainable to people.”

Taking small steps to becoming plant-based like participating in “Meatless Mondays,” — a common social media trend where one aims to eat plant-based for one day per week — often proves to be more effective in reducing meat consumption than trying to completely cut meat products, according to Schmidt. 

“Since becoming vegetarian, I have turned into a big tofu, chickpea, and lentil eater, foods that contain all the same nutrients and vitamins as meat,” Webb-Purkis, who created the online blog “Terras Irradient,” which explores various environmental issues, said. “With all the studies and research that have been done to support the positive impact a plant based diet has, I urge everyone to try living without meat for a few days, or just to try minimizing your consumption.”

Only 5% of the world identifies as vegetarian, however, a much larger percentage identifies as “flexitarian” or “semi-vegetarian,” which puts emphasis on legumes, fruits, and vegetables, but does not limit meat consumption entirely, according to the NIH. 

Although corporations’ decisions on limiting meat consumption may be a big factor in limiting global meat consumption, individual decisions and sacrifices can be just as significant, as consumers drive corporate decisions, according to Martin.  

“Corporate and individual decisions are important if we are going to address climate change adequately and in a way that protects the youth of our world from huge catastrophic changes,” Martin said. “We need to all adjust our diets and change our behaviors.”