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Eating green.

"When most Americans sit down to dinner, they're only a bite away from unwittingly worsening the environment," says environmental researcher Alan Durning.

The main culprit, according to Durning, is right there on the plate, between the potato and the vegetables. It's tonight's pork chop, steak, or chicken breast.

"Livestock absorb much of the country's crop harvest along with vast quantities of energy and water. The unpaid ecological price of that meat is so hefty that Americans, if they aren't careful, could end up eating themselves out of planetary house and home."

What we need to do, says Durning, is to "put farm animals back in their place" by eating less meat, dairy, and eggs. We also need to cut back on highly packaged and processed foods.

Q: In choosing what we eat, how can we help the environment?

A: First, we need to reduce our consumption of grain-fed animal products; that is, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Then, we need to reduce our consumption of highly processed and packaged foods. Both recommendations coincide with eating a healty diet.

Q: Are you saing that we should all be vegetarians?

A: No. From an environmental viewpoint, a vegetarian diet isn't necessary.

There's nothing anti-ecological about cows, pigs, and chickens. In most countries, they're used to turn plants that people can't eat into food that people can. Animals also allow crop rotation, which helps conserve soil. You can't rotate hay into your fields if you don't have animals to feed the hay to.

But American-style animal farms burden natur because they have outgrown their niche. Modern meat production involves intensive use--and often misuse--of grain, water, energy, and grazing areas. And animal agriculture produces surprisingly large amounts of air and water pollution.

In the U.S., most animals spend their lives in concentrated agro-industries, not cow barns or chicken coops. In fact, many animals farms are as much factories as farms. Taken as a whole, livestock rearing is the most ecologically damaging part of American agriculture.

Q: How do factory farms harm the environment?

A: Wherever you put a lot of animals close together, you end up with a lot of manure. Sewage is the biggest water pollution problem associated with animal agriculture.

The waste from stockyards, chicken factories, and other feeding facilities has to be moved, stored, and spread without allowing it into water supplies. Unless you have a pretty advanced sewage system--comparable to that of a midsized city--you're going to end up with real water pollution problems.

You also end up with air pollution. Thirty million tons of methane--a gas that contributes to global warming, or the 'greenhouse effect'--come from manure in sewage ponds or heaps, where there isn't enough oxygen for the manure of decompose aerobically. Spreading the manure over a pasture eliminates that methane.

Q: Do some meat damage the environment more than others?

A: Pork is the worst, followed by beef, then poultry. Eggs and dairy products are much less resource-intensive.

Q: Why is pork the worst?

A: Pigs just take more grain to add weight. Nearly seven pounds of corn and soy are needed to put one pound of boneless, trimmed pork on the table.

Cattle require less--4.8 pounds of grain and soy per pound of feed. Egg layers need 2.6 pounds to produce a pound of eegs--that's about eight eggs. Dairy cows need just three-tenths of a pound of grain and soybean meal to produce a pound--that's about a pint--of milk. Concentrate that milk into cheese, though, and the figure rises to three pounds of feed per pound of cheese.

Q: Why do pigs sop up so much grain?

A: Pigs aren't ruminants, which means that unlike sheep, cattle, and other animals with multiple stomachs, they can't convert grass to meat. In most parts of the world pigs survive by eating agricultural waste products. But in the U.S., they're fed grain and soy.

Q: Aren't cattle also fed grain?

A: Only for the last hundred days or so, while they're being fattened. For most of their lives they eat grass.

Even so, the steaks that are added to a steer's weight in the feedlot are not efficiently produced. You've got all kinds of resources being used to produce a few extra pounds of meat. Fattening up cattle in feedlots by feeding them grain is the most resource-intensive part of the entire agriculture industry.

Q: So is lower-=fat beef more environmentally friendly?

A: Yes, because, in general, the cattle have been fed less grain.

Q: Does that mean hamburger is better than steak, since it often comes from dairy cows that haven't been grain-fed?

A: You could certainly make the argument that hamburger that comes from dairy cows is a by-product of dairy production, and that it's better environmentally.

Q: Why is feeding grain so bad for the environment?

A: Feed grain is produced using large quantities of fertilizer in giant fields where you often have soil erosion and groundwater contamination. Nearly 40 percent of the world's grain production, and more than 70 percent of the U.S. production, is fed to livestock, according to the USDA.

On the half of U.S. cropland on which feed and hay are grown, soil erodes at a frightful pace. For each pound of meat, poultry, eggs, and milk we produce, farm fields lose about five pounds of topsoil.

And feed grain guzzles water, some of which is pumped out of dwindling undergroun source. Jim Oltjen, a professor or animal science at the University of California at Davis, estimates that half of the grain and hay that is fed to our beef cattle herd is grown on irrigated land. He calculates that it takes about 390 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef.

Almost half of the energy used in American agriculture goes into livestock production. Producing the red meat and poultry eaten each year by a typical American takes energy equal to 50 gallons of gasoline.

Q: Don't other food take a lot of energy to produce and transport?

A: A head of lettuce, grown with pesticides and fertilizer trucked in a refrigerated car from California to New York, is a pretty energy-intensive product. So are grapes flown in from Chile or salmon flown in from Norway.

But, over all, it takes almost ten times more energy to produce and transport livestock that vegetables. That's not to say we shouldn't try to reduce our consumption of non-meat foods that are transported over large distances, particularly ones that are highly processed and packaged.

Q: Why is that important?

A: Because it's a waste of energy. As much energy goes into making a food's package as went into growing or producing it. And most of that packaging ends up in our landfills, where it accounts for about 20 percent of the tonnage of municipal solid waste.

Then there's fuel. The average mouthful of food travels, 1,200 miles from farm to factory to warehouse to supermarket to our plates.

Q: Isn't it healthy to have a wide selection of fruits and vegetables, especially in the winter?

A: Yes. To a certain extent, there is a divergence between the interests of health and those of the environment. But if we dealth with the larger issues of reducing grain-fed meat production and eliminating overgrazing and excess foof processing and packaging, we could still ship our apples from Washington State or our oranges from California or Florida.

It takes some fairly substantial resources to do that shipping, but the figures don't jump out at you like those for animal production or food processing and packaging.

Q: Why is overgazing important?

A: The livestock industry uses half the territory of the continental United States for feed crops, pasture, and range. That includes 270 million acres of arid public range in the west that the government leases to ranchers for grazing at aridiculously low $2 per head per month. With that kind of subsidy, ranchers overgraze.

Harold Dregne, a professor of soil science at Texas Tech University, estimates that ten percent of the arid west has been turned into a desert by livestock.

Q: The meat industry argues that most agricultural land isn't suitable for anything but livestock. It also says that most parts of plants like corn--the cob and stalks, for example--are only good for animal feed. So wouldn't it be wasteful not to raise animals?

A: It would be wasteful terms of resources lost to humans. That's why my argument is not for vegetarianism, but for people to reduce the consumption of animal products. Just keep in mind that most of the meat industry relies on grain--not cornstalks--for feed.

Q: How much do livestock contribute to the greenhouse effect?

A: Cattle and other ruminants emit methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, as they digest grass and other fibrous plants. Methane is also produced by the decomposition of manure that is piled up on factory farms.

Worldwide, domestic animals only account for a bit more than three percent of the net warming effect of all greenhouse gases that are emitted by human activity. While that might not sound like much, it means that each head of American beef belches out about a third of a pound of methane for each pound of meat it yields. If you add the carbon that is released from the fuels that are burned as part of animal farming, every steak we eat has the same global-warming effect as a 25-mile drive in a typical American car.

Q: Is anybody producing environmentally friendly meat?

A: Yes. Unfortunately, though, it's only a very small segment of the market. There are organic, grass-fed producers who turn out meat that is environmentally superior. But we have no national standard for what constitutes "organic" meat. We need one. (see box on p. 6)

Q: Isn't much of the meat we import grass-fed, which makes it better?

A: It may be grass-fed, but it's far from environmentally friendly. Although we only import about half of one percent of our beef from Central America, those exports play a significant part in the tragic destruction of the tropical forest.

Costa Rica was once almost completely cloaked in tropical forest. By 1983, after two decades of explosive growth in beef exports, primarily to the U.S., just 17 percent of the original forest remained.

Q: What can the government do to reduce the environmental damage from livestock production?

A: An energy tax would raise the cost of fertilizer, which would raise the cost of feedgrain, which would give farmers an incentive to use less of it. And tha would produce lower-fat beef, which is sounder for the environment and our health.

We also need to tighten regulations controlling water and air pollution from animal and feed farms.

And Congress needs to end grazing subsidies and to take a closer look at the public contracts that supply much of the water that is used to irrigate feedgrain crops.

In the rain forests of Central America, we could press local leaders to halt the cattle boom in the forests. If they fail to do that, we could pressure U.S. companies to stop buying their beef.

Q: Won't those changes mean higher meat prices?

A: Yes. The price of meat would jump dramatically, perhaps doubling or tripling, if all the ecological costs of livestock production--from energy consumption to methane gas emissions--were rung up at the cash register. Then, our pocketbooks would guide us down the food chain.

Q: Aren't we already eating less meat?

A: While per capita beef consumption has declined slowly since 1976 and egg consumption peaked decades ago, poultry has more than taken up the slack. Annual consumption of red meat and poultry together is at an all-time high of 176 pounds per person. In 1955 it was 137 pounds.

Churning out those quantities of animal products takes all the ingenuity agriculturalists can muster, and has devastating consequences for our health and the environment.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; researcher Alan Durning, environmentally conscious food choices
Author:Lefferts, Lisa Y.
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Vegetables: from sweets to beets.
Next Article:Fix that label.

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