It's not a secret that what you eat has an impact on the environment. In fact most of our life and lifestyle can have an impact on our environment, both positive and negative. If we want to live optimally we do need to find environmental symbiosis. But these decisions need to be made carefully and with a wide scope of understanding. Some advocate for eliminating beef in particular from the agricultural system as a step in the right direction. My patients know that I am an advocate for regenerative agriculture and beef consumption. I strongly disagree with the idea that eliminating beef will have even a small impact on environmental improvement. If you want to protect your freedom to consume quality protein sources this is a topic you will want to pay attention to as well! Read on to learn why eliminating beef from the menu will not only reduce our ability to optimize our health but also NOT put a dent in the environmental issue at hand.
From a health optimization perspective I always advocate for beef as a protein source. It is densely nutritious and provides many nutrients in quantities that are difficult to get elsewhere. Cows are ruminants and as such can consume vegetation that few other animals can consume. With that vegetation they create incredibly dense protein for consumption. The argument against beef is generally aimed at four things. Methane production, carbon dioxide emission, water consumption and space utilization. Let's examine these briefly.
Methane is a gas created by fermentation in ruminant (cow) stomachs (yes that's plural, they have 4). These 4 stomachs can remarkably create energy from otherwise unusable plant material. In the process around 25% of the methane produced in the United States is generated. Despite fart claims, this methane mostly comes out of a cow's mouth, not rectum. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and efforts should be made to reduce the emissions of methane! However, the majority of methane production in the United States and worldwide comes from the oil and energy sectors. Fortunately, methane is SHORT LIVED in the atmosphere and efforts to curb production can quickly yield results! While methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than the most notorious in the group, carbon dioxide, it is 200 times LESS ABUNDANT in the atmosphere and made up only 11% of the greenhouse emissions of the US in 2022.
CO2 emissions are the biggest concern for the atmosphere, it is hundreds of times more abundant than methane and may persist in the atmosphere for centuries! This is the gas that we really must focus on in the effort to reduce environmental impact. Ruminant production makes up less than 3% of CO2 emission and in fact acts as a CO2 sink. A fact frequently left out of statistics on the topic. Cows literally put CO2 back into the ground with other vital nutrients for growth of plants! To eliminate cows to reduce CO2 emission would literally be cutting off your nose to spite your face. The biggest driver of CO2 production is energy and transportation. Want to have an impact on the environment? How far did you drive today? Where was your food grown or raised? How far did it travel to get to your mouth?
Water consumption is also frequently cited as a reason to eliminate cows. This data is WOEFULLY misrepresented. Frequently the "water" required to raise cattle is calculated based on the rain that would otherwise fall on land despite cattle being present, water that would run through fields and arid lands that would happen regardless of the presence of animals. The actual needs of an animal to produce a specified amount of protein is much smaller than typically represented and the water that they consume frequently is falling on the fields they reside in anyway. This point is irrelevant when you consider such practices as flooding central California deserts to grow almonds and make nutritionally deficient almond milk...
But we're out of space!
The argument that we don't have enough room to raise cattle also has serious flaws. It does take space to properly raise cattle in a regenerative practice but frequently the grazing area of cattle is in areas that CANNOT SUPPORT crop agriculture. Plants can't grow there and machines couldn't harvest them if they did. So, again, we are using space, water and nutrients that would otherwise go to waste.
Ultimately, there are several ways to have a positive impact on the environment, and excluding beef from your diet solely based on the impact of commercially produced beef may negatively impact your health outcomes since beef is a nutrient dense food with bioactive components that CAN be produced in a low impact way. Similarly, if you're only focusing on excluding beef from your diet because of the potential environmental repercussions, you'll miss out on other beneficial and potentially more impactful ways to reduce your environmental impact.
By focusing on precision medicine, we look at YOUR specific nutrition needs, your protein needs, and your ability to tolerate saturated fat. When you have a clear plan and make food choices based on your biochemistry combined with your personal food preferences your environmental impact is reduced naturally.
Pursuing optimal health and uncovering these details about yourself prevents overconsumption and unnecessary use of the healthcare system which both have their own environmental impacts.
At the end of the day, there isn't one right way to prioritize sustainability and you can continue to consume beef in a more eco-conscious way to meet your personal preferences and health needs.
How to sustainably consume Beef?
1. Prioritize local and regenerative raised beef. (More on this another day!)
2. Be mindful of your protein consumption - get enough, but not too much. I recommend up to one gram of protein per pound of ideal body weight, which is easy to do when you include beef, but it can also be easy to overdo (which is why we recommend tracking).
3. Grass-fed- Grass-finished. A lot of beef production emissions I mentioned above are related to resource use of growing gains for feed AND transporting them, not the cows.
4. Look for "low-methane" beef- yes, that exists and is a result of changing the feed source for cattle.
Other things you can do to improve your environmental impact (and your health) through food choices:
- Avoid foods with excessive packaging or in single use plastics.
- Avoid ultra-processed foods.
- Shop locally grown and seasonal foods to reduce food miles.
- Eat mindfully and avoid overconsumption.
Excluding beef solely for the environmental impact is not in your best interest. Cows are an asset to the environment and a gift to humans. Be grateful for this incredible gift and use the above tips to source meat in a sustainable way.