beef meat impact Photo: © Jacek Chabraszewski \ Fotolia.com

Recently, I sat at the Woolwich Arrow Pub in Guelph. This pub uses solar power for water heating, Bullfrog Power to provide renewable energy, and its staff uniforms are made from organic cotton. The pub also features certified fish and obtains local beef from YU Ranch. YU Ranch raises grass-fed, antibiotic-free, Texas Longhorn cattle and is Local Food Plus Certified.

Suddenly, it dawned on me: here was a restaurant with a specific environmental, social and local focus, yet it was serving plates and plates of beef, a significant source of greenhouse gases. A 2006 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) showed that 18 per cent of global GHGs come from the meat industry. A lifecycle analysis done by the Environmental Working Group in 2011 found that, of common meat choices, beef was the 2nd largest emitter of GHGs (lamb was first).

Eating meat is also less efficient than a vegetarian diet. When food travels through the food chain, 90 per cent of the energy is lost at each level. Many more people could be fed if the land used to grow crops for livestock was used to feed people instead. There are many other compelling reasons to avoid eating meat, from deforestation to excessive water use to the health implications of antibiotic overuse. I recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for further reading on these issues.

We all need to reduce our meat intake, but, like many others, I sometimes prefer to eat meat over a vegetarian meal – and sometimes eating local meat can mitigate the negative impact of our industrialized meat system.  It is important to support farms that provide healthier alternatives, not only to promote a healthy lifestyle, but also to support local economies. Research from the New Economics Foundation found that when people buy local food, almost twice as much money circulates back to the local economy compared to when they shop at supermarkets. When you buy meat from a local farm, you support community resilience. Eating beef from YU ranch supports an alternative industry that is very important.

Michael Pollan argues that eating from local farms that attempt to be more sustainable means supporting a society where industrial farming has no place. You can reduce the need for industrial agriculture by choosing meat from a source that provides social, environmental and economic benefits.

Others argue that we should just stop eating meat entirely. James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, writes that “if we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land.” We can’t afford to hand over this amount of land to grazing cows, and this is why eating more “sustainable” meat without reducing meat consumption will be forever a pipe dream. It also begs the question: will there ever be such thing as sustainable meat?

Perhaps a solution is to be mostly vegetarian: vegetarian except for once or twice a month when an opportunity to eat local meat presents itself. Right now, not everyone is willing to give up meat entirely, and there must be a more sustainable option available.  Buying from more these farms supports local economies and a more environmentally just world. In the end I chose to eat the beef from YU Ranch, and it was absolutely delicious. 

Check back in a few weeks to read part two of To Meat or Not to Meat, where Emilie Wilson explains her reasons for going vegan and eschewing meat altogether. In the meantime, learn more about reducing your food footprint in Nine Simple Ways to Save the Planet, Can Vegetarians Slow Climate Change?, 10 Ways to Waste Less Food and Eating Insects.

Dana is a recent graduate from the Environment and Business program at uWaterloo.

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