Meat According to the Environmental Working Group

Let me start with the disclaimer that I appreciate and respect the work of the Environmental Working Group. They do good work informing the public and lobbying official channels for a safer world, namely on topics like BPA, sunscreens, and personal care products and cosmetics. I recommended them myself as a great resource to find a sunscreen that won’t poison you (here).

Now they’ve decided to report on the environmental impacts of the foods in our diet (here). And guess what comes out looking like the bad guy? As usual, they blame the meat.

To be fair, they’re not entirely off-base. They disclose their biases upfront:

The lifecycle assessments are based on conventional rather than pasture-based or organic systems of food production. We focused on conventionally produced, grain-fed meat because that is mostly what Americans eat. Also, we were unable to identify definitive studies and widely accepted methodologies assessing greenhouse gas emissions from pasture-raised, organic or other meat production systems that make use of more environmentally sound management practices (such as cover cropping and intensive grazing). Because climate is just one of many factors to consider, our report also assesses other environmental and health impacts of all kinds of meat and dairy, including conventional, organic and pasture-raised. The analysis included salmon and tuna but focuses mostly on livestock and much less on seafood due to data and resource constraints.

It’s important to view this report in light of their past works. Their focus is on toxins and environmental impacts, so this is how they’re coming at the consumption of meat.

They also cite the (increasingly annoying) 2050 benchmark as the magic year that our world population tips the balance and we run out of food for everybody. I’m hoping to get my husband to contribute a post about how wrong-headed this whole concept is, that we must start thinking about how to feed people—always with grains—that don’t exist yet. And because of this misguided idea, meat will always come out smelling like feedlot manure because the impacts will be seen as taking away resources from starving babies who haven’t been born yet.

In order to keep this from being a War-And-Peace style ten-volume series, I’ll list what I think they’re right about:

  1. Of course feedlot-produced meat is awful for the planet. It’s also not as optimal for the health of those who consume it as pastured or wild meat. No one is suggesting that the world should be fed this way. The Paleo community at large is on their side about this.
  2. Food waste is a serious problem. By wasting less, you reduce your environmental impacts. I’ve noticed since going Primal that I waste a lot less food and I make a lot more grocery store trips to keep my fresh ingredients on hand.
  3. Antibiotics and hormones are not desirable meat ingredients. What’s to argue with here? Get as much pastured, organic, and wild meat as you can.
  4. Buying local helps offset many of these problems. Do what you can to source locally and seasonally. This goes for both meat and plants. Or raise and grow your own.

Don't get me wrong, I like plants too. With my steak.

And here are some points with which I take issue:

  1. Red and processed meats cause health problems. I’ve discussed this a little in a previous post (here). We have to start defining what kind of meat we’re talking about. Homemade jerky is not the same thing as a Slim Jim. An organic, grass-fed steak is not the same thing as the patty hiding between a bun in a McDonald’s hamburger. We can no longer blame meat wholesale for any health problems without making this distinction. 
  2. Their nutritional understanding hasn’t been updated. Let’s look at this handy-dandy infographic. They recommend low-fat meats and dairy—Why? They claim chicken is the “best meat pick.” Also, tofu is ranked very highly in this hierarchy, and yet, even the EWG admits that nobody should consume too much of it due to the phytates and isoflavones, which disrupt endocrine function and can cause cancer. But where is this admission? Buried in the FAQs.
  3. They won’t point fingers at the real culprit—the Industrialized Food Complex. No amount of lentils or tofu are going to save you from processed, fast, and convenience foods. Many, including vegetarians and vegans, rely on these in lieu of real foods, and going meatless on Mondays isn’t going to steer anyone clear of these. Sugar is a menace that threatens everyone, and it hides everywhere (Looking at you, Kashi cereals!).

This report suffers from target confusion. Which are they after—Toxins? Environment? Health? Because from here it appears they have a health agenda they’re trying to justify by guilt tripping us about the environment. Take a look at the verbiage of their Meatless Monday pledge:

I pledge to skip meat one day a week and to include more healthy fruits and vegetables in my diet. Not only will I be doing something good for my body, I’ll also be doing something good for the environment.

How many cars have you had in your lifetime? They're still out there somewhere.

The argument also suffers from perspective. You can throw all the stats you want at me about how if I go meatless one day a week, it’s the equivalent of removing my car from the road for 4 weeks a year, or whatever. But how about we talk about what’s really going on? Because until we talk about real change and what’s really the culprit behind the climate calamity, we will blame ourselves when the blame should be elsewhere.

It’s like asking people to “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down” and not telling the golf courses to stop watering their courses. Which isn’t to say that we aren’t to blame. On the contrary, every one of us is deeply to blame for the climate problem. But until we get rid of all the cars, all the plastic containers, all the dyes in our clothing, all the fertilizers, all the industry, all the mining, all the everything, nothing will change. And while many of us may fantasize about living off the grid and on the land, our reality is quite different. Which also isn’t to say that we shouldn’t aspire to it. But don’t go driving around in a Prius feeling very good about yourself. The little Anarchist in me really believes that no true, authentic change is going to happen until we’re forced. And by forced, I mean the tiny population of who’s left in some distant future. Which also isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try in the meantime.

But I’m reminded here of an old writing credo: You get to the universal through the specific. Instead of starting with huge, abstract issues like climate change, the EWG would do better to focus their efforts on what matters to the individual. You can’t just decree from on high to eat “healthier” when people are struggling with underemployment, foreclosures, and staggering health issues. Sure, all those soccer moms driving their Lexus hybrids to Whole Foods just heard you, but the other 6 billion people on the planet missed the memo.

So thanks, but no thanks, EWG. I’m starting with me, and I choose health. I have a hunch that if everyone else could make that same choice, things would work themselves out. But that’s not what we’re dealing with, is it?

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3 Responses to “Meat According to the Environmental Working Group”

  1. I choose health too! But local and organic are expensive! I wish more people would decide that they don’t want pesticides and hormones in their food.

    • Oh, I know, mama! Organic is big business. I think for the majority of folks, it’s a delicate balancing act of prioritizing and doing what they can.

      I met a woman at a BBQ recently, and local pastured pork and lamb were being served, and she said, “Everyone should be able to eat this way.” And she’s right. The more I get into this real food experience, the more it makes me a food activist. Why is this only available to a certain elite? Why are the poor in this country suffering the worst health because of their diet? It’s downright criminal.

  2. This is a great post! A very insightful and clear-headed analysis of the report and these issues. Thanks!

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