Eating ethically involves making informed and socially responsible decisions about the food we eat. It means using logic and evidence-based reason to determine how we can eat in a way that does the most good or least harm to all beings and our planet. It’s about understanding where the food we eat comes from and what processes were involved in getting it from the farm to our tables. It’s a complicated issue, but can be simplified by tweaking the way we eat in small ways. There are certainly many layers to this pie but if we work with manageable portions, we can start to make a difference. For a few years now, I’ve been learning more about ethical eating and have been taking small steps towards being a more socially responsible food consumer. I’m definitely not ethically perfect and admire those who hold themselves to high (or perhaps, ideal) ethical standards in the way they eat…you are my inspiration and my motivation to continue improving.
To start, I urge people to have a cow about a cows. These animals currently play a huge role in the pressure we put on the environment so let’s take stock of this issue. Beef currently ranks as one of the highest products for its water footprint (ranked second to chocolate); that is, the amount of fresh water it takes to produce the product from the moment it begins production to the time it’s consumed. Although it is difficult to get a precise calculation of a product’s water footprint, due to geographical variations and the contextual nature of statistics, general estimates from the majority of sources I visited, such as waterfootprint.org, approximate that 1kg of beef requires around 15000 litres of fresh water to produce. That converts to approximately 3500 litres of fresh water used to produce an 8 ounce serving of steak! That number blows my mind. Think of it this way: the average person in Canada and/or the US, uses approximately 300+/- litres of water at home, per day (which is apparently already much higher than other countries). That is water to shower, use the toilet, drink from the tap, wash veggies, do the dishes, etc… (namely, residential or household water use). One piece of steak uses almost two weeks worth of your household water consumption! You can also imagine about 7000 standard water bottles (500ml) to produce that piece of steak. Compare that with chicken, which is estimated to have a water footprint of around 4325 litres of water to produce 1 kg. That’s less than a third of what it takes to produce bovine meat. Vegetables on the other hand, use 322 litres of water per kilogram produced. Way to go veggies; they’re good for you and more ecologically sound. This info graphic is a useful comparison of the water footprint of several common commodities. I also recommend reading through the waterfootprint.org website, as they have detailed and relatively up-to-date, research-based information.
The beef with beef doesn’t end there. In addition to it’s exorbitant water footprint, the amount of grain used to feed cows in feedlots is remarkably high. It is estimated that approximately 7kg of grain (i.e., corn and soy) is generally required in producing 1kg of beef from a feedlot. Put another way, cows consume around 7 times more human-edible food than they give back. In fact, the majority of grain produced in the United States goes to animal feedlots, as opposed to feeding humans. If we diverted those resources and all that energy away from producing industrial meat and instead towards greater food security for human beings, I believe that the long term savings from better fed and healthier human beings would outweigh the short term costs of moving away from resource heavy industrial farming systems. All animal products, particularly those from feedlot systems (the industrial system common in the U.S.) require resource and energy intensive processes, however bovine meat uses significantly more grain per kg of meat produced, as compared with other animal products. Here’s an article on ‘animal feed’ with reference-based information. Furthermore, one must take into account the greenhouse gas emissions produced from feed production (which includes large quantities of pesticides used in monocultures) and processing, digestion by cows, manure composting and the operations of the factory itself. Check out this article with recommendations on cutting down greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock industry. Every single step of the beef production process puts negative pressure on our environment in a cumulative, multi-directional fashion. Finally, let’s not forget the well-being of the cows themselves. The industrial farming system is torturous on these animals, who are forced into confined spaces and given foods (and in many cases, antibiotics and hormones) that their digestive systems are not naturally equipped to handle. We place much harm on these animals and on the environment, in order to enjoy a luxury most of us can live without. If one needs to eat beef for whatever reason, grass fed cows fare much better in terms of their ecological footprint in all respects, in terms of the nutritional value of the meat, as well as the lifestyle of the animal.
So, the next time you are tempted to order a piece of steak or a beef burger, try for more veggies and perhaps a less water intensive option, such as chicken or even better, a non-animal protein, such as a veggie burger with avocado or an entree of Moroccan chick pea stew…yum! If you still want to eat beef, then look for 100% grass fed beef, which has a lower ecological footprint than industrially produced bovine meat and try and purchase beef from local farmers. If you are not quite there yet but are willing to take baby steps, try and cut down on your intake, whether that be eating it one less time a week or month, or even ordering a smaller serving size–every little bit helps! A little less beef means a little more of a more sustainable product in its place, which is not only good for the world, but for your own personal health and well-being as well! If you are ready to go the extra mile in eating ethically, try venturing into vegetarianism or better yet, veganism. More on that to come in another entry. Having a cow about cows is really about caring for and taking responsibility for ourselves and our world, socially and environmentally, today, and for the future generations of all living things. Moo!