What’s at stake with your steak?

A blog I wrote for Oxfam Australia’s 3 Things Project, on the impact that our growing demand for meat has on the environment and small farmers. Stay tuned for an update on how I’m experimenting with intermittent veganism.

About a year ago, I got very sick. What was strange though, was that I didn’t seem to have any kind of illness or disease. I had terrible headaches, got periodically so dizzy I had to lie down on the floor, and felt constantly nauseous. Sometimes I got motion sick just from walking.

But no one could figure out what was wrong with me, until I had my iron levels tested. Normal iron levels for women are 50 to 170 μg/dL. Don’t ask me what μg/dL are; I have no idea. But whatever they are, I didn’t have enough of them. My blood measured 3 μg/dL. That is pathologically low, and explained much of why I had been so ill.

Why do I bring this up? Well, after that shocking blood test, I was told to eat steak 5 nights a week. 5 nights a week. Even for a meat-lover like me, that’s a lot of steak.

This is all to say that, when I raise the notion of eating less meat, I don’t do it lightly. I’ve felt the effects of low iron, and know that for many people, regular red meat is a necessity. Or at least we’re told it is.

My beef with the meat industry

But let me pose a question to you. What if meat wasn’t nutritiously necessary for your health? But further, what if meat was not only unnecessary, but also killing the planet?

Well, as a matter of fact, both of those things are true.

You’ve probably heard about lethal cow farts. Livestock produce methane and nitrous oxide through the digestive process – some of the most noxious greenhouse gases. These gases, combined with the general carbon footprint of the meat industry, generate nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But what does all of this have to do with us? Australian’s eat about 111.5kg of meat a year. That’s the third-highest consumption of meat per capita in the world!

The impact that our increased demand for meat is having on the global environment is staggering. But us big meat-eaters won’t feel the impact of global warming first. It will be felt by small farmers in developing countries, whose income depends on being able to harvest the next season’s crops. When unseasonal rains – or droughts, fires, cold-snaps – come, the very poor don’t have a protective economic buffer. Their livelihood is at stake.

And while the meat industry continues to grow, and demand for meat every night in developed countries remains, the long-term effects on agriculture, the environment, and air and water pollution will be disastrous.

So what do I do?

It’s actually really easy. Taking meat out of your diet for just one meal a week could have a huge impact. In fact, if urban households in the USA, UK, Spain and Brazil were to eat a meat-free meal once a week, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would equate to taking 3.7 million cars off the road for a year.

So why not give Meat-free Mondays a go? If you’re worried about iron levels, try replacing red meat with lentils, spinach, or tofu (or even liquorice is really high in iron). Here’s a secret fun-fact: there are no magic ingredients in meat that you can’t get adequate amounts of from plants and vegetables. They’re also way better for you.

I’d like to leave you with a quote from the ever-awesome Mark Bittman, who also writes about being “vegan before six”.

“Let me just say this: if you’re a progressive, if you’re driving a Prius, or you’re shopping green, or you’re looking for organic, you should probably be a semi-vegetarian.

We’d only add that even if none of those things apply to you, one meat-free meal a week is a tiny act to make a huge contribution to our environment and the livelihoods of farmers all over the world.

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