Pro-tip: we are not completely divorced from our environment just yet. Our various carbon footprints add up to extremely tangible effects over time.

It is the plot of many a big budget film: The population increases, resources become scarce. Effects of individuals congeal into one giant “oops” and an environmental catastrophe. A giant tsunami or widespread catastrophic earthquakes start taking chunks out of the human population.

For now, scientists and climate change skeptics argue about the warming of the atmosphere due to various sources. One side argues that humanity will cause natural disasters. The other argues natural disasters just happen and will keep happening no matter the rate of human-made carbon emissions. This issue becomes even more difficult to navigate when it comes to the production and distribution of meat.

Is short-term gratification worth potentially long-term devastation when it comes to food and the environment?

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Environmental Woes: More Than Plastic & E-Waste

Think about every straw you’ve ever used. Every red Solo cup or spork. Many of them are probably STILL in a landfill somewhere. Despite the environmental impact of plastics, humans use plastic items on a daily basis. Another thing most humans use on a daily basis: animal meat.

Since the rise of the factory farm, many dinner tables feature beef, pork, and chicken. Similarly to plastics, the production of meat gives off greenhouse gases–specifically, beef.

For Americans especially, few things can replace a seasoned beef patty and a sesame seed bun with a “secret sauce”. What’s more, deals from this year signal expanded beef trades between the U.S. and China.

However, there are potentially physical and environmental detriments to solely relying on this process of meat farming.

How Bacteria Shift Our Concerns for Sustenance

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Formerly, one of the biggest obstacles to broader beef distribution was yield.

In 2012, farmers lost 400 pounds of a 1000 pound steer in the cutting yield. Moves for more sustainable farming practices abound, but longstanding impediments to improvements endure.

Many of the concerns surrounding the consumption of meat can be whittled down into three main categories:

  • Antibiotics
  • Hormones
  • Ethical treatment issues

Citizens, scientists, and government officials hotly debate the use of antibiotics in the production of meat. Studies attempt to discern the effects on humans. Though definitive results are still inconclusive, the use of antibiotics in animals can lead to the creation and dispersal of superbugs.

These bacteria could be passed to humans when the meat is consumed.

All of this is suspect, but not unfounded. After all, the WHO curbed antibiotic use in 2012. Hormones, however, are another issue entirely. The FDA has specified between naturally occurring and synthetic hormones to avoid confusion. But hormone-treated meat products also spark debate.

Questions of Ethics Yield Environmental Degradation

The issue lies in how growth hormones are used to manipulate the natural growth process of animals to harvest more meat. Not only does this present health concerns, but it raises valid concerns regarding animal safety, as well.

While sustainable farming is a concern, ethical farming is, too. A diplomatic term for farms where animals are raised in confinement is “concentrated animal feeding operations”. CAFOs may drive down the cost of meat, but they have detrimental effects on the animals and the environment.

Not only do CAFOs account for high carbon emissions (often methane), they also can adversely affect rivers and water sources. Due to the volume of animals, the volume of food required to maintain production is higher, too. Growth hormones and antibiotics tie-in due to the want for more yield and the living conditions in which the animals are raised.

In order to move to more ethical and sustainable farming practices without sacrificing access, some researchers believe a shift in cultural priorities is required.

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A New Model for a New Perspective on Carbon Footprint Reduction

An oft-rejected solution to CAFOs is a reduction in the consumption of beef or other proteins. Not everyone is able to give up meat–especially meat found at an affordable price at their local grocery store. As a result of the need for access to affordable, high-quality protein, new approaches to farming are cropping up.

Paleoclimatologist Maureen Raymo initially thought that maybe 5 – 10% of beef farms in America could transition to an open pasture model. Instead of being crowded into cages and fed from a trough, cows would wander open pasture. Food sources include grass, locally sourced hay, and other vegetables.

In doing research on this theory, Raymo and her team found that nearly 45% of American pasture could support this shift in protein farming. While this concept of “sustainable beef” is not a fully fleshed out model, it signals how this cultural shift could be made.

That Burger Costs More Than You Think It Does

I’m no stranger to Shake Shack or other local or franchised purveyors of beefy goodness. But when you consider the process by which you acquire your meal, you might take pause.

It is not just the cost of materials and labor to produce that burger on your plate. It is the cost of shipping, production, and maintenance for the source of the meat, too. Not to mention the animals!

Hidden costs beyond the obvious monetary price exist, too. The environmental impact of farming shows up in our average daily diets. High volume countries like the U.S., Japan, and Germany could see a 13 – 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions related to food production if citizens followed government recommended diets.

Compounded with the benefits of ethical and sustainable farming, we could see improvement in human, animal, and environmental health over time.

Can entire countries make the priority shift regarding meat consumption and production to effectively reduce their carbon footprints using sustainable farming?

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