Green Guidance

Green Guidance

Eating Less-but Healthier-Meat

by Mindy Pennybacker

As autumn approaches in the northern hemisphere, the committed meat eater looks ahead to cold-weather roasts. The urge to don a protective layer of fat against the cold and dark dates back to our Paleolithic past. Unfortunately, while our appetites remain unchanged, we now rely on fossil fuels rather than bonfires and our own muscle power, for energy. Our sedentary lifestyles, coupled with growing meat consumption, are contributing to burgeoning obesity and damage to the environment worldwide (see cover story in the July/August issue: "Meat: Now It's Not Personal!").

According to Worldwatch researchers, the number of four-footed livestock on earth at any given moment has increased 60 percent since 1961. Widespread in North America and Europe, industrial feedlots-a major cause of air and water pollution-are now being used in Brazil, China, India, the Philippines, and elsewhere. The increase in meat production and consumption has dovetailed with what the World Health Organization calls an obesity epidemic worldwide. Sixty-one percent of Americans are overweight, but the number of overweight people is also increasing rapidly in developing countries such as China, Brazil, and Colombia. "In these and more and more developing countries, it is not uncommon for the overweight population to exceed the underweight population," reports the Worldwatch Paper Underfed and Overfed.

As if throwing fat on the fire, many are turning to the scientifically questionable Atkins Diet, whose surging popularity in the past year has ratcheted up demand for red meat despite warnings of ill health effects from the American Heart Association, Physicians for Responsible Medicine, and others. ‑Eating red meat increases risk of obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

So, all we have to do is stop eating meat, right? Try telling that to your father-in-law over a Thanksgiving dinner of stuffed roast squash, or to a ravenous child who turns up his or her nose at tofu loaf after soccer practice! Rather than let your child slip out to McDonald's to satisfy a cave-man craving, you can offer a hamburger made of organic, grass-fed beef which, when "raised on smaller, local farms, rather than on large commercial farms, not only tastes better but is a healthy, environmentally sound alternative," according to Danielle Nierenberg, a Worldwatch researcher (WW news release, June 2003). As Fred Kirschenmann, an organic rancher and farmer and director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, says, "Cattle are not permanently married to feedlots and rain forests. Dispersed on diversified farms, cattle can convert crop residues into human food. Their manure, one of the most environmentally benign sources of fertilizer, supplies a major portion of soil fertility needs." Kirschenmann points out that 80 percent of cattle food comes from "grass, crop residues and weather-damaged grains that people do not eat." Through grazing, his organic cattle fertilize and preserve "more than 900 acres of native grass. In other words, cows can be part of a sustainable, closed-loop system.

Of course we should all cut back on red meat. But if, when we do eat it, we make sustainable choices, our consumer demand can help make the marketplace and the meat industry greener and healthier. Here are some labels to look for on meat:

USDA Organic: Organic animals are antibiotic and hormone-free, and eat only 100 percent organic vegetarian diets rather than the feed laced with ruminant blood and tissue that has spread BSE. Organic feed is grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides derived from petroleum.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled: Animals get fresh air, water, exercise, and are not overcrowded. The Animal Welfare Institute certifies only independent family farms.

100 Percent Pastured or Grass Fed: Though not currently third-party certified, animals raised on pasture for their entire lives are lower in overall fats, yet have more omega-3, heart-healthy fatty acids and are free of antibiotics and synthetic hormones, making them healthier foods. Ask manufacturers or local farmers at greenmarkets for assurances of 100 percent pasture production.

For more information and extensive lists of companies, see Meat Product Report at To find a farmer's market in your area, see For more on certified humane raised, see For grass-fed details, see For a thoughtful response to our cover story on meat in July/August, see Mark Muller's letter to the editor on page 6 of this issue.


Mindy Pennybacker is editor of Green Guide, published by The Green Guide Institute, which provides the research for this department.