As if nutrition advice isn’t confusing enough, there’s a new dietary trend that focuses more on the health of our planet than on the health of our bodies.
Called “sustainable nutrition,” it’s the idea that our food choices can impact the environment.
Maybe you’ve heard claims that you can help reverse climate change by eating less meat. Environmental and animal rights activists blame cattle emissions - or to put it bluntly, cow farts – for climate change. That’s because cows emit methane, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming.
Yes, cow farts make for great comedy. But in reality, the causes of climate change, and livestock agriculture’s role, are a lot more complex, says Dr. Sara Place, an animal science expert and senior director of sustainable beef production research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Cattle account for about 2 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency. In comparison, our transportation system – including cars, planes and more - accounts for more than 25.3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Even extreme dietary changes - such as switching to a vegan, all-plant diet - won’t have much impact on climate change and global temperatures, Place explains.
Research shows that removing all livestock and poultry from the U.S. food system would only reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 0.36 percent.
“People want to act. I don’t doubt the good intentions. People want to make a positive difference,” Place says. “But if somebody does ‘Meatless Mondays,’ they are making no difference at all. Americans only eat about one-tenth of one bovine (cow) per year (per person).”
As for beef’s role in a sustainable diet, Place explains that cattle are natural “upcyclers.”
Cattle can consume plant materials – such as grasses, corn stalks, ethanol byproducts and more – that are inedible to humans because of the animal’s unique ruminant digestive system.
Even vegetarians benefit from cattle, Place notes. Cattle often eat the inedible “leftovers”, such as pea pods, beet roots and wheat stalks, from the production of plant-based meat substitutes like pea-protein burgers.
“When you talk about nutrition and sustainability, cattle play a unique role as ruminants in the larger ag and food system,” Place says. “They are taking what we can’t consume, and taking grazing lands (we can’t farm), and upgrading those resources for high-quality beef for people.”
As for our health, studies show that if we eliminated all livestock from U.S. farms, our diets would be deficient in the vital nutrients that meat provides.
“All the nutrients in steak and hamburger, including B12, iron and zinc, we couldn’t eat enough plants to get all of those things,” Place explains.
Of course, we all want to do our part to help the environment.
If you want to make a difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Place recommends that you focus on reducing food waste.
Food waste in landfills is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
“That’s something you can actually have control over that makes a real difference,” Place says.