Is it environmentally irresponsible to eat meat? A forage agronomist weighs in.
Peter Ballerstedt, Ph.D., and Mike Giardina sit down at the Symposium for Metabolic Health in San Diego, California, to discuss the intersection of metabolic health and sustainability. When speaking about sustainability, Ballerstedt describes three areas of interest — social, environmental, and economic — though the focus is often on the environment only.
Some experts recommend eating less meat and more vegetables as a way to improve climate outcomes. According to Ballerstedt, these recommendations are unfounded. Humanity’s diet is largely plant-based, he argues. Most people eat a significant proportion of their calories from plant-based products. However, some amount of animal-sourced food is necessary for human health and development.
When it comes to greenhouse emissions, which are often at the crux of environmental arguments in favor of plant-based diets, the removal of animal agriculture would only reduce these emissions by 2.5% in the U.S. and 0.5% globally. Meanwhile, the cost of such a reduction would be an imbalance in the food system and the exacerbation of essential nutrient deficiencies, Ballerstedt says. This is a big price to pay for small improvements, which are likely within the margin of error.
Ballerstedt states that removing animal-sourced foods for plant-sourced foods would require increased land use to grow more crops. Doing so would reduce grasslands in favor of growing more crops. Since grasslands are actually sequestering gas emissions, this could have a counterproductive effect.
According to Ballerstedt, focusing on our own metabolic health may be a more impactful way to contribute to sustainability, both environmentally and otherwise. The three pillars of sustainability — social, environmental, and economic — can all be affected by personal responsibility. As an example, eliminating the need for Type 2 diabetes medication would reduce our carbon footprint 29% more than shifting from a high-meat to a vegan diet, Ballerstedt says. In discussing economic sustainability, Ballerstedt notes that by 2030, chronic disease will cost the global economy 47 trillion dollars. If we all focus on improving our own health, he argues we can drive sustainability in more ways than one.