Saturday, January 26, 2013

Step Twenty-Four: Reduce Your Meat Consumption

Our modern meat industry is one of the biggest sources of waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and not just from all those animals farting. The majority of animals are raised in feed lots, where they are fed on grains which have been grown on other industrial farms using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, then harvested, processed, and transported on trucks and machinery run by fossil fuels. The livestock themselves are transported across the country for butchering, processing, and shipping to your town's supermarket. The packaging for meat often involves plastic wrap and Styrofoam, both of which are difficult to recycle and impossible to compost. All of this results in an industrial meat complex which is incredibly intensive in its resource use, just so we can have cheap hamburgers on demand and never go a day without some kind of chicken product. Livestock cast a long shadow across our health, our global community, and our environment, not to mention our wallets. So today's step is to reduce our meat consumption, if only by one serving a week. This will save you money, contribute to a healthier lifestyle, and let you do your part for a healthier planet.

I am not a vegetarian, and am unlikely to ever become one, but I have come to believe for health reasons that meat should be an occasional part of our diet, not a daily staple. Though some disagree sharply, I think Dr. Campbell's book The China Study clearly establishes that a diet low in meat and other animal products is much healthier than our standard american fare. Books like In Defense of Food and Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy support Dr. Campbell's work, though are not so adamant about eliminating animal products entirely from one's diet. Having less meat, animal products, and refined or processed foods in our diets will make more room for plant-based whole foods that are richer in nutrients, provide more filling carbohydrates, and work with our bodies' processes, rather than stressing or over-taxing them.

I initially lowered my meat consumption out of budgetary concerns. I could afford five pounds of potatoes, or two pounds of beef. The potatoes went farther, so they won out. I'm a little better off now, but still consider meat to be a treat, not daily fare. I have tried to increase my bean consumption, as new studies show that increases lifespan and overall health. Plus they  cost pennies from the bulk bin, and are actually quite easy to make a part of any meal. When I do buy meat I can afford to get responsibly produced varieties (like free-range and grass-fed), and the rest of the time I can afford more interesting dairy products like cheddar from a local cheese maker, or raw milk to make my Greek yogurt from. Now my money goes towards food I feel good about purchasing and enjoy eating, plus I have enough to treat myself to top-quality cuts when I do eat meat.

Lastly, I keep my meat consumption to a twice-weekly event because it's good for the community and the environment. Less land has to be deforested and stripped to raise beef cattle, less chicken farmers get trapped in vicious cycles of debt trying to keep their contracts with mega-corporations, and less resources have to be devoted to packing, shipping, and chilling the meat. I use my spending to vote for small, lovingly-managed farms, humane animal treatment, and more organic produce in my local market.

If I had made these changes quickly, they probably wouldn't have stuck, so if you feel better gradually reducing your meat consumption, take as much time as you need. Use this opportunity to be more creative in your cooking, find ways to say yes to adding more vegetables to a recipe, or even to make things more simple for yourself by cooking more one-dish meals like rice pilaf or chow mein. Try making eggs or beans the protein feature in your food, rather than pork or chicken. These all can be small, enjoyable changes that help make your new lifestyle stick.

I found I didn't even need to try new recipes to reduce the meat in my diet. For example, I always used to make spaghetti sauce by sauteing ground beef and onions, then stirring in olives, mushrooms, Italian seasoning, and tomato sauce. When money got tight, I could afford everything but the ground beef, yet the sauce was just as flavorful and filling. Rather than dice ham into my cheesy potato-broccoli soup, I made due with all the rich flavors of cheddar and broccoli  and allowed myself to be satisfied by the fullness of potatoes. Cooked lentils go over rice just as well as beef stew, beans are as satisfying on fajitas as chicken, and feta cheese makes to-die-for lasagna, sans meat.

One thing I don't recommend is trying to find meatless varieties of foods, or tofu replacements. The facade only highlights the absence. Instead, have a hamburger, meatballs, or even a steak once in a while. You'll savor it more, and appreciate it better. The point with this step is not to eliminate meat entirely, only to reduce your consumption of it. Even if you just commit to Meatless Mondays, you'll be making a difference. Personally, I eat meat around twice a week, and am perfectly happy with that amount; it's just enough for me to find pleasure in life and my favorite foods; any more than that and meat becomes something I eat to fill up, not to enjoy.

Hopefully you're convinced that reducing your meat consumption is something you can do, and have fun with. If you need a little idea of where to start, I recommend trying some of the recipes or looking for inspiration on the Zero Waste Kitchen blog, The Whole Food Diary, the In.gredients Store blog, and, my favorite, Eggton.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.

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