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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Serving Up an Eco-Friendly Plate

Mar 29, 2024 09:31AM ● By Alora Frederick, RDN, LDN

The narrative around eco-friendly eating involves veganism/vegetarianism (plant-based eating) against meat-eating. With meat becoming public enemy number one. However, Diana Rodgers, RD, a leader in sustainable food systems, puts it best, saying, “Stop hating the player and instead, hate the modern food game.” Instead of vilifying meat entirely, we should consider how it was raised, prepared and what it was paired with. The real threat to our environment and to human health is industrially produced food, especially the over-consumption of industrially produced meat.

The industrial meat system erodes soil and wipes out precious portions of the Amazon forest. As if these detriments to our planet weren’t bad enough, there’s also the welfare, or lack thereof, of the animals. 

As a whole, Americans need to turn away from industrial, highly processed meats. This is where small farms come into play as they are able to adopt environmentally friendly practices. Ruminant livestock like cattle have the ability to restore ecosystems and sequester carbon when living in accordance with natural biological cycles. 

It’s commonly stated that it requires 15,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of beef. However, this figure can be misleading and taken out of context. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 94 percent of the water consumed by livestock is “green water” (naturally occurring rainfall), so a more realistic estimate is that 1 kg of beef requires approximately 50 liters of freshwater.

Now to address the elephant in the room, or rather the atmosphere: methane. A significant portion of methane greenhouse gas comes from livestock, but to scapegoat only one source of greenhouse gas misses the bigger picture. Methane emissions are compared to carbon dioxide which is the most abundant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. The standard is that 1 methane molecule is equivalent to 28 molecules of carbon over the course of 100 years, hence why methane emissions are of concern. However, methane only lives for about 10 years, so it’s considered a short-lived climate pollutant, meaning it’s not causing warming for hundreds of years.

However, carbon dioxide stays in our atmosphere for 1,000 years. Methane is part of the biogenic carbon cycle. As part of photosynthesis, plants capture carbon from the atmosphere, this carbon in the plant is converted to carbohydrates, these carbohydrates are consumed by cattle, digested and then released as methane. After 10 years in the atmosphere, that methane is broken down and converted back to carbon dioxide and the cycle begins again. This makes methane from cattle a flow gas because as it is emitted, it is destroyed. This is very different from carbon dioxide from fossil fuel which only adds to the atmosphere and is never recycled. Fortunately, methane produced by cattle can be reduced with certain practices like feed additives, digesters, and manure management practices.

Through the implementation of these practices, short-term cooling of the environment has already begun in states like California. This means cattle can actually be a part of the solution to our warming environment. However, this is only possible with the application of these practices and a shift away from industrial factory farming. 

The adoption of any one singular dietary plan is not feasible nor appropriate for every single human on the planet. Therefore, it is not practical, necessary or appropriate for every single person on the planet to be eating a 100 percent plant-based diet. If remaining an omnivore suits someone best, there are still ways to lighten our carbon footprint. Begin with a few of these simple but efficacious options: eliminate the intake of industrial meats, purchase meat from small local farms with environmental and ethical practices, buy local and seasonal produce, reduce food waste, compost food scraps, reduce fashion waste, use less plastic and reduce energy usage at home. 

Alora Frederick, RDN, LDN, is an integrative and functional dietitian in Waltham, MA. She is currently accepting new patients at Johnson Compounding and Wellness for virtual nutrition appointments. Schedule a free,15-minute, introductory call at