Green Eggs & Ham: What Meat Is Best For The Environment?

It's obvious every time we write a post on vegetarianism: lots of people love meat. But are some meats better for the planet than others? And what about the half-vegetarian's flesh of choice, fish?

In answer to the first question, the Slate's Nina Rastogi says: go ahead, chow down on some bacon. Well, kind of. The greenest meat is actually poultry, because it's so efficient: a calorie of chicken protein requires only 5.6 calories of fossil fuels, as opposed to 20 to 40 for beef. But pork is also somewhat more environmentally-friendly than beef, because pigs fart less and breed more than cows. Methane gas expelled by livestock contributes to global warming, and the more offspring an animal has per year, the fewer resources expended on breeding. Sadly for hamburger lovers, beef is the worst offender. It's bad for humans, as underscored by a new study (although, to be fair, this study also fingers hot dogs, which everyone knows are made of lips and assholes), and it's also bad for the planet. Cows use the most land, cause the most global warming, and contribute most to a kind of water pollution called eutrophication, which can kill fish.

Speaking of fish, how should we feel about eating them? According to a new report, fish feel pain, possibly in a way similar to humans. Fish who received morphine before being burned seemed chilled out (sorry) throughout the procedure and afterwards, while non-drugged fish showed "defensive behaviors, indicating wariness, or fear and anxiety" after their watery torture.

But Ariane Sherine, in an excruciatingly punny piece for the Guardian, says this news won't matter to most people. Sherine uses herself as an example: "fish don't elicit the same emotional response as mammals and birds," she writes, "and because of this, I've always eaten them but rarely meat." Ok, confession: though I used to be a vegetarian, I too eat fish. I don't do it because I think they don't feel pain — I'm sure they do. I do it for the selfish (or, as Sherine would say, "shellfish") reasons that I was having trouble staying healthy and eating with friends and family as a pure vegetarian. I pay attention to sustainable seafood guidelines, because my initial vegetarianism was an environmental, not a moral choice. I don't feel as virtuous as I did when I was a beans-and-tofu girl, but I can exercise again, my cholesterol is lower, and I don't get in fights with my dad when I go home.

Sherine says, "no matter how much pain creatures we view as 'food' are scientifically proven to experience, 94% of us will go on fuelling demand for them, sticking our fingers in our ears and yelling, 'la la la, they taste nice, so shut up and let me eat them!'" I don't think that's entirely true. I think articles like Rastogi's show that people are looking for ways to balance their desire to eat some animal products with their desire to not live in an all-Katrina-all-the-time global-warming hellscape. And if, as Michael Pollan says, Americans going meatless just one night a week would be like taking 30 to 40 million cars off the road, I'd rather champion Meatless Monday than wage a war for universal vegetarianism that, frankly, I'm never going to win.

The Kindest Cut [Slate]
Study: Fish May Feel Pain Much Like Humans [UPI]
Are Fishes' Feelings A Red Herring? [Guardian]
Paying A Price For Loving Red Meat [New York Times]