Many people never give a second thought to where the food on the shelves of grocery stores comes from and how each choice one makes at the grocery store might have an impact on the environment.
The meat industry, specifically, leaves such a large carbon footprint because of the vast number of resources it takes to raise, transport and slaughter animals, according to the Johns Hopkins website. Cattle need spacious farmland to live and a large amount of water and grain to survive. It takes a lot of energy to transport, slaughter, cut and package the meat found on the shelves in grocery stores across the country.
Dane Salabak, an assistant professor of instruction who also teaches food systems, said that large factory farms are subject to runoff, which happens when cattle are held in inhumane conditions by standing in their own feces, and that waste runs off into plants. He also said that the methane that is produced on factory feedlots have also come into question as to what the impact on the ozone is.
“The costs of water, energy and grain that it takes to feed a cow to be slaughtered is a lot,” Salabak said.
Salabak notes the Atrium Cafe, located in Grover Center, has an emphasis on health and sustainability, always encouraging people to choose, or at least try, plant-based alternatives.
Ryan Evans, a freshman studying early childhood education, has been practicing a vegan diet for two-and-a-half years for environmental and moral reasons.
By not consuming any animal products, Evans is reducing her carbon footprint substantially. The environmental impacts of even the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins.
“All of these (meat) industries are so energy-consuming and contributing so much to climate change, and being vegan feels like it’s what I can do to stop it from happening,” Evans said. “I feel like I can control what I can do for the environment, and this is what I can do.”
Although going vegan, which is a diet devoid of all animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy, is a good way to contribute to lessening climate change, it’s not a realistic option or diet that works best for everyone.
“People need to do what’s best for them,” Salabak said. ”There are vegans who have been practicing that diet for years, and they’re sick. When they reintroduce some animal products, whether that’s lean meat, or eggs or whatever it is, they get better. So I think the larger impact is looking at what we, as humans, have done to our planet. We’re impacting our planet in so many ways.”
Although Salabak feels meat has a negative impact in the long run, he also thinks that meat can be sustainably-sourced and that it’s part of a much larger systemic issue where we need to reevaluate our entire food system and how we think of food.
For someone who wants to contribute to stopping climate change but doesn’t want to cut meat out of their diet, getting meat from a local, sustainable provider should be a goal for them.
Salabak notes that the Athens Farmers Market has a variety of beef, eggs and poultry that is sustainably-sourced by local farmers who use safe and humane practices consumers can take advantage of.
“Whether that’s cows that are grass-fed or chickens that are free range, that’s better,” Salabak said. “But it’s hard to feed the entire country with that.”
Ashley Eastman, a wellness specialist at Kindred Market, a full-service organic and natural products grocer, said the market has an entire freezer section devoted to local beef.
The meat comes from local providers around Ohio, including farms in Athens, Meigs, Guysville, New Lexington and more.
“One can pretty safely assume that the smaller provider has much less of a carbon footprint than a larger one,'' Eastman said. “It’s also very important for our local economy and local food system to thrive by supporting local farms.”
Eastman emphasized that Kindred Market is a local, independently-owned store, and when people shop there, their money is staying local, versus buying at a bigger chain superstore like Kroger or Walmart.
Kindred Market will also soon be selling locally-sourced turkey at the store, so people can purchase their turkey from a local provider in time for Thanksgiving.
Overall, it’s up to consumers to become more aware of the effects each purchase they make has on the environment. Humans waste metric tons of food in the U.S. daily and package food with plastic that eventually ends up in the ocean.
“It's up to people to figure out what really matters,” Salabak said. “What’s the planet going to look like, not for our children but our children’s children? I think it’s a problem to just turn a blind eye and follow research done by the beef industry that says there’s not a problem with eating beef. Every choice that people make to pick one product over another, you’re voting for that product to stay on the shelf.”