Do you care about the planet but giving up meat isn’t a realistic option? Read on for 14 ways to approach eating meat responsibly without doing meatless Monday!
I’m an environmentalist with no plans to go vegetarian or vegan. There, I said it!
First off, that’s a personal question. (May she who has never loved the smell of bacon throw the first block of tofu. Am I right?)
And while I usually start with some humor, this is actually a topic that deserves a serious moment.
There are so many things to consider other than the environment when it comes to your diet, and I think that conversation gets left behind when you view life solely through a passionate environmentalist’s lens. I hope this article feels like a safe space for anyone considering their environmental impact as an omnivore, weighing the choice to give up meat, or who is simply curious about ways to reduce the environmental impact of your diet without giving up meat.
Personal Health is a Priority
Your health should be the primary factor you consider when approaching your diet or giving up meat, and that’s between you and your physician or dietician. Related to that, making choices that support your health that fall within your budget can be challenging. We see you out there doing the best you can.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that not everyone has the same financial liquidity, access to transportation, access to specialty food items, and food allergies or intolerances that dictate their safe and available dietary options. When it comes to personal nutrition and the environmental impacts of eating meat, I’ll gently encourage everyone to remember that awareness of privilege and civility should always ground the conversation.
For a more in-depth conversation about veganism, vegetarianism, and answering that nagging question, “Is it bad to eat meat?”, you should read our editor’s recent article: Enough is Enough: Why Veganism Isn’t The Holy Grail of Eco-conscious Living… But Eat Less Meat.
14 Ways to Lessen Your Environmental Impact Without Giving Up Meat
As we consider the variety of factors that dictate each person’s nutritional and dietary options and choices, let’s dive into more than a dozen ways you can reduce the environmental impact of your eating habits without giving up meat.
1. Support your local farmer.
It’s been estimated the average meal in America travels 1,500 miles in refrigerated, gas-guzzling vehicles before reaching your table. When you support local farms, you reduce the carbon footprint of your food, strengthen your local food economy, and offer increased job security in a challenging industry. It is hard to be a small farmer with the predominance of large-scale factory farming, rising gas prices, labor challenges, and so many other factors that are out of your control.
Many small farmers are also incredibly passionate about caring for their animals, enriching the land, and building a healthy, sustainable food chain. You’ll be surprised how many farms use humane and organic practices but don’t have the time or means to jump through all the hoops it takes to be certified as organic.
We are really big fans of getting to know your local farms and farmers. We’ve toured their farms, we know them by name, and we’ve seen where our meat comes from and what was considered in farming it. It was, for me, a big step towards more mindful eating, which can be just as important as giving up meat or eating less meat. As a family, we not only have confidence in what we’re eating, but we have pride in watching these farms succeed as a positive alternative farming model.
Related Reading: 9 Environmental and Economic Reasons To Support Local Business
2. Consider packaging waste in your meat purchases.
Do you love chicken tacos but cringe over the styrofoam and weird plastic pillows in the packaging? This one’s for you.
Considering packaging is a great way to eat meat responsibly when other choices aren’t available for whatever reason. While I couldn’t find global or US statistics, the UK admits to producing 800,000 tons of meat packaging waste annually.
Locally raised meat often comes from small farms, which is great for all the reasons listed above. It also is rarely packaged in the ‘styrofoam-meets-plastic-pad-meets-shrink-wrap’ combo we see everywhere at the grocery store. Because food is stored and distributed directly from farmer to consumer (or at least without thousands of miles of transportation and extensive passage of time), local farmers don’t need such extensive packaging to protect food on its journey to your table.
All our meat products from small farms come in a simple vacuum-sealed plastic envelope. It’s about 1/4 the amount of garbage. Your local farmer will often reuse egg containers, as well, to help reduce expenses as much as possible.
However, not everyone can afford to shop at their local farm, and many people face accessibility and transportation challenges. Fortunately, attendants at the butcher counters at many grocery stores are happy to wrap up purchases in plastic bags and paper, which is still less packaging than the styrofoam alternatives.
Finally, I’m thrilled to see more and more vacuum-sealed envelopes popping up at major grocery stores, so keep an eye out for those options sandwiched between the styrofoam trays. Although many meat purchases will continue to be wrapped in plastic, reducing the amount of plastic or choosing less environmentally harmful alternatives is helpful.
3. Blend quality meat with ground mushrooms.
Is giving up meat simply not an option in your home? Does your family reach for the bacon bits if you utter the words “Meatless Monday”? Don’t worry; you’ve still got tasty options.
Balance out the cost of higher quality ground meat and improve your diet by adding ground mushrooms to your tacos, burgers, and pasta sauces. The flavor is fantastic. The texture of mushrooms is similar enough to ground meat to trick even the pickiest teenager. And mushrooms bear numerous health benefits.
Additionally, mushrooms take a significantly smaller environmental toll on the planet than conventionally raised beef. According to the Mushroom Council, one pound of mushrooms requires 1.8 gallons of water to grow while it takes 1,847 gallons (or 15,400 liters) of water to raise one pound of beef.
In fairness, 94% of the water required for beef production is “green water” (i.e. rainfall) on the land where cattle are raised. This makes the statistic a little bit misleading when compared to other types of crops that require irrigated water for production. But regardless of the method for assessment, blending mushrooms with ground meat can offer a better environmental compromise for your diet without giving up meat and benefitting your health.
If you’re looking for some blended mushroom and ground beef recipes, check out my Spicy Beef and Shiitake Bahn Mi Tacos or my Beef and Oyster Mushroom Burger with Caramelized Onions and Goat Cheese. You might be surprised how delicious they are!
4. Can you compost meat?
Meat doesn’t contaminate a compost pile. Like any other organic matter, it will decompose without issue in a properly managed composting facility. However, meat can create a composting mess due to smells and slow decomposition in a home compost bin, so many people opt to keep meat out of their bins at home to avoid any complications.
Some areas offer curbside compost pick-up services that transport your waste to an industrial facility, allowing you to toss meat products alongside those spoiled veggies.
Our family uses CompostNow, a regional curbside industrial-grade compost pick-up service run by a team of food-hauling angels, bless them. We toss bones, lard and grease, cartilage, cheese, dairy, and eggs into our smell-proof bin, thus keeping them out of a landfill.
We can also toss pizza boxes, avocado pits, toilet paper rolls, compostable plastics, and pet food in there. We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in our kitchen waste since we joined the program. CompostNow will return your finished compost to you or allow you to donate it to a community garden, allowing you to further shift the scales in a positive direction when calculating your environmental impact.
5. Eat stewing hens.
Stewing hens are older, more mature laying hens that have exhausted their optimal role on the farm. (Did you know chickens produce the most eggs during their first year of life?) The meat is tougher and leaner than the younger broiler hen meat you’re probably used to in the grocery store.
When slow-cooked and added to tacos, casseroles, or soups, it’s downright delicious and allows you to eat meat responsibly without eating less meat. When you enjoy a stewing hen, you honor the full life cycle of the farm and an animal that’s been allowed to experience longer, richer life.
6. Eat new cuts of meat.
In the words of our local farmer, “You’d think chickens only grew boneless, skinless breasts.” There is nothing wrong with some chicken breasts, but food waste occurs during the butchering process when the demand for one cut of meat far exceeds the rest of the animal.
Get out of your comfort zone! Challenge yourself to buy a new cut of meat from your local farmer or butcher, like bavette, cheek, tongue, marrow bones, ground beef with organs, or chicken livers (they’re delicious).
When you consume more of the animal, less is wasted. When the demand for chicken breasts and thighs outstrips everything else, much of the remainder of the animal may not be saleable and that becomes a lot of waste.
7. Eat a more diverse range of animals.
The environmental impact of eating a cow off a factory farm far exceeds a meal of venison your neighbor hunted. Which animals and which breeds of certain types of animals you choose to eat can alter the environmental impact of your diet significantly.
For instance, did you know there are endangered livestock breeds? This was news to me, too. As big agriculture prioritizes larger, faster-growing animals, the biodiversity of livestock has taken a huge hit. According to The Livestock Conservancy, “In the past fifteen years alone, the Food and Agriculture Organization has identified the extinction of 300 out of 6,000 breeds worldwide, with another 1,350 in danger of extinction.”
Heritage breeds are often more well-adapted to their traditionally-inhabited environments. “Traditional, historic breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to diseases and parasites.”
Thus, you can support the biodiversity of cattle and other types of animals by choosing to eat different breeds of animals. Biodiversity is an important element of environmental conservation as well as the overall health of our communities and the resiliency of our food systems and supplies.
So, where do you access heritage meat products? Head to your local farmers’ market, check with a specialty butcher or shop humanely raised heritage meat online at Heritage Foods (they even sell tasting kits).
You can also find buffalo meat, farmed ostrich, cornish game hen, duck, and quail eggs at many traditional grocery stores now. Fossil Farms, whose claim to fame is all-natural, farm-raised, and wild game meats, is also set to launch specialty retail stores this year, so you can more easily satisfy your mid-week craving for antelope, kangaroo, alligator, or guinea hen.
Side note: I ordered enormous goose eggs from a local farm last year, and my astonished husband asked if we had velociraptors in South Carolina when he pulled them out of the bag. They make a delightful carbonara.
8. Don’t waste meat.
Don’t let it go to waste, no matter where your meat comes from, what type of meat it is, or how much meat you’re eating. Not only is the mindset to reduce waste key to living an eco-friendly life, but this is also a budget-conscious life skill and useful approach to eating meat responsibly.
It’s estimated that Americans throw out 26 percent of meat, poultry, and fish at the retail and consumer level. This has an enormous environmental impact ranging from the cost of raising animals, the land cleared and maintained for this process, the packaging and fossil fuels required to transport and refrigerate meat products, and the space in the landfill rotting meat takes up.
Cook what you’re sure you’ll use, and freeze the rest. Did you make too much chicken soup to eat this week? Freeze a portion or call a neighbor and ask if they want a night off from cooking.
Is that cooked chicken breast still within the “safe” leftover range, but you’re just not feeling it? Treat your dog to a gourmet meal of chicken or steak. While spoiling your pup may sound like an odd environmental move, we all sometimes make more food than we realize or have anxiety about leftovers on the last day of the “safe” window, and it’s better than landfilling edible meat.
9. Is a raw pet supplement from the farmers’ market right for your animal?
Some farms use lower-grade or less popular cuts of meats or parts of the animal for pet supplements. Whether or not this is right for your furbaby is a conversation best had between you and your vet. But if it works for you, it’s another way to maximize the use of farmed animals.
Because the margins for small farms are so tight, your farmer is likely trying to use every single profitable part of the animal that they possibly can, and many farms that humanely raise their meat offer raw ground pet food supplements.
This can be a hot topic with passions running high on both sides of the conversation, so you’ll need to do your own research on the benefits and risks for your pet. But it’s worth exploring as a way to make the most of the animals we raise for consumption and reduce the waste from such systems and processes.
10. Recycle clam and oyster shells.
What do empty happy hour oysters on the half shell have to do with saving the planet? There’s a critical oyster shell shortage worldwide due to the unnecessary landfilling and over-harvesting of wild oysters, and Americans are currently chomping their way to approximately 2.5 billion oysters each year, according to the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
What’s the big deal about an oyster shell shortage? Baby free-swimming oysters, known as spat, usually rely on adult oyster shells to reach maturity and form reefs. Without that hard substrate to attach to, the spat wither and die.
A healthy oyster population is vital for coastal communities and marine ecosystems. According to the NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, “Oysters feed by filtering algae from the water, ultimately removing nutrients from the water, which, in excess, can degrade the aquatic environment. A single adult oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water a day.”
Due to things like nitrogen runoff from excess synthetic fertilizers applied to farmland, many bodies of water have excess nitrogen leading to algae blooms, insufficient oxygen, and significant destruction or deterioration of natural habitats (sometimes called Dead Zones). Oysters can effectively and efficiently clean up these degraded ecosystems and help return them to stable, healthy conditions.
Oyster reefs or oyster beds are also essential breakwaters for fragile coastal areas. The shape and density of these reefs absorb the force of the waves from incoming storms, and studies from the Gulf of Mexico indicate that oyster reefs can reduce the energy of high power waves by as much as 76 to 93 percent.
So, how do you get those oyster and clam shells back to the sea? Don’t just toss them over the railing at your local waterfront seafood joint. Because those oysters may have originated from a completely different area of the country, shells need to be quarantined before they’re integrated into your local oyster population.
Ask your favorite seafood restaurant if they’ve signed up for a widely available state-sponsored or non-profit pick-up program for their shells, and encourage them to do so if they aren’t already. Many states also offer shell drop locations for the public as well, so contact your Department of Natural Resources to inquire.
11. Support backyard egg farmers.
Is there a crazy chicken lady in your neighborhood? Give her some love. Backyard chicken or duck farmers became increasingly common during the pandemic, and most of them struggle to keep up with the 250+ eggs a bird can lay in its first year of life.
Keep an eye out for roadside “Eggs for Sale” signs or put feelers out on Facebook or Nextdoor to see if anyone is willing to sell their surplus eggs. Many people will be relieved to get the eggs off their hands in exchange for a little cash, and if sustainable, humane treatment of livestock is your biggest priority, you’d be hardpressed to find a more well-loved pet than your chicken lady’s prized silkie.
12. Look into creative ways to use those meat byproducts.
Are eggshells a no-go for your composter? Learn about how to use eggshells in your garden!
Do you have a bunch of lard congealing in a pan or jar? You can make suet seed cakes for your bird feeder, Rendered chicken fat, known as schmaltz, has a long, delicious history of use in the Jewish kitchen. But what about bacon fat? There’s a recipe (or 50) for that.
Are you wondering what to do with that rotisserie chicken carcass? Make your own chicken broth! Are you curious about how to use chicken pan juices? Turn them into a quick, delicious sauce.
What about fish skins or those tough cooked chicken or beef trimmings? Rinse off any spices or sauces and add small portions to your dog’s food as a treat.
Are you eyeballing a pile of fish guts, trimmings, and bones? You can make your own fish emulsion as a rich, organic fertilizer, but remember that wildlife and pets may find it delectable.
13. Treat meat as a condiment.
Technically, this one is actually “eating less meat”, but when you’re sprinkling shredded chicken on a giant pile of melty nachos, it won’t feel like it. We eat meat in our home, but we tend to use it more as a flavor enhancer or delightful add-on than the main course.
If your family mutinies at the idea of Meatless Monday, try thinking of (and portioning out) meat as a condiment atop a hearty salad, stir-fry, soup, or pasta dish. You’ll find that pair of shredded chicken breasts will go much further than you expected, and no one is likely to complain about their almost-vegetarian meal.
14. Learn when eating farm-raised meat is important and why.
Instead of late-night scrolling through your high school classmates’ social media, begin the long, complicated process of educating yourself on when farm-raised meat is your best choice versus wild-caught.
While there is no shortage of heavy-hitting books and articles on the impacts of over-fishing and over-harvesting, I’ll leave you on an optimistic, heartening note: Did you know oyster farming actually improves and restores the natural environment, and it can be an extra source of income for hard-working aquaculture farmers?
A single adult oyster can filter pollutants and sediment from up to 50 gallons of water each day, and thankfully, the majority of the 2.5 billion oysters that Americans consume each year are currently farm-raised versus wild harvest!
Just as there’s more than one way to grill a steak, there’s more than one way to adapt our diets, lifestyles, and consumer habits for an overall more eco-friendly lifestyle. Bon appetit!
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About the Author
Reese Moore is a photographer, content creator, and pickle connoisseur who divides time between Charleston and Lake Lure. When she’s not behind the lens shooting stunning images for Reese Moore Photography, Reese loves to spend her time wandering the woods with her dog Gatsby or adventuring with her husband Logan in their Airstream Basecamp.