Meatless Monday Myths
She describes herself as a livestock sustainability consultant, passionate about sustainability issues and the role of animal agriculture in helping to feed a hungry world. Jude Capper lives in Montana, USA, and is a former vegan who now passionately uses scientific evidence to defend beef production, technology and the various myths that exist around the global Meatless Monday campaign.
Capper was in South Africa recently as guest speaker of the South African Feedlot Association at the 2013 Cattleman’s Conference held in Pretoria.
In 2011, The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a US based environmental health research and advocacy organization, released a report claiming that everybody should eat less meat and dairy products in order to mitigate climate change.
Called “Meatless Mondays”, this campaign encourages people to not eat meat on Mondays to improve their health, as well as the health of the planet. The premise of the campaign is that beef production is contributing to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, facts which Capper is only too happy to dispute.
Furthermore the report stated that if consumers were going to eat meat, they should choose “meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed as they are generally the least environmentally damaging”.
The report demonstrates a lack of basic livestock knowledge – The EWG’s promotion of organic or grass-fed systems as having a low environmental impact is ironic given that such systems actually have a greater carbon footprint compared to their conventional counterparts, according to Capper’s research.
Capper also questions the basis and source of many of the statistics being used by this campaign to justify its cause. For one, the EWG claims that national carbon emissions would be reduced by 4.5 percent if everyone in the U.S. chose a vegetarian diet. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, cites livestock production (including poultry and horses) as accounting for only 3.1 per cent of total U.S. emissions.
“Let’s do the maths based on the EPA numbers. The EWG report focuses on the impact of red meat and dairy, so if we remove poultry and horses from the EPA’s 3.1 per cent figure, we get a total red meat and dairy impact of 3.05 per cent. Divide that by 7, and the impact of one meatless day per week is equal to 0.44 per cent of the U.S. carbon footprint – and that’s assuming that the U.S. population of 311 million people all adopt this lifestyle change. 0.44 per cent is minuscule. It’s a tiny fraction of the impact that we could make on the national carbon footprint,” Capper explains.
Capper says she firmly believes that any production system has a role within agriculture provided that it is environmentally conscientious, economically viable and socially acceptable, and that the beef industry must still continue to demonstrate its dedication to reducing its environmental impact to remain a viable consumer choice. To this end, she says that technological advances in red meat production over the last few decades have greatly reduced the environmental impact of red meat globally.
The beef industry has improved productivity, with cattle growing faster and being finished at heavier weights. Between 1977 and 2007, this reduced the carbon footprint of a pound of beef by 18 per cent, with affiliated reductions in land use, water use and energy use. Capper concludes that grain-fed beef production is sustainable and will stay sustainable through continuous improvement.
Capper also disputes the fact that not eating meat for one day is necessarily advantageous to one’s health. She says that:
· Certain plants can contain more hormones than meat, depending on how they are farmed and produced
· 200g lean beef contains 13.5 times more zinc than in 200g of salmon
· 200g lean beef contains as much iron as 7.2 cups of raw spinach
· 200g lean beef contains 4.5 times more riboflavin as 200g of tuna
· 200g lean beef contains 7.5 times more Vitamin B12 as 200g chicken breasts
“Forget demonizing specific foods, or suggesting that one single action can save the planet. We need to understand and quantify how all our choices have consequences – and act accordingly,” Capper says.
Capper is an Assistant Professor of Dairy Science in the Department of Animal Sciences at Washington State University (WSU). Born in the UK, she undertook her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harper Adams University College (UK) before doing post-doctoral research at Cornell University. Her current position is split between teaching, extension and research, with her research focusing on modelling the environmental impact of livestock production systems. Current research includes comparisons of historical and modern production practices in dairy and beef industries; and the effect of technology use and management practices upon environmental impact.