Dear EarthTalk: I recently became vegetarian for ethical reasons, but I am missing the taste of meat. Are there any tasty veggie options out there that can satisfy my desire for steak and chicken? — Missy Jenkins, Pittsburgh, PA
Aside from its brutal treatment of livestock animals, the meat industry is no doubt one of the worst offenders when it comes to the environment. Producing one kilogram of beef requires 150 square meters of land and 15,000 liters of water, most of which is used to grow feed for the animal. That same kilogram generates 27 kilograms of climate-altering carbon dioxide, the equivalent of driving a car more than 100 miles. Indeed, beef has 13 times the carbon emissions of an equivalent amount of vegetable-based protein.
Hungry mouths around the world take a hit, too: Some 70 percent of the grain produced in the U.S. is fed to livestock animals but the land used to grow it could feed some 800 million people instead. For this and other reasons many of us have given up meat altogether. But it doesn’t mean we don’t still crave the taste.
Fortunately, there are more choices than ever for vegetarians with latent carnivorous instincts. One young company, Beyond Meat, has millions of dollars in funding from high-tech heavyweights and has made a big splash in recent months with the launch of its first two meat alternative products, Beef-Free Crumbles and Chicken-Free Strips. Each of its products looks and tastes like the meat it is emulating while offering the same protein content — but without any saturated or trans fats or cholesterol, let alone gluten or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In taste tests, most consumers can’t tell which dishes contain actual beef or chicken versus Beyond Meat’s self-proclaimed “perfect substitutes.”
The company reports that it takes four-tenths of a pound of soy and pea plants to make a pound of their Chicken-Free Strips, versus three pounds of grain-based feed to get a pound’s worth of meat from an actual chicken. That all translates into many fewer pesticides and carbon emissions and much less water used in the process. Beyond Meat’s investors include the leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams’ Obvious Corporation, and even Bill Gates, who has expressed his hope that the company’s products can play a role in switching more people in developing countries over to plant-based proteins.
Of course, there are many other meat alternatives out there, too. A trip down the freezer aisle at Whole Foods yields sightings of Amy’s Bistro Burgers, Gardenburgers, Boca Burgers, Gardein Ultimate Beefless Sliders and Beefless Tips, Dr. Praeger’s Veggie Burgers and Sol Cuisine Meatless Chicken. Meanwhile, the Meat Alternatives section of VeganEssentials.com offers up Upton’s Naturals’ Bacon Style Seitan Strips, Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Fishless Sticks, Field Roast’s Classic Vegan Meatloaf, and even Meatless Select Fishless Vegan Tuna. Another classic option is any number of meatless products from the Kellogg’s-owned Morningstar Farms, which are widely available in mainstream grocery stores from coast-to-coast and which account for some 60 percent of the meat alternatives market in the U.S.
With meat production expected to double by 2050 as the world’s human population tops nine billion, there has never been a better time to start curbing our enthusiasm for conventional steaks, hamburgers, chicken breasts and sausages.
Dear EarthTalk: What would you consider to be the key areas we need to improve to make our food safer for our health and easier on our environment? — Billy A., Oakland, CA
Although we have come a long way in recent years with regard to the safety and sustainability of our food supply, we still have a long way to go. Toxic pesticides are still used on the vast majority of U.S. grown crops, while other hormone-disrupting chemicals are omnipresent in our food packaging. And excessive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture threatens to render many human drugs ineffective. Environmental leaders would like to see the federal government step up and institute regulations banning such substances in our food supply, but for now it’s still up to individual consumers to make the right choices.
Fruits and vegetables grown on conventional (i.e. not organic) farms make up some 96 percent of the produce we eat — and expose us to many pesticides. Two of the most toxic, chlorpyrifoss and DDT, are also quite common: 93 percent of Americans carry trace amounts of the former in their bloodstreams, while 99 percent of us have DDT residue coursing through our veins. These chemicals on our food can be harmful to adults, but health experts are even more concerned about what they are doing to our kids. The non-profit Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) points to recent studies showing that children with high pesticide exposures in the womb are at increased risk of being born with birth defects and are much more likely to encounter developmental delays, ADHD and autism spectrum disorders.
A related issue is the hormone-disrupting bisphenol-A (BPA) in our food supply as a result of its widespread use in the lining of cans and other food and drink containers. “Nearly every person in America has some BPA in his or her body,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading green group. “And yet, this food-packaging chemical may cause problems in developing fetuses, infants and children by altering behavior and increasing the risk of prostate cancer, as a government report concluded nearly two years ago.” Other studies have shown links between BPA exposure and a variety of human health problems including erectile dysfunction, breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Another big hurdle to a safer, greener food system is our increasing reliance on antibiotics to fight bacterial infections in livestock. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has known since the 1970s that feeding large amounts of antibiotics to healthy livestock breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can in turn render many of the antibiotics used for humans ineffective. In fact, antibiotic resistant infections are already killing 23,000 Americans each year. A 2012 FDA policy change calls on livestock producers to refrain from using antibiotics to boost growth rates for pigs, cows, sheep and chickens, but it remains to be seen if the industry will toe the line or use loopholes to keep up the steady stream of antibiotics.
PANNA is one of many voices demanding an overhaul of how the FDA regulates our food supply. “We all want to believe that government agencies are protecting us and our food supply from chemical contaminants-but they are not,” reports the group. “They do not have the regulatory framework to do so.” The group would like to see the U.S. trade-in its policy that treats chemicals as “innocent until proven guilty” for something akin to Europe’s regulatory system, where a “health-protective precautionary approach” dictates which chemicals are approved for widespread use.
Dear EarthTalk: Apple just put out a big PR campaign about its sustainability initiatives. Has the company made real progress in this regard or is this just more corporate “greenwashing?” And how are the other big tech companies addressing their carbon footprints? — Billy A., Oakland, CA
Long criticized for its lack of commitment to sustainability — from supporting the dangerous mining of precious resources and exploiting factory workers to powering its data centers with energy derived from coal and not taking back products for recycling — Apple has really worked on turning things around over the past couple of years. Indeed, just this past month the company announced that 94 percent of its corporate facilities and 100 percent of its data centers now operate on power from renewable sources.
Environmentalists first took notice that serious change was afoot at Apple in May 2013 when the company brought in former Obama Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson to head its corporate environmental initiative. Since then, the company has unveiled plans showing how its new corporate headquarters — currently under construction in Cupertino, California — will use 30 percent less energy than an equivalent conventional building while playing host to some 7,000 carbon-sequestering trees. Apple also reports that it has decreased the material required to produce its iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macs. A new iPad Air, for instance, uses a third less material overall by weight than the original iPad. And all of the company’s retail stores will now take back any Apple products for free recycling — U.S. and U.K. consumers can even earn gift cards for turning in old iPhones, iPads and computers.
Of course, Apple still has work to do. The nonprofit Friends of the Earth has been on the company’s case to agree to a plan that will reign in the human and environmental toll of destructive tin mining in Indonesia and elsewhere. Tin is a major component of the solder in smart phones and other electronics and the popularity of such items has pushed miners to extremes and is linked to the destruction of tropical rainforests, coral reefs and commercial fisheries. Apple sent a team of investigators to the Indonesian islands responsible for producing some 30 percent of the world’s commercially available tin, but the company has yet to commit to any changes in the way it sources this increasingly valuable raw material.
As for other tech/Internet companies, Greenpeace has been assessing and tracking environmental performance of the big players for more than a decade. “The Internet we love, and the companies that run it are at a crossroads in terms of where their energy comes from,” reports the group. “Many of these companies have already chosen the road to a green internet and a sustainable future.” Some of the best performers besides Apple include Facebook, Google, Salesforce, Rackspace and Box, each of which has committed to 100 percent renewable energy.
Greenpeace isn’t as bullish on Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Amazon, each of which relies heavily on coal-fired power sources for their data centers and other operations, but still says. “If Amazon and others want to stay innovative and relevant, it’s high time they made the switch to the abundant, sustainable, renewable energy of today.” Concerned consumers can sign Greenpeace’s online #ClickClean petition asking these big players to step up and commit to renewable energy and environmentally responsible operations.
Dear EarthTalk: Is the gray wolf still endangered in the United States and how successful have re-intoduction efforts been? — Loren Renquist, Salem, OR
The gray wolf is still considered “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But a June 2013 proposal by the Obama administration to “delist” the animals — save for a small struggling population of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico — could change that if finalized later this year.
Gray wolves were added to the Endangered Species List in 1975 after being wiped out across the contiguous 48 states by government-sponsored trapping and poisoning programs. Thanks to protections under the ESA, populations have since bounced back nicely in two out of the three regions where protections and reintroduction programs were initiated. In the Great Lakes, wolf populations rebounded from just a few hundred individuals in the 1970s to over 5,000 today, expanding their range from Minnesota to Wisconsin and Michigan. In the Northern Rockies, natural migration from Canada and reintroductions in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho have resulted in some 1,700 gray wolves now roaming across Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon.
“Despite these substantial gains, the job of wolf recovery is far from over,” reports the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “Wolves need connected populations for genetic sustainability, and natural ecosystems need wolves; yet today wolves occupy less than 5 percent of their historic range.” That’s why CBD has joined a chorus of voices in urging the federal government to continue protecting gray wolves under the ESA.
The U.S. government had been scaling back wolf protections in recent years, so animal advocates weren’t surprised to see the Obama administration’s proposal. “In April 2011 Congress attached a rider to a must-pass budget bill that stripped Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in all of Montana and Idaho, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and a small portion of northern Utah — an unprecedented action that, for the first time in the history of the Act, removed a species from the endangered list by political fiat instead of science,” says CBD, adding that wolves were subsequently delisted in Wyoming and the Great Lakes. “Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota and Wisconsin have begun public wolf hunting and/or trapping, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooperating with state agencies, is expanding its program of trapping, radio-collaring and releasing, then aerial gunning the pack-mates of these collared wolves — a program that…had been limited to those that preyed on livestock.” CBD fears that such tactics will become common if ESA protections are removed in the lower 48 states.
Luckily for the wolves, the Obama administration’s delisting proposal suffered a setback this past February when an independent review panel concluded that the decision was based on insufficient science and should therefore not be enacted. “The science used by the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) concerning genetics and taxonomy of wolves was preliminary and currently not the best available science,” reported panel member Steven Courtney, a scientist at UC Santa Barbara.
The review panel finding has opened a new public comment period on a proposal that has already generated more than a million comments. A final decision on the delisting proposal is expected by June.