How Meat and Dairy are Hiking Your Carbon Footprint

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It’s tough enough dealing with all the hectoring we get about eating less salt, using bigger forks, and making sure that this or that food group makes up only this or that percentage of our diet. All that, however, is only when it’s the nutritionists talking. Things get even harder when the environmentalists enter the picture, with their confusing stats about “local food” and the amount of greenhouse gas you indirectly put into the air when you order that burger for lunch (up to 1,340 grams, according to energy expert Jamais Cascio).

Fortunately, organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are simplifying all that information. The EWG recently released its groundbreaking Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health, an admirably comprehensive breakdown of both the environmental footprint and health effects of our food choices. The handbook comes with easy-to-read graphics, a wallet-card summary of the information, quizzes and irresistible data-bits like “if your four-person family skips steak 1 day a week [for a year], it’s like taking your car off the road for almost 3 months.” This is a great new spin on the typical food-and-environment study, which tends to focus only on the food production phase. Now we can see if and how the grub that’s actually on our own plates influences the world.

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Many of the EWG’s findings are pretty eye-opening — like some revealing facts about beef, which produces twice the emissions of pork, four times as much as chicken, and 13 times that of vegetable protein such as beans, lentils, and tofu. That’s especially alarming since we waste so much meat — ultimately throwing away about 20% of what we produce — meaning that all that carbon was generated for nothing.

The USDA’s related findings about emissions related to milk and cheese came from a study it conducted of a single commercial dairy with 10,000 milk cows in southern Idaho. The facility is home to 20 open-lot pens, two milking parlors, a hospital barn, a maternity barn, a manure solid separator, a 25-acre wastewater storage pond, and a 25-acre compost yard. If you think that kind of operation can produce a lot of noxious discharge, you’re right. The investigators monitored a year’s worth of ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions and found that this one dairy gives off 3,575 pounds of ammonia, 33,092 pounds of methane, and 409 pounds of nitrous oxide per day. Now consider that there are 365 days in a year and tens of thousands of dairy farms in the U.S.

The takeaway from both reports is that eating meat and dairy is expensive, and in a whole lot of ways. Remember, it’s not just the carbon emissions that hurt; it’s also the pesticides, fertilizers, fuel, and water needed to produce the feed for all those cows and pigs. And once that damage is done, there are still the health consequences we all face from eating too much meat, particularly red meat.

All the same, America is a nation of unapologetic omnivores — with an accent on the carnivore — and the EWG and USDA don’t pretend that many people will give up meat or dairy entirely. The message instead is simply to eat and waste less of what we produce and  to look for greener options – meat from grass-fed, pasture-raised animals, for example. “Asking everyone to go vegetarian or vegan is not a realistic or attainable goal,” chef and television personality Mario Batali told EWG. “But we can focus on a more plant-based diet and support the farmers who raise their animals humanely and sustainably.”

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So whether you eat meat and love milk, or eat nothing but tofu and spinach, you should check out the two reports. Understanding how your dietary preferences affect the world you live in will help you make the most informed choices possible — and, if you make the right ones, to help yourself in the process.

Tara Thean is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @TaraThean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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