Meat Eater’s Guide (to Unrelated Recommendations?)

The Methodology

As a separate document, the Environmental Working Group published the their methodology for “Meat Eater’s Guide.”  Before reading the final report, it is beneficial to read the methods for the research presented in the “Guide.”  To develop their life cycle assessment (LCA) of GHG’s associated with meat consumption, many assumptions had to be made.  This is certainly true of any LCA — assumptions, empirical data, averages, all of that has to come into play.  In the introduction it is stated that the objective was to model what could be considered the “conventional” process from conception to consumption.  The report from the EWG provides a good basis for questions to be asked and future research to be conducted.

Some Notable Assumptions

  1. The role of maternal maintenance and production volume (i.e. litter size), and the associated assumptions, varied from species to species and did not necessarily reflect all co-products (i.e., cows that produce milk and eventually become meat) in a realistic or “conventional” way.
  2. Processing data is based upon New Zealand’s processes.  Abattoirs in New Zealand tend to be more automated than the US and it is very likely that the energy required to operated that equipment is greater.
  3. Shipment of sheep meat from Australia and New Zealand for US consumption is reasonable, yet this is the only species for which import/export shipping is considered.  The U.S. imports and exports a lot of beef and pork.
  4. I am bewildered by the use of a cow/calf feedlot in Nebraska for the model.  This is simply not how the vast majority cow/calf beef cattle farms are operated.
  5. Admittedly, I know little about chicken production in British Columbia.  It is very interesting, though, that production is regulated and that they seem to target only consumption by Canadians (per this Supply Management message), yet was included in this study.
  6. The home storage and cooking section kitchen do not reflect what happens in my kitchen, but that’s just me.  How does it relate to you?
  7. The attempted LCA only includes what EWG deems “conventional” and no investigation regarding what they deem to be “best practices and/or organic” is included.
  8. Nor is it firmly stated that some “conventional” practices increase productivity and reduce GHG emissions, therefore never considered to be a “best practice.”

Which leads me to:

Recommended practices omitted from the methodology

The recommendations seem to be a catch-all of trendy meat choices (if one opts to eat meat) that extend far beyond the GHG LCA — which, as I understand it, was the intent of the Meat Eater’s Guide.  Few comparisons of “best practice and/or organic” to “conventional” were ever made, yet some recommendations (in addition reducing the intake of animal products) are to consume organic or other “certified XYZ” animal products.  We have read many of the recommendations before, and yes, they are all popular for various reasons.

The list of recommendations taken from the EWG site, my comments are in parentheses:

  1. Grass-fed or pasture-raised meat (included in LCA, lots of gray area with “pasture-raised”)
  2. Lean cuts (makes sense, but that’s related to the LCA how?  end-point body condition was included where?)
  3. No antibiotics or hormones (Why this specific recommendation when using them can reduce GHG?)
  4. Certified organic (references pesticide use, etc., which fits the GHG message how?)
  5. Certified humane (some can argue that certain “certified humane” requirements can be detrimental to animal health and well-being)
  6. Unprocessed, nitrite-free, and low-sodium (What does this have to do with the GHG LCA?)
  7. Sustainable seafood (the point about avoiding airfreighted food makes complete sense; but what about avoiding airfreighted “sustainable” meat?) 
Any discussion regarding the assumptions and recommendations made is certainly welcome.  Above are simply some of the questions I have.  This is a very important topic that merits much more discussion, brainstorming, and a more balanced and accurate approach to answering the unknown questions about the contemporary food system and making reasonable recommendations based upon research in the context of global “sustainability.”


2 thoughts on “Meat Eater’s Guide (to Unrelated Recommendations?)

  1. Excellent post Chris, nicely put. The organic/pasture-raised/humane aspect is the one that possibly baffles me most about the EWG report. The authors make a point of only considering conventional production systems, then make the assumption that all others must be superior. Dangerous thinking for anybody, let alone an NGO who hope that their report will be used to influence consumers and policy-makers. Scientific evidence to date has concluded that management practices that improve productivity will mitigate the carbon footprint, whether in dairy, beef or other livestock systems, yet this is ignored in the report save for a token reference to feedlot productivity.
    Under LCA guidelines, the use of antipodean data for processing is defensible given the lack of US data and the fact that they’re comparing within a region rather than comparing, for example, US and Australian beef. However, the lack of understanding relating to animal population dynamics is a huge flaw, leading to their illogical assumption that lamb has a higher carbon footprint than beef – I could rant about this one for pages, but will link here instead:

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