Submission by Stephanie Feldstein, Population and Sustainability Director at the Center for Biological Diversity
I grew up in the Midwest, where grilling is almost more religious tradition than culinary art. My dad grilled year-round, even trekking out in snow boots to cook steaks in the middle of winter. But summer was when the barbecue became the centerpiece of social gatherings. It still is, and not just in the Midwest.
Despite my roots, I’ve always struggled with barbecue season as an animal lover.
According the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (yes, that’s a real thing), Americans eat 818 hot dogs every single second between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That doesn’t even account for all the burgers, steaks, chicken and other meat thrown on the grill over the next few months.
Barbecue season isn’t just bad news for the animals who wind up on the grill, it’s bad for the environment and all the wild animals threatened by meat production.
Animal agriculture has an enormous environmental footprint. It’s a leading cause of climate change, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, water use, pesticide use and pollution. And if current dietary trends continue, we won’t be able to meet international climate goals – no matter what changes we make in energy, transportation and other sectors.
Our love of barbecues is cooking the planet and all the animals who share it with us.
Climate change threatens one in six species with extinction. Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And Americans eat an average of three times as much meat per capita as the rest of the world. This all adds up to our grilling habit costing us a lot more than the sale price of meat.
On top of the outsized carbon footprint of the American Dream, our Ronald McDonald-sized carbon foodprint keeps getting bigger. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that meat and poultry consumption will balloon to more than 222 pounds per person this year. That’s five pounds more per person than last year and nearly twice as much as federal dietary guidelines say we should be eating.
That’s not good for us either – high meat consumption is associated with increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28792013]
For our own health, the love of animals and the future of our planet, we need to rethink what goes on the grill.
When the weather starts turning to spring, I still look forward to barbecues. But these days, many barbecues are more likely to feature quinoa salad than Jell-o salad. Instead of just a single package of white buns, there’s often a spread of whole grain, gluten-free bread and maybe even lettuce wraps.
Times have changed, and what goes between those buns or lettuce leaves also needs an update.
Meat and dairy demand much more from the planet and other animals than plant-based foods. By reducing our meat intake by just one third – one meal a day – we can each save as much as 340,667 gallons of water, more than 4,000 square feet of land, and the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving 2,700 fewer miles a year.
It’s not easy to give up traditions. And it’s not always easy to eat meat-free around meat-loving family and friends. But it’s worth it, because what we choose to eat is one of the biggest ways we impact the world around us each day.
Barbecue season is the perfect time to start new traditions. Meat doesn’t need to be the centerpiece of summer social gatherings. There’s no shortage of meat-free alternatives to choose from and with fresh fruits and vegetables in season, it’s easy to fill your plate with delicious animal-friendly, Earth-friendly foods.
And if you just can’t give up that burger or hot dog at your weekend barbecue, you still have at least three chances a day every other day that week to choose plant-based foods over meat or dairy, choosing a diet that’s healthier for animals, the planet and you.
It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten meat, but the next few months will still be full of grilling. Only now, it’s all about grilled vegetables, veggie burgers, and veggie dogs. And it still tastes like summer.