Teachers - Stop Telling Kids to Eat Less Meat
Yesterday, my son’s Science teacher told the class how bad cattle are because they "fart methane," and that cutting down on meat is one of the best things they can do for the planet.
She also proudly announced that she recently purchased some Beyond Burger patties and though she hasn't tried them yet, she's happily "doing her part".
My 15 year old stood up for the fact that beef is healthy and cattle can graze on land that cannot be cropped. He’s likely the only kid in the entire school system that knows this.
As a dietitian, mother and someone who lives on a farm that raises organic vegetables and pasture-raised meats, I couldn't be more frustrated. It's coming from all angles: the media loves to blame cattle for our worries about our failing health and the environment. We're also hearing this from our medical experts, the WHO, EAT Lancet, and the Meatless Mondays campaign. But the reality is, eating meat is really not the problem and giving it up could cause more harm than good.
While I feel that teachers are only doing their best, it's time they actually look at the facts and stop allowing anti-meat propaganda to influence their classroom lectures. The goal of any good scientist is to question EVERYTHING. The following is from the email I sent to the teacher last night:
I’m hoping it’s ok to send you some science on cattle. Beyond Burger has a lot of money to make in the “meat is bad” argument and has invested heavily into anti-meat propaganda messaging. I happen to be very against Meatless Mondays in the NYC public school system because there is no evidence that this will make any difference from a climate perspective and pretty good evidence that eliminating a nutrient dense food like meat will actually harm the 75% of NYC public school kids who are low income, and 10% are homeless. Is removing meat, the most nutrient-dense food to humans, in the best interest of these at-risk kids?
Beyond Burger is one of the major sponsors of Meatless Mondays.
Here are the ingredients of Beyond Burger:
Pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), ascorbic acid (to maintain color), annatto extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality), vegetable glycerin.
Is it really safe to assume that pea protein isolate, canola oil and the assorted additives is healthier than beef?
There's NO evidence to prove that reducing or eliminating meat is a healthier choice for kids. In fact there's only been one RCT looking at meat and performance in kids. When measured for growth, intellectual ability, behavior, and academic performance, after two years, the meat group had by far the best outcomes. (More about that in this post)
Methane: Cattle don’t FART methane, they BURP methane. In the US, less than 2% of the GHG emissions can be attributed to beef cattle according the the EPA. This recent study shows how grass-finished beef can be a carbon sink - and much better than Beyond Burgers for the planet.
Although I argue mainly for well-managed, grass-finished beef, I’m not opposed to typical beef when it comes to feeding those who have limited access to better meat. Beef is nutritionally superior to any plant-based alternative. It has more nutrients and protein for less calories than anything from a plant. Cattle that are finished on feedlots eat a diet that is 90% inedible by humans. If these products were not digested by cattle, they would decompose and emit greenhouse gasses anyway.
"Because they rely on grazing and forages, cattle need only 0.6 kg of protein from edible feed to produce 1 kg of protein in milk and meat, which is of higher nutritional quality. Cattle thus contribute directly to global food security." (source: FAO) This podcast and this one explain how cattle actually "up-cycle" nutrients.
Transportation and energy are BY FAR the largest drivers of GHG emissions. This podcast goes into the greenhouse gas argument in much more detail.
Land use: Most of our agricultural land is too rocky, steep, dry or doesn't have soil or water to support decent crop production. Cattle and other animals can graze on much of the land that cannot be used for cropping, so saying that they "take up too much land" is misleading. In the US, 85% of the land beef cattle are grazing cannot be cropped. They all start on grass, then some are finished on grass, others go to feedlots. When they are finished in feedlots, much of their diet is things like corn stalks and other “crop residue” that would emit greenhouse gasses through their breakdown anyway. Tilling land is far worse as far as GHG emissions (because it releases a lot of carbon) than belching cattle. Well managed cattle on grass can actually improve the health of the soil. Pea protein isolate and canola oil don’t do what cattle can do.
Water use: There are different methodologies used to determine water use. Green water is rainfall. Blue water is irrigation and groundwater reserves. Grey water is waste water treatment. All cattle start their life grazing, and it’s just the end of their lives where they go to a feedlot or are finished on grass. 94% of typical cattle water footprint is green - rain. 4% is blue and 3% is grey water. In grass-finished beef, 97% is green water and 3% is blue water. But the thing is, cattle pee. And their grazing is critical to soil health, improving the water holding capacity of the soil, and they can actually sequester carbon. Well managed cattle also increase biodiversity. Think about a vast field of soy and all of the life that has been annihilated in order for that system to happen (plus the glyphosate, etc) now think about cattle on a grassland - the land is covered, soil microbes are fed, pollinators aren’t being poisoned, and no tilling needs to happen. More about this here.
Here is a handout I made explaining all of the major nutritional and environmental reasons why we NEED cattle and other grazing animals in our food system - my hope is that teachers make this available when having discussions about the impact cattle have in our food system so at least there could be a balanced discussion.
As a clinical dietitian, I’ve worked with numerous adults and high school teenagers who have eliminated meat (thanks in part to vegan propaganda films being shown in schools as if they’re actually science) and have had serious health consequences as a result. It’s a very scary situation. Humans are omnivores, and meat is a critical food for us. Growing kids need animal products. In fact, a new paper recommends that all young children with failure to thrive be screened for vegan diets.
One study modeled what would happen in the US if we eliminated ALL animals from our food system. It showed that we would only reduce our GHG emissions by 2.6% and at the same time, overall calories would go up (beans and rice are 3X the calories for the same protein as beef) carbohydrate intake would increase, and nutrient deficiencies would go up.
We need better meat, not less meat.
The biggest impact kids can have on reducing their GHG emissions is to eat less processed foods, buy less single use junk, and not miss the bus. Eating less meat is not in the best interest of our youth’s health and vilifying all livestock sends the wrong message.
It’s not the cow, it’s the how.