8 Guidelines for Buying Better Meat and Dairy

CC BY 2.0. gosdin -- Jersey cows at a Texan dairy

Cutting out animal products is important, but so is making sure the ones you buy are ethically sourced.

Many people are striving to eat a more climate-friendly diet these days. For some, this means transitioning to vegetarianism or veganism. For others, it means cutting out dairy or reducing consumption of animal products, a.k.a. reducetarianism. Sometimes it means taking a good look at food packaging labels to learn how or where a product was made, buying directly from farmers, or shopping at locally-owned stores that can vouch for their products.

All of these efforts are great, but what's really needed is a two-part approach in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The first part is reducing consumption overall, which is fairly straightforward. The second is choosing better, more ethically-sourced products, which is a considerably more daunting task.

Luckily, UK-based group Eating Better has published a guide explaining all the ways in which to 'buy better.' Depending on what your own priorities are, whether it's climate, health, animal welfare, or all of the above, there are certain things you should know to look for when shopping. The guide includes 8 principles that are "intended to help people who want to be healthier and reduce their environmental impact, without having to move to vegetarianism or veganism, and while improving farm animal welfare." These are laid out below:

1. Choose better for the planet.

All animal products have a relatively high carbon footprint, so no matter how they are raised, it is best to consume fewer of them. There are some additional points to consider, though.

Meats from ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep and goats, contribute more direct GHGs than meat from mono-gastric animals, like poultry and pigs.

The way in which animals have been reared has a big effect. Intensive farming results in lower GHGs, but has indirect GHG emissions from its reliance on soy- and grain-based feed, often grown on deforested land in South America.

The authors of the report write,

"Choosing ‘better’ includes meat and dairy from pasture-based production systems, but only when they are eaten as part of a lower meat diet overall. Simply switching to grass-fed from intensive systems, at the same level of consumption, would be catastrophic for land-use change and deforestation and is likely to lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions."

2. Choose better for animals.

Intensive farming operations are cruel to animals, inhibiting their ability to engage in normal behaviors. It pumps them full of antibiotics to promote rapid growth, keeps them in conditions where they are prone to disease, and wears them out prematurely (e.g. dairy cows who die after three lactation cycles). The goal is to support "extensive" farming systems, rather than intensive: "[These] enable natural behaviour, support good health, including enjoying a natural diet, and [ensure] that they are bred and kept in conditions that support their resilience."

3. Choose better for nature.

The planet responds to the way in which we raise our food. The intensification of agriculture has led to the destruction of natural habitats and loss of wildlife. Intensive agriculture is a leading source of water pollution and ammonia contamination.

It's important to avoid imported feeds whenever possible, as these drive the loss of high value habitats, such as the Amazon rainforest. Prioritize the purchase of meats and dairy raised on locally-sourced grains, grasses, and native legumes.

4. Choose better for feeding the world fairly.

One-third of calories and one-half of all plant protein grown worldwide are fed to animals for meat production. This is highly inefficient: "It has been calculated that halving world consumption of grain-fed meat could free up enough food to feed 2 billion more people." Ruminant animals are the least efficient converters of feed into protein. Instead, try eating more of these grains and plants yourself.

5. Choose better for health.

Meat and dairy are nutritious, but they are not needed at the levels currently consumed in Western societies. Plants are an excellent source of protein, as shown by animals such as gorillas and horses, who gain tremendous strength on mainly vegetarian diets. (Gorillas do enjoy insects on occasion, which is a very planet-friendly protein source.)

High levels of meat consumption have been linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. It can also displace fruits and vegetables in the diet, increasing the risk of disease. In other words, it won't hurt the majority of North and South Americans and Europeans to cut down on the amount of meat and dairy they eat; in fact, it's likely to have an overall benefit.

6. Choose better for responsible antibiotic use.

The threat of antibiotic resistance is growing and "the risk it poses to human health has been described as a ticking time bomb of potentially apocalyptic proportions." This is a terrifying risk that is not sufficiently discussed.

The report states that, in the European Union, 65-75 percent of all antibiotics used are consumed by animals. In the U.S. that number is closer to 80 percent. Even last-resort antibiotics, such as colistin, which is used in hospitals to treat multi-drug-resistant infections, are widely used on farm animals.

These drugs are used both to promote artificial growth and to prevent disease brought on by cramped conditions. Neither case is justifiable from a health or welfare point of view. Avoid these by choosing animals raised with higher standards of welfare because these are the healthier ones that do not need antibiotics in order to grow and stay healthy.

7. Choose better for cutting waste.

An estimated 15 percent of meat products go to waste in British households. Avoid this by buying smaller portions from a local butcher who's willing to cut and package according to your needs. Get comfortable with eating unusual cuts of meat, even offal. Nose-to-tail eating is not only trendy, but enormously helpful for the planet.

Another interesting suggestion is the development of dual-purpose cattle breeds. For example,

"Current trends of dairy cow breeding lean towards greater specialisation, with the aim to maximise milk yields. The calves of such pure dairy-bred cattle are not always seen as suitable for beef production. Dual-purpose breeds yield less milk but produce calves that can finish as beef animals."

8. Choose better for livelihoods.

We need to support the farmers that raise our food and ensure that they can maintain their livelihoods while pursuing kinder, gentler ways of raising animals.

"Profitability for smaller livestock farmers is already challenging, from consolidation of large farm businesses, access to markets, unfair trading, lack of firm government intervention on localised procurement, as well as retailer power. Smaller artisan producers may also be unable to afford the time or costs of registering within higher standard labelling schemes, even though their practices may exceed the standards required to be labelled in such a way."

We can help by shopping through farm shops, box schemes (a.k.a. CSA shares), farmers' markets, and independent butchers.