What you eat on a daily basis doesn’t just affect you — it also affects the environment.

While estimates vary, food production is responsible for emitting as much as a one-fifth to one-third of the world’s pollutants known as greenhouse gases, which trap heat from the sun and cause the atmosphere’s temperature to rise.

What does any of that have to do with people living in Kentucky, other than the state’s affinity to mining and burning coal?

Well, meat — specifically beef — production plays a large role in the greenhouse gases released during food production. And the Bluegrass State is pretty well known for raising beef cattle, with an inventory of more than one million animals that makes it the largest beef cow producing state east of the Mississippi River.

Cattle (Photo: 6381380, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The gases are emitted throughout the beef production process as farmers use energy to grow feed for the animals to eat, as forests that could absorb pollution are cleared for pastureland and as cows generate methane through their digestive systems.

When combined, all greenhouse gases emitted during beef production make it about 34 times more climate pollution-intensive than beans or lentils, according to a 2014 report published in the “Journal of Industrial Ecology.”

“Meat in general, but beef in particular, has a pretty substantial carbon footprint,” said Paul Vincelli, University of Kentucky coordinator for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. “… The other side of the coin is that, in studies I’ve seen, there’s a real demand for meat, and as countries get more income, their consumption of meat products grows. I think we’re tapping into a deep need.”

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By 2050, estimates show that approximately three billion more people will be purchasing meat, both as the population grows and income increases, according to an ESRI story map on the cost of beef.

That means farmers will require more land, crops and other resources to meet demand. And if everything stays the same, that means more greenhouse gases entering the air.

There’s some good news. A March report from the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that Americans reduced their beef consumption by 19 percent between 2005 and 2014, leading to an overall 3-percent decrease in emissions caused by diet.

We didn’t do that by all becoming vegetarians. The Resources Defense Council estimates that if all Americans cut just one quarter-pound of beef a week from their diets the savings in related emissions would be about the same as taking 10 million cars off the road for a year.

Vincelli said anyone can do that by evaluating how much meat they eat, determining how much they waste and controlling their portion sizes.

“Am I eating more than my body needs?” Vincelli said. “It’s not just about diet or slimming down. It’s about not using more resources than we need. Every acre of food production has an impact on global warming.”

When thinking about meat consumption, Mary Berry of the Berry Center said she likes to recite a Slow Food motto of eating less meat, but better meat.

Local meat, produced by farmers in your region, often costs more per pound. But if you’re purchasing and eating less of it, the cost is worth it, Berry said, adding that the dollars then support farmers in your community.

“If we think about meat as not the center of every meal,” Berry said, “then maybe that opens up choices for us about buying straight from the farmers or straight from stores and restaurants that we know are getting local product.”

One company that works with local farmers is Superior Meats, a family-owned business in Louisville.

The company sells proteins to commercial kitchens and restaurants in Louisville and Southern Indiana and has recently released a more sustainable local option that’s a blend of beef and button mushrooms.

Superior Meats president Ben Robinson is involved with the James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project and said that the purpose of the program is to reduce meat consumption.

Sound counter-intuitive to the business? It’s not, Robinson said, quoting the increasing demand as a reason to slow down eating patterns.

“People are still going to be eating plenty of steak in 2050,” Robinson said. “But how do we do it in the most environmentally friendly and healthy way we can do it?”

Reach reporter Bailey Loosemore at 502-582-4646 or [email protected]

HOW TO EAT LESS MEAT

You don’t have to become a vegetarian to help slow down global warming. Here are a few tips for reducing meat in your diet.

  • Try a blended burger. Some restaurants in Louisville offer burgers made from a blend of beef and mushrooms. Supporters say mushrooms correspond well with burgers’ umami taste and make the patties juicier.
  • Don’t purchase more than you need. Each pound of beef that’s tossed away is the equivalent of wasting 24 pounds of wheat, according to an ESRI story map.
  • Keep your health in mind. Scientific research shows that meat-heavy diets can lead to serious health problems like heart disease and obesity. Reduce meat consumption by watching your portions and making meat the supporting role in your meals.

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