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One Man’s Meat

By John Piotti, re-posted from  The Republican Journal.

Last week at Camden Public Library, Maine Farmland Trust sponsored a presentation by Dr. Robert Lawrence entitled “Climate Change, Treats to Food Security, and Opportunities for Maine Farmers.”

Lawrence’s talk was well-attended and well-received. He summarized the major issues affecting world food supply, including population trends and climate change.

True, a warming climate will create a longer growing season in places like Maine, but any benefits will be outweighed by a host of other factors, including more extreme weather events and habitat changes that reduce pollinators and increase pests. Meanwhile, the warming of the Gulf of Maine threatens our fisheries.

But Maine is fortunate compared to many other parts of the globe. Overall, worldwide food production is expected to decrease by more than 10 percent as a result of a warming climate.

Maine Farmland Trust invited Lawrence to speak for two reasons.

First, because he is a leading expert on the subject. Lawrence graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, then trained at Massachusetts General Hospital. He went on to practice medicine and become a medical school professor and an internationally known authority in the field of public health. In 1996 he founded the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University. This became one of the first research centers in the world to look at how public health, environmental issues, and economic well-being are all interwoven.

The second reason Maine Farmland Trust invited Lawrence to talk is that he now lives in Rockport. He first came to Maine as a teenager, as a deckhand on a large sloop. He was enthralled. He has spent time here ever since, including stints as the summer doctor on North Haven back in the 1970s. But it has only been as he approaches retirement that he has been in a position to buy a house and relocate here more permanently.

I’m struck by how lucky we are in Maine. It is not just Bob Lawrence, but the countless number of amazing people who are drawn to our state, because Maine is itself such an amazing place.

Yet in the case of Lawrence, I feel we have a particular treasure. Of course, I may feel that way in part because Lawrence makes my job easier.

For 15 years, I have been traveling the state talking about both the opportunities and challenges that face farming here in Maine. Lawrence’s talk put what I say into broader context, explaining how there is — quite simply — no way that the world can feed itself if we don’t rejuvenate farming in places like Maine.

More than that, Lawrence points out how we cannot hope to continue to grow food in the way we have during the last 50 years. We can’t continue to ignore environmental impacts. We as a society need to realize that industrial-scale farming only produces food more cheaply than smaller-scale, more sustainable farms because those industrial operations do not pay for the environmental damage they cause.

One of the things I really liked about Lawrence’s presentation is that he knows the subject well enough that he can get into some of the subtleties, pointing out how some issues are not as clear as they may seem. For instance, there is a lot of talk in some circles that one of the major problems with modern agriculture, as well as one of the major contributors to climate change, is the production of meat. That may be true. But it doesn’t mean you should never eat meat again. As Lawrence points out, it a matter of how that meat is raised and how much you eat.

In this instance, Lawrence began by explaining how modern industrial meat production uses incredibly high levels of resources, while simultaneously degrading the environment. It’s a double hit.

As one example, Lawrence explained how grain-based beef production consumes a full 7,000 gallons of water to make just one pound of meat. (You heard that right! That is the result of all the water that is used to produce the grain, as well as all of the water consumed directly by the animals. And to make matters worse, much of that water is being drawn from unsustainable sources.) He also explained how meat production is increasingly concentrated in a few large corporations who operate mega facilities where animals live in close confinement that magnify the environmental damage.

Yet Lawrence, unlike some others who point out these sobering statistics, is not advocating for everyone to become a vegetarian. He is quick to point out that not all meat production is created equal. The kind of negative impacts outlined above could be mitigated substantially through improved farming practices: if, for instance, beef cattle are raised primarily on grass in regions like Maine that are cool and wet (and thus grow grass well), and if the cattle are not confined in feed stations where they wallow in their waste, but rather, if they are pastured on open ground where they can work their manure back into the soil (to help grow more grass).

Yet, in addition to Lawrence’s advocacy for better farming practices, he does see the value in cutting back on meat consumption. One of his slides shows that daily per-capita meat consumption in the United States today tops 8.8 ounces, well above the 5.5 ounces recommended by USDA for purely health reasons. A reduction to 3.2 ounces per day would, by some estimates, yield many additional benefits, including a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions caused by livestock.

To help move Americans away from thinking that meat needs to be at the center of every dinner plate, Lawrence’s Center for a Livable Future had pushed the idea of “Meatless Mondays.”

Susan and I have been on a similar path for some time. More than 15 years ago, we decided that we were going to primarily eat meat raised locally. We liked the idea of not only supporting local farmers, but knowing that we were not responsible for some of the farming practices that were despoiling the environment elsewhere — which we recognized was really despoiling the environment for everyone.

But as we all know, local meat often costs more, sometimes considerably more. In fact, at the time we implemented our plan, local meat was, on average, roughly twice as expensive as what we could usually buy at the grocery store.

Here was our logic: buy only local meat, but half as much meat as we had been buying, so that the cost to us was the same.

Since, like most Americans, we were eating too much meat, we could benefit from the health advantages of cutting back. Beyond this, it was a way for us to do our part for the environment. Financially, our food bill remained about what it had been. But our health and the planet’s health improved. And several Maine farmers had extra money in their pockets.

This is what’s called a win/win/win.

Lawrence talked about a lot more than meat last week, but in some ways, I think his suggestions here may be the most useful. We can easily get our head around the notion of eating less meat and making sure more of it is from local sources. It’s something each of us can do to make a difference.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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