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  • Writer's pictureJohn Humphreys

Do we have to give up meat to save the planet?

Its implication is clear. After all, in the drought-stricken western USA, one-third of all the water we use goes to irrigate crops that feed cattle. This means that it takes (in round figures) 1800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, as opposed to 470 gallons for a pound of chicken and a miserly 40 gallons or so for a pound of beans.

Well, so what? It’s not like we are going to run out of water, are we?

Aren’t we?

An article written by Giulio Boccaletti of the Nature Conservancy puts it well: ‘Today … water security, even in many rich countries, is in jeopardy. Our inability to adequately value water, to invest in the systems that allow us to carefully manage water, to allocate water to the most important uses (and avoid wasting it), and to protect the health of the watersheds from which we draw our water—all these failures threaten human health, prosperity and even political stability.’

Across the globe, water disputes that escalate into armed conflicts are frequent. Even here in the United States, rationing and fierce legal battles between farmers, cities and recreational use are commonplace - within states and between them. Given the selfish nature of these disagreements and the underwhelming response to pleas for water conservation, I suppose this is to be expected; but of course the situation is exacerbated by persistent drought.

As a long-running example, the tri-state ‘water wars’ involve the demand for more water to supply the incessant expansion of Atlanta GA versus Florida needing more water to keep their shellfish stocks alive versus Alabama’s deteriorating river quality in a state that prides itself on its freshwater biodiversity ...

… and probably many of you know that California is one of the most significant states when it comes to growing the veggies for our table - and how water-hungry plants like almonds and lettuce are, from an ecological perspective, insane crops to cultivate when the Colorado River is the only semi-reliable source of water and the South West is enduring a lengthy drought. What is less known is that the situation is worse than it may appear: more water is allocated to users than actually flows down the river. No wonder there’s nothing left by the time it reaches the Gulf of California.

Maybe we don’t care. After all, here in Pennsylvania, we got all the rain we’ll ever need, right? And if US stocks of beef run short, those farmers can grow something else and we’ll buy our beef from South America!

This is where a moral imperative steps in. The Amazon rainforest is under severe pressure, especially in Brazil, where there is currently uncontrolled clearing of native trees to graze cattle and grow soybeans to feed livestock. This matters because we are degrading our planet’s weather engine: cutting down trees changes the rainfall patterns for the whole globe. And that’s ignoring the intense beauty and usefulness of what lives there (more about this in a future article) as well as the dreadful human rights abuses associated with these activities.. Finally, deforestation caused by ranching also contributes to climate change, releasing 340 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

‘Hold on,’ I hear you say, ‘I don’t want to eat beans at every meal. I like steak.’

In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t eat meat. But I think that it is fantasy to believe that everyone else will give up eating meat too.

So what to do?

Priority #1: Know where that steak came from. When we buy beef (I’m the only veggie in the family!) we buy from a farmer who raises happy cows on pasture right where I live. Not Brazil. If you aren’t as fortunate then ask the supermarket manager where that meat came from; they should know, and if they don’t, get them to find out. Although Brazil is under pressure to farm more sustainably, it is far from being there yet. And here in the USA, there have been some wonderful ecological initiatives in this area.

If you cannot pin down the source of your meat, try damage control. My co-worker Nicholas has given up red meat and pork; and while he still eats chicken and seafood, he only does so while out and does not cook with them at home.

Priority #2: We know from the Didache of the Church’s millennia-old tradition of fasting on Wednesday and Friday, So why not try something different one or two days a week? Avoiding meat doesn’t mean beans at every meal. A sustainable fish or shellfish. Portabella mushrooms. Quorn or Tofu. Be imaginative! It’s easier now that meat alternatives are so much more convincing. Saves money too.

Do something that really makes a difference. Email us on and see what else you can do by visiting the Archdiocesan creation care website,

Mangiare bene!

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