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Your Health and the Planet's

by Sondra Flite

Are activities that help you stay healthy also good for the environment? Sometimes they are. For instance, eating right. We know that if we eat too much animal fat we place ourselves at risk for heart disease. But we may not stop to think about what animal agriculture means to the natural world.

To help us understand what our consumer decisions mean, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a book entitled The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. Authors Michael Brower and Warren Laon address the choices that have the biggest effect on the natural world. Food production is high on their list of activities that harm the environment.

Food production replaces natural ecosystems with monoculture. Many of these crops require herbicides and insecticides, as well as chemical fertilizers. Since we have to eat, we have to cause some ecosystem damage. But the Guide points out that meat production has a greater impact than plant production, and that, of all our meat crops, beef is placing the biggest burden on our land. To feed America's appetite for cheap beef, cows are fed tremendous amounts of grain, grown with petrochemicals, irrigated with scarce water, and transported long distances to the cattle. The cattle yards then contaminate nearby waterways. Compared with beef cattle, chickens and pigs had lesser effects, and milk cows were much less harmful.

So what to do? A heart-healthy diet should involve more fruits and vegetables than most of us are eating. We know we should cut back on meat. So, knowing that it's the most burdensome, why not cut back on beef first?

Think about how often you and your family eat beef. Don't forget lunches away from home. Are you eating beef more than once a week? Why not set that as your goal - no more than once a week. When you reach for familiar beef recipes or see old favorites on a menu, consider substituting fish. Some fish are endangered, but many are not. Another option for some families is to buy local beef. These cows are raised near their food source, are more likely to eat a mixed diet that is less water and chemical intensive, and they may also receive fewer hormone and antibiotic injections. They live in smaller herds that contaminate the groundwater less. Buying locally takes some thought. You need to find a provider, and you will probably need to commit to a large part of a cow, maybe a quarter. This will be butchered for you, and you'll need a freezer to keep it.

This isn't for everybody. Most of us will find it easier to switch to more dairy meals and turkey burgers. So, next time you head to the supermarket, take stock of how you've been getting your protein, and make the shift away from beef now.

Sondra Flite is certified as a science teacher in New Jersey and is employed in the recycling industy

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1999-2000; updates: 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007 Women's Heart Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited. The information contained in this Women's Heart Foundation (WHF) Web site is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment, and WHF recommends consultation with your doctor or health care professional.