Hi! I’m Laura, and today I’ll be sharing with you Meat of the Matter. This lesson explores the environmental impacts of four different sources of protein: soy, chicken, pork, and beef.
It’s appropriate for middle school with strong ties to science, social studies, and family and consumer sciences.
In this lesson, students will compare and contrast the footprints of water, land area, and greenhouse gas emissions for the four proteins, graph and interpret data on global meat production, and evaluate the social and environmental implications of a changing global diet.
For the first part of the lesson, you’ll need one copy of the provided worksheet for every pair of students. For the second part of the lesson, students will need the 4 provided impact grids, as well as blue, red, and green bingo chips. If you do not have the chips, then each group can use one blue, one red, and one green marker instead.
Start by asking: do you think that we’re eating more or less meat than people did 60 years ago? You can listen to some student responses. Then students will answer this question by graphing data on the provided worksheet which looks at global meat production of poultry, pork, and beef over time.
Ask: what trends do you observe? They will probably notice that it looks like we’re producing more and more meat. So next, we’ll think about what that means for our planet.
For the second part of the lesson, divide students into groups of four, and provide each group with a set of 4 impact grids, 60 blue chips, 80 red chips, and 90 green chips.
Start by brainstorming the ways in which growing soy or raising livestock might create an environmental impact. Specifically, we’ll be looking at the amount of water used, greenhouse gasses created, and land needed to produce soy, chicken, pork, and beef.
Draw three columns on the whiteboard and label them “Water” “Greenhouse Gases” and “Land”. What are some specific ways that water is used to grow crops or raise livestock? What are some specific things that create greenhouse emissions? What parts of growing soy or raising livestock take up space or use land?
Now on to the group work. Each student in the group will be responsible for one of the four proteins using their respective impact grid. They will use chips to represent the environmental impact of growing the soy or raising the chickens, pigs, or cows.
Blue chips represent the amount of water needed to grow soy or raise animals. Red chips represent the greenhouse gases that are released. Green chips represent the amount of land needed. Use the Teacher Environmental Impact Sheet to read statistics to your students. For example, I’ll share the water stats:
I would read: 1 blue chip equals 60 gallons of water. It takes approximately 300 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of soybeans. Soy: place 5 blue chips on your grid. It takes approximately 540 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of poultry. Poultry: place 9 blue chips on your grid. It takes approximately 720 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of pork. Pork: place 12 blue chips on your grid. It takes 1860 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef. Beef: place 31 blue chips on your grid.
You’d follow this same format for greenhouse gas impact with green chips. And land use with red chips.
Here are the four completed impact grids. But Oh no! The land footprint for beef is too big to fit on the grid!
Now that students have a visual representation of the footprints of the four proteins, it’s time to think about the differences, and what this means for our world. Why do you think some footprints are so large and others so small?
For example, why is there such a big difference in the water footprint between soy and beef? Students might say that cows live a long time, and need a lot of water to drink over the course of their lives, where soy is grown and harvested in one season. Also, cows eat a lot of grasses and grains. Those grasses and grains also need a lot of water to grow, which adds to beef’s water footprint.
Compare the data in the grids to the graph they made earlier for global production trends.The grids show the impact of producing one pound of the protein. The graph shows how much of the protein is being produced overall. Using both sets of data, which meat do you think will have the biggest impact on the environment in ten years?
The lesson ends with brainstorming what kinds of things can or are farmers doing to reduce their impact? What can individuals like you do? What about governments?
I hope you enjoyed Meat of the Matter. For more lessons like this one, go to PopulationEducation.org. Thank you!