Meat Avoidance: Will Going Plant-Based Make Us and the Planet Healthier?

Having been in the nutrition field for over 30 years, I’ve seen lots of fads come and go. And I have to say, what I have seen in the last decade with this plant-based versus keto landscape feels like an even more extreme version of the competing Adkins vs vegetarianism ideologies of the 90’s.

It was in the 90s when I began studying nutrition, and it was my own transition to a meatless diet, which i maintained for 13 years, that inspired my initial foray into the power of nutrition to change one’s health. Like any good student, I read the works of Dean Ornish and John McDougall, and I adopted John Robbin’s Diet for a New America as my own bible. I was convinced if more people knew how critical nutrition was to their ability to prevent heart disease and cancer, that they would make the changes I did!

When my family smiled and patted my head but kept eating steak, I decided to get a degree so that I could find people who wanted to make a difference for themselves. I literally owe my career to the alarmist environmentalists of my childhood who insisted that rainforests would disappear by 2010 unless we stopped eating meat and to the founders of PETA for opening my tender, adolescent eyelids to the horrors of the meat, milk, and fur industries that turned me into a radical animal rights activist in junior high school.

Nowadays, our dietary wars are called plant-based versus keto, and the reality is that neither is the answer. As keto is fading from popularity, meatless diets are coming out on top, powered by social media in a way we did not see in the previous iterations of the 1990s and 1970s. Now, the compelling arguments to avoid meat are influencing school districts and government recommendations much more quickly, especially as we are seeing the more extreme weather patterns and temperature shifts in our environment that many want you to think would be alleviated if we stopped raising so many cows for food.

I am not going to continue to call this ‘plant-based’ because it’s so vague as to be utterly meaningless, which is grat for food manufacturers! The reality is, aside from the tiny slice of the population who is carnivore, we are all eating a plant-based diet! The fact that over 60% of americas calories come from carbs, which are absent in meat, means we are mostly eating plants. So I’m going back the the much clearer and longer established terms: vegetarianism and veganism. Calling this ‘plant-based’ allows hyper processed foods made from refined flours and pea protein isolate to be marketed as healthier and more environmentally friendly than your local rancher’s chickens and creates a false-equivalency between the healthiness of a yam and some kind of yam-flavored processed puff chip thing.

When we stop and think about this, we know that is not true. But most of us have too many decisions to make every day, and when it comes to procuring food, we rely upon these labels and marketing terms to make it easy to choose!
The fact that what they are ultimately doing is making things more muddled and ensuring that large food conglomerates continue to have ever increasing profit margins. 

While I do have my biases, I want to present the evidence as balanced as possible so that you can weigh the different factors that go into your decision about how you choose to eat. This is a highly personal decision, and unlike many, I’ve lived both sides of it.

Firstly, I want to acknowledge some of the potential benefits of adopting a meatless diet:

The Pros of a Plant-Based Diet:

Ethics: There is little doubt that veganism is a more ethical choice than a standard American diet. Nothing is more heinous and disgusting than how we raise our animals for food in the USA, and we are absolutely paying the price for the Commercial Agricultural Feedlot Organization (CAFO) way of doing business. I’m not going to go into the details of the levels of torture and cruelty inflicted on sentient beings, but I will say that the majority of the animals raised for food in the United States are pumped up full of antibiotics and cows also get an extra dose of hormones to grow bigger, and do so faster. These animals are fed an unnatural diet of genetically modified corn, soy, and other grains rather than the grasses they are intended to thrive upon and, while last I checked feeding cows to cows had been banned due to mad cow disease,  chicken feces, and even shredded newspaper cut into the feed to bulk them up had not been outlawed. These are not healthy animals, and their poor health and diet quality likely impacts us as well, although there are no quality studies to prove this (but many can taste the difference when eating meat/eggs that are pastured or meat/eggs from a different country). The impact of widespread antibiotic use in milk and meat has impacted our waterways and our own gut flora and it is one of the ways our own digestive health may be compromised.

I do not know the status of the animal husbandry industry in Europe, or if/how things are changing in the UK post-Brexit, and if you live in those areas and know, please, please reach out to me and fill me in. We Americans tend to assume our European cousins are smarter than we are about this but it’s always easier to assume the grass is greener and I have traveled enough to know that’s not always the case.

More Produce: Often times vegetarianism or veganism becomes a gateway to a healthier diet. This was true for me, as the concerns of my grandparents and great grandparents’ generations sent me to the library to justify my position. There I learned about the impact of food on health and that ultimately brought me to where I am today. When people explore veganism for health reasons they often become introduced to more produce and a wider selection of produce than they typically had as omnivores. This improves diet quality, especially if they had been coming from a standard American diet. While not many studies exist on long-term vegans (who avoid all animal products including eggs, dairy and even honey) multiple long-term studies suggest that vegetarians tend to be healthier and outlive those on a standard American diet (which, to be frank, is a really low bar to measure against and nearly every diet measured against it comes out on top). The most well studied vegetarians I am aware of are 7th Day Adventists here in the United States. When looking at these populations, it is critical to remember that other lifestyle factors related to their health choices, such as lack of tobacco, exercise, and benefits of a tight-knit community will really muddy up the results as these also are shown to reduce all-cause mortality. Other research shows that whatever diet increases produce consumption to 5 servings a day and beyond will demonstrate markedly improved health outcomes. Vegans and vegetarians who are concerned about health often fall into this category of actually improving their nutrient status when they adopt a vegetarian diet. But is it the lack of meat or the increased produce?

Improve Diabetes: When compared to Mediterranean or low glycemic diets, a vegan diet is shown to improve insulin sensitivity and beta cell function in Type 2 Diabetics to a similar degree. Note that there is research demonstrating a low carb or keto diet is beneficial as well; so diabetics have many choices and eliminating meat isn’t necessary.

Keep Disease in Remission: there are some interesting case studies coming out of California demonstrating that medically supervised water fasting can put some autoimmunity and hypertension in remission and staying on a vegan diet after fasting can offer longer-term remission (possibly up to a year; the data in this study were not very specific). These case studies are essentially one-offs but show promise of a vegan diet in sustaining health after a supervised fasting protocol to reduce disease severity or induce remission. When looking at larger studies on veganism and breast cancer remission, results remain inconclusive. It is worth noting that the Wahl’s Protcol, which is similar to a paleo diet with very a specific nutrient focus, is also shown in clinical trials to be beneficial for multiple sclerosis, another autoimmune disease. So again – I do not think it is specifically avoiding animal products that is going to be the golden ticket to health, here.

The Cons of a Plant-Based Diet (or debatable Pros):

Veganism in and of itself isn’t healthier, or even automatically environmentally friendly. I meet many vegans who are not getting enough produce, but rather relying on grains and quick vegan foods like veggie burgers. Then there are ‘junk food vegans’ who eat Red Vines, tortilla chips and boxed vegan mac and chreeze. A vegan relying on processed foods won’t be getting much more fiber than someone on a standard American diet and a vegan who doesn’t eat vegetables isn’t any healthier than someone on a standard American diet. In fact, junk food vegans are even less healthy than junk food omnivores, as they are missing several minerals present in animal foods. You can be healthy on a vegan diet, but it isn’t done by default and it takes more effort than a more expansive diet including animal foods.

There are several potential sources of concern on a completely animal-free diet: Low Vitamin A, iron, B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium are often lacking in a vegan diet. Observationally, I have seen a higher incidence of osteoporosis in my post-menopausal clients who have avoided meat for more than 10 years. These would be vegetarian women, not vegan, so dairy intake alone may not be protective (and many vegans point to osteoporosis rates in high dairy-consuming cultures to prove their point as well).

NUTRITION:

There are several potential sources of concern on a completely animal-free diet: Low Vitamin A can lead to poor thyroid function and impaired digestion. Long-term deficiency may lead to night blindness if left untreated. While the human body can convert beta-carotene to vitamin A and this is the argument that vegans will make to dismiss concerns, there are certain genetic SNPs which can inhibit this conversion to the extent that supplementation with preformed vitamin A would be necessary. Preformed Vitamin A, known as retinol, is found in found in eggs, liver, cod liver oil and to a lesser extent, dairy products. Infertility, poor wound healing, poor immunity – especially with upper respiratory infections, acne and dry skin as well as dry eyes and poor night vision are also common symptoms of insufficient vitamin A. If meatless, obtaining Vitamin A from dairy and a butt-load of carotenoids from orange, yellow, and green vegetables can help you obtain sufficient amounts of Vitamin A.

Omega 3 fats – I hate to say it, but just flax and walnut doesn’t cut it. Our bodies are terribly inefficient at converting omega-3 fatty acids from plant foods into DHA and EPA. The reason why fish oil is so helpful is because the fish has done the converting for us. If we take 1000 mg. of EPA and DHA from fish oil, we absorb most of it. If we get 1000 mg of omega 3s from a flax oil, our body can only convert about 3-5% of it into EPA and DHA, totaling roughly 40 milligrams. These fatty acids are precursors to anti-inflammatory compounds and are crucial for brain and heart health. Emerging research also shows that higher doses of omega-3s may play a role in maintaining muscle mass as well. Relying on nuts and seeds for omega-3 fatty acids is just a bad idea. Some vegan DHA supplements are out there and are better absorbed, but the dose is often too low to combat an existing deficiency, and they do not address the need for EPA as well.

B12 – B12 is abundant in animal foods. It can be made by the bacteria in the gut but this presumes one has those bacteria strains in sufficient quantities to do so. It is always recommended that one supplement with B12 on a vegan diet and this has been a standard recommendation for decades. B12 deficiencies can take years to develop, and may result in permanent nerve damage but low stores of B12 can lead to elevated homocysteine levels, megaloblastic anemia, as well as neural tube defects in the newborns of pregnant women. Low B12 may also play a role in depression, as low B12 status is observed in a significant number of individuals with depression across the lifespan. B12 is found in robust amounts in seafood, beef, pork, chicken and dairy. Nutritional yeast is the best source of vegan B12, but amounts vary and supplementation is the best practice.

Iron – Sufficient iron can be a problem for some vegans, especially menstruating women. Pairing iron-rich beans and molasses with Vitamin C rich foods can increase absorption, as well as cooking in cast iron skillets. Tofu is also a great source of iron. If these means alone do not work there may be an absorption issue that needs to be investigated further and supplementation is definitely required until root cause is addressed. Iron is abundant in liver, oysters, mussels, and high in red meat as well, and this form is better absorbed than the iron found in plants.

Vegan athletes may need to supplement to get the best out of their sport. Creatine, b-alanine, and branched chain amino acids can help vegan athletes make up for specific nutrients that are found in meat. These supplements help retain and grow muscle mass, which is crucial for strength and endurance athletes.

MEAT = CANCER/HEART DISEASE?

There is an annoyingly pervasive story that a diet containing meat, especially red meat, is basically a willful request for a future of heart disease and cancer. This was the hill my 13 year old self was prepared to die upon! As I became a better educated, more discerning adult, and after being made the fool more times than I can count, I’ve revisited this notion and had to change my opinions. Many of these studies showing this link are associative. Like the studies on 7th day adventists, we cannot assume that it is the lack of meat when there are so many other factors that can be at play.

What we see, at a population level, is an increase in GDP and industrialization directly correlated with an increase in chronic disease. People tend to spend more money on meat when they have more money to spend. HOWEVER, they also spend more money on processed food. Industrialized nations also tend to have increases in air pollution, alcohol consumption and reduced activity. So we cannot say these observations are causal, no more than we can say that cell phone towers cause diabetes, even though both increased significantly over the last 30 years. There are a lot of factors at play, which is called “confounding variables” in scientific literature. 

One thing that is not well explored is the impact that high produce can have in mitigating some of these associations. Is it that meat causes cancer or is it that the displacement of produce is the problem?

We also see an association with a high produce diet reducing all cause mortality, but the nuance of these have not been well explored. I have only found 1-2 studies that suggest a high produce diet voids out the meat-associated risk of disease, but again these are not high levels of precise science.

Additionally Most meat/cancer studies are done in western countries. Studies of Asian populations eating higher meat do not show same cancer risk. Could this be due to higher produce? It’s not as simple as comparing meat to cigarettes, as some documentaries would have you believe!

On that note, the association of meat being equivalent to smoking, popularized in What the Health, comes from WHO calling Processed meat a “group1 carcinogen”, alongside smoking, arsenic, etc. 

Group 1 carcinogen refers not to likelihood of it causing cancer, but strength of evidence demonstrating an association. There is a lot of evidence to support people who eat significant amounts of processed meat have higher risk of cancer. 

However, People who eat more processed meat tend to also eat more processed foods. and those who eat lots of hot dogs and Slim Jims are also not likely eating a lot of greens, and so this may be why this association exists. The strength of the evidence exists, but the magnitude of that association is much weaker.

For instance, the WHO states that your risk of getting colon cancer increases by 18% if you eat 2 oz of processed meat every day. This is the increased relative risk of getting colon cancer if you eat processed meat daily. However, If there is an overall 8.2% chance of being diagnosed with colon cancer over your lifetime, known as the absolute risk, consume 2 oz of processed meat every day increases your absolute risk up to 9.6%, as an 18% increase of 8.2% = 9.6% if my math is right. By contrast, men who smoke cigarettes have about 20 times the risk of developing lung cancer as men who do not smoke. Expressed as a percentage, the increase in risk due to smoking is 1,900%. Two out of three long-term smokers will die a premature death due to smoking related disease.

To equate bacon with cigarettes is absurd and misinformed at the very least. 

High protein diets also do not cause kidney disease. If one has existing, latter stage kidney disease protein moderation becomes important. However is no evidence that higher protein diets cause this. 

The British Medical Journal did a systematic review and meta-analysis of protein intake and disease and found high protein intake reduced all cause mortality and that there was no significant association with animal protein consumption and increased disease. Not what we hear on social media, is it?

TAKEAWAY:

While there is a signal associating meat, especially processed meat, with disease it is a weak signal overall and often does not take into account other complex variables that have a much stronger association or known cause of disease (such as smoking). 

It is not probable that red meat, or even processed meat, is a significant risk for disease when part of an overall healthy lifestyle including plenty of produce and adequate activity. 

To know for sure, we need long term controlled trials which are supremely difficult to execute and unrealistic to expect at this time. 

Vegans who want to demonize meat, and especially red meat, as destroying our health are naïve or willfully ignoring the multitude of variables that impact our health and quality of life. Once one starts to have a nuanced conversation, many of these arguments fail to carry much weight.

Is a Plant-Based Diet Better for the Environment?

Unfortunately, being a vegan doesn’t automatically equate to an environmentally friendly diet, either. Grapes from Brazil in January are not a more sustainable choice than an omnivore purchasing local meat from a nearby ranch, which again, makes sense when we think about it, but most of the time we aren’t thinking of where our food comes from beyond which grocer we purchase it from. 

Those chowing down on avocado toast and thinking they are making a better choice for the environment are unknowingly contributing to deforestation as there is a rush to plant more avocado trees. To make matters worse, the Mexican drug cartel has chosen the avocado as it’s next investment as they broaden their investment portfolio, and this led to an increase in illegal deforestation, and god knows how many human rights abuses.
The beloved avocado has become so popular that illegal deforestation is happening to plant more fruit trees.

Prices for avocados and quinoa have become so high that some people in Peru and Mexico can no longer afford these traditional staple foods. These are important considerations to explore when you are using veganism as an environmental solution. Simply becoming vegan isn’t a carte blanche pass to feeling good about reducing your carbon footprint. We all can be better about reducing our carbon footprint by consuming foods in season and grown close to home, and making other low carbon-emission lifestyle choices (including reducing consumerism overall).

Will Avoiding Meat Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Cows get the brunt of hatred for carbon emissions, but the EPA’s own data just crushes that idea if anyone would bother to take a look at it.

Firstly, let’s note that transportation and industry account for 51% of all greenhouse gases emitted. In the USA, our big industrial companies like Dow chemicals and Kimberly Clark produce significant pollution. Additionally, we create nearly 3 times the amount of greenhouse gases shipping things coast to coast than we do in the agriculture sector. In 2021, 28% of total gas emissions came from transportation and only 10% came from agriculture!

It is crucial to note that the 10% emissions released by the United States Agricultural Industry is not just cows – it is ALL of agriculture. It includes grain and vegetable and chicken and everything we consume. It is estimated that if we eliminated all animal sources of greenhouse gases, we would reduce our national carbon emissions by a whopping 2.6%. Additionally, the study that looked at this concluded that to do so would be “nonviable in the long or short term to support the nutritional needs of the US population without nutrient supplementation.” And no, we cannot simply just make nutritional supplements to compensate and expect it to be the equivalent. That is a separate topic for another post, though!


Even if we could, is it realistic to get them into the entire population for a measley 2.6% reduction?

Here’s the deal – if we really want to make a dent in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we can start to reevaluate our addiction to inexpensive products from China, delivered to us by Amazon. We can start to put the same amount of attention we have been putting on cows onto our larger polluters like power plants, refineries and natural gas systems and pressure them and our government to incentivize these companies to become more efficient or otherwise reduce their carbon footprint. I don’t tend to have much faith in industry or governments to get things done quickly, so I take steps to reduce my carbon footprint by focusing on seasonal foods, smaller companies I can afford to purchase from, and doing what I can to reduce my own reliance upon Amazon.

All of this is very complicated. Probably more complicated than we can handle. And we humans like to think we have more control over our lives and the world we live in than we ultimately do. But we have this epic longstanding history of being terribly short-sighted and stubbornly pushing forward with an idea until we fall off a cliff with it. We are not inherently good at big picture thinking or the nuanced details.
I do not write this as a condemnation. It simply is what it is and I imagine it had an evolutionary advantage at some point in time, however right now we need to be more mindful of these huge gaps in our thinking and just pause for a moment before we start taking meat out of public schools and releasing Netflix documentaries that lean into fear and drama to persuade us to make changes that might not actually be beneficial in the long run.

The key takeaway here is that going avoiding meat isn’t as beneficial for your health or the environment as you might think. If your ethics or your religion forbid consumption, that’s one thing. But if you are doing this for the planet or for your own health, you aren’t doing yourself any favors that would not be accomplished through a locally-focused, quality omnivorous diet and emphasizing purchases from smaller, local companies.

Based upon the existing observations we see in research, the best course of action is to focus more on less processed meats, add plenty of veg and other healthy lifestyle factors like community, activity, and not smoking, and get routine lab work to assess your own personal risk of disease over time. 

My experience: The pitfall of any diet is when one makes the blanket assumption that it is healthier without applying critical thinking to the situation. We are all being cleverly marketed to and our own biases can get in the way of what our body needs. (“I love bacon and cheese, and keto tells me it is healthy!” “I love animals and don’t want to eat them, veganism is the best answer for them and me!”) This certainly was the case for my own journey into meatless living. I became a vegetarian at age 13 and always held aspirations for veganism. I grew up in an animal-loving household, so to discover that I could be healthier if I went meat-free was something I enthusiastically embraced.

I read the works of John McDougall, Francis Moore Lappe, John Robbins, and Dean Ornish to justify my position and make sure I was following a healthy plan. Whenever I went vegan, the cravings for eggs and cheese would inevitably, guiltily, pull me back to vegetarianism. However, for 13 years I never considered eating meat and believed I would not need to for the entirety of my life. Then – a year or so after I finished my first nutrition degree and started coaching, I found myself realizing meat smelled good again. That was easy to dismiss and I did just that. Then I discovered it looked good, which was odd and troubling.

Like Alex Jamieson, so much of my identity and value set was wrapped in my dietary choices that I could not face what my body was requesting. So I maintained a vegetarian diet. I had thoughts in college that the severity of my seasonal affective disorder in Alaska may have been alleviated if I had fish oil or vitamin D, but moving to Washington state took care of it so it was easy to dismiss.

When I learned that cholesterol was the foundation for making all hormones, I again wondered if my total cholesterol of 97 at age 18 was actually a sign of dysfunction (despite the nurse’s amazement and congratulatory attitude about the result). Despite these historic red flags I wasn’t ready to consider meat for another year.

In 2006 I had a sudden realization that I lived in an animal body that was very clearly asking for meat. My denial of this request was in and of itself a form of animal cruelty. I would never tell anyone who worked with me to ignore such cravings, yet I asked this of myself and my body!  The lack of integrity around this was a pretty strong smack in the face. I knew what I had to do, and I was not looking forward to it.

I decided to sample some beef at Whole Foods to see what would happen. This was 2006; I hadn’t eaten meat since 1992! I was desperately hoping it would make me violently ill or it would taste like blood and repulse me but it did none of those things. I was surprised that I could not taste blood; it actually tasted okay! So I picked up a 3 oz portion to go home and make a taco in hopes that my body would reject it.

Throughout all this, I kept telling myself I could go back to vegetarianism at any point in time. It turns out my body REALLY needed the animal protein. While I’ve heard more dramatic stories than mine,  a return to omnivorous dining improved my focus and concentration, suddenly alleviated the borderline anemia I danced with for over a decade, improved my running times, and gave me more stable, consistent energy I had not realized I was missing. About a year and a half after I began eating meat I discovered that my chronic digestive challenges were due to soy, dairy, and wheat sensitivities (my vegetarian staples!!); I do not know how I would have continued a healthy meatless diet as an endurance athlete with these items excluded from it. I’m really grateful I chose to bring meat back in before I discovered this; it would have been psychologically devastating had the sensitivities been discovered before I was ready to reintroduce meat. I have a great deal of compassion for those I have worked with who are in that place themselves. It’s a tough road.

I can look back now and see that my body was not thriving. It was easy to overlook because all the telltale signs that I was told to look for were absent. My cycle remained regular, I was never sick, and I was running marathons with no injuries. I ate healthfully, but even with a degree in nutrition vegetarianism wasn’t suitable for me in the long run.  The 90’s was the era where cholesterol couldn’t be low enough, so traditional medicine applauded me for levels that some would now be considered alarming.

At the end of the day, when we assess nutrition among humans we see that the longest-lived, healthiest cultures in the world are not vegan. They aren’t eating paleo or high meat diets, but they aren’t exclusively animal-free diets. This tells me that humans as a species thrive on a produce heavy omnivorous diet. This does not mean that you as a single person won’t do well as a vegan. You very well might!

Or you may do well for 5 years and discover after having children, taking up soccer or going through menopause your body has different needs. Listen to what it asks for and it won’t let you down. If you embark on a dietary change like veganism (or keto, or paleo) get your labs done before you begin and have them checked a couple times a year for the first year or two to see how you respond.

Some people feel great but lab work indicates they aren’t doing well at all. Markers like cholesterol, Vitamin D, iron stores and fatty acids are silent but significant indicators of health. If everything looks great after the first 18-24 months then just wisely monitor your health at annual check-ups and keep going so long as it feels good and labs remain optimal. Don’t ask your doc to just do ‘all the labs’ because that doesn’t mean what you think it does! Specifically ask for labs around iron, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids as well as the standard lab work ups which will reveal any changes in cholesterol or blood sugar or megaloblastic anemia.

The perfect diet is the one that works best for you. Your gut flora, genetics, and lifestyle are unique to you, so there is no one way of eating that will blanketly apply to all people. If you see a compelling documentary do some critical thinking and assess whether it was biased or balanced and actually explored both sides of the issue. Experiment and see how you feel, and if it feels too extreme consider a more middle-of-the-road approach (vegetarianism or pescatarianism instead of veganism; low carb or paleo instead of keto) and see if that works better for you.

Send me a message and let me know what you think of this post! If you have been a vegetarian and are considering joining me in the “Dark Side” or need support in transitioning back to animal foods and want someone who understands as a guide to ensuring you get all the nutrients you need, schedule a discovery call and let’s talk!

Resources:

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McGlory, Chris et al. “The Influence of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Skeletal Muscle Protein Turnover in Health, Disuse, and Disease.” Frontiers in nutrition vol. 6 144. 6 Sep. 2019, doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00144

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Naghshi, Sina et al. “Dietary intake of total, animal, and plant proteins and risk of all cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) vol. 370 m2412. 22 Jul. 2020, doi:10.1136/bmj.m2412

https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanielparishflannery/2023/04/11/are-us-avocado-buyers-financing-the-cartel-conflict-in-mexico/

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/mexico-avocados-cartels-violence-environment_n_620d7792e4b0125130864375

2021 Greenhouse Gas Emissions in USA: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

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https://peri.umass.edu/greenhouse-100-polluters-index-current

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