Is Eating Meat Bad for the Environment?

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It has been known for quite some time now that eating meat negatively impacts the environment and various other sectors in society. But what exactly is the issue? How does the meat industry affect the environment? What can I do to mitigate my own impact? We hope that in this article you can find the answers to some of these questions.

The aim of this post is not to admonish those who eat meat, but rather to inform people of the various effects that certain diet choices can have and, consequently, help to answer the question – is eating meat bad for the environment?

1. The Problem

Global meat consumption is a key contributor to climate change, land use change, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity. More and more people are consuming meat on a regular basis, in both developed and developing nations.

As it stands, over 60 billion animals are slaughtered to feed the world population, and this is projected to more than double by 2050. Given the effects that the industry is already having on the planet, we need to do something about it, and fast.

2. Climate Change

Around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from the livestock production industry, with beef and lamb being the biggest offenders of all meat products. Additionally, livestock production is the largest contributor to two of the most potent greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4). Methane largely comes from enteric fermentation (cattle flatulence), whereas the nitrous oxide comes from the manure and fertilisers used for producing the animal feed.

meat consumption and climate change

Significant indirect and direct Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are also related to the meat production industry. Directly, deforestation for the clearing of land as pasture for cattle leads to high CO2 emissions, along with land degradation caused by the grazing of the cattle. Indirectly, the huge increase in demand for animal feed leads to forested areas being replaced by cropland and a significant reduction in carbon sequestration.

3. Water Use

An often-forgotten impact of meat production is the huge water use that is involved in the process. Animal products account for around a quarter of the total water footprint for the world’s population.

meat consumption water use

Different meats have differing levels of water use, though beef and lamb have by far the highest consumption of water. The main use of water in livestock production is from the large-scale irrigation for both cattle pastures and animal feed. It is estimated that global water use could be reduced by up a third if people move to a more plant-based diet.

4. Land Use Change and Biodiversity Loss

Around 30% of the world’s biodiversity loss is attributed to livestock production. This is due to the huge amounts of plant biomass required to produce meat within global agricultural systems. Additionally, a staggering three-quarters of agricultural land is used for either the rearing of animals or animal feed. This is already un-maintainable, but with the huge expected rises in the industry, the land use changes will become dangerously unsustainable.

5. Morality and Animal Welfare

Another concern about the consumption of meat is the morality of its consumption. It is estimated that around a third of all food produced is wasted, which could mean that billions of animals are losing their lives in a futile and very unsettling manner. Even for the livestock that do fulfill their intended life cycle, their lives can often be cruel, unfulfilling and unnatural, as many countries maintain questionable animal welfare standards.

animal welfare meat production

Questions of morality also arise on a human level. According to the Humane Society, 1 billion people around the world suffer from malnutrition. With a third of all cereals being produced for animal feed, it seems that the inequalities impacting the developing countries it predominantly affects are rife.

6. Meat Consumption Health Risks

The issues surrounding high meat diets are not limited to the environment and ethical concerns. An increasing body of literature is showing that meat-based diets can have implications for our health.

People who consume high levels of meat have an increased likelihood of suffering from coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes. This can be seen quite evidently in countries such as China – as income levels are increasing, meat intake is also increasing and, consequently, the number of people with type 2 diabetes has risen by 10% between 1980 and 2008.

A final consideration regarding impacts on health is the potential for increased rates of zoonotic disease transmissions. This is a result of antibiotics being increasingly used on the animals we can consume, leading to a potential reduction in the effectiveness of some medicines also being used by humans.

7. How to Reduce Meat Consumption

There are plenty of ways in which you can limit the meat intake in your diet. It’s not necessary that you have to completely stop your consumption of meat altogether, but it’s also not necessary to eat it every day.

If a full-on plant-based diet is too much of a change at first, a good way to work around this dilemma is to incorporate meatless days into your diet – you could start with just one day a week, and when you feel comfortable with the right balance within your meal, increase the number of days per week that you don’t consume meat.

Is Eating Meat Bad for the Environment?

If you miss the texture and heartiness of meat (I certainly did when I stopped eating it), there are plenty of good meat alternatives available that do a good job of replicating the sensory characteristics of certain meats. Using sensory traits as a measure of how good they are, pulled oats and seitan are good options to start with – they’re also very tasty.

Another way to cut down is to stop eating all processed meats. This is primarily for the betterment of your health, with secondary benefits for the environment. Processed meats such as bacon, sausages, jerky, etc. are incredibly bad for your health and often contain large amounts of sodium chloride, sodium nitrite and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Processed meats have been linked to numerous human health issues, including cancer. You can read more about their impact here.

Summary

If you have searched for this article, you are probably already considering the impact that your diet is having in the environment. We hope that this article has helped you answer the question on is meat bad for the environment and that you are able to make a more informed decision about the foods that you choose to consume going forward.

If you have comments, queries, agreements or disagreements that you want to share, please don’t hesitate to do so by posting in the comment section below or contacting me directly at richard@projectsaveearth.com

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