Long gone are the days of traditional farming where animals were raised in symbiosis with their surroundings; grazing the farmer’s fields and being an integral part to life on the farm.
Meat production has grown to industrial scale to cater for our ever increasing craving for meat and demand for cheaper prices.
Unless you buy organic meat or traditionally reared meat from your local farmer, the meat you eat has most probably been raised in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).
Today many people eat meat every day and they eat too much of it. The EWG in the US found that “protein intake for most age groups far exceeds the government’s recommended dietary allowance”.
The high demand for meat has of course impacted livestock. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, you will guess from the name, are often not places where animal welfare is a high priority. Animals are shoved into tiny spaces and have little to no interaction with their environment. The emphasis is on quantity and certainly not quality.
In addition to animal welfare, the environment is also a casualty of meat production.
To understand the issues you have to look at the intricate web that is the meat supply chain. Animals are reared intensively, producing a huge amount of waste. They are fed with grains which require land to grow. The meat industry requires around 33 percent of total arable land. Additional space for livestock and crops is usually created through deforestation.
Water and energy usage is also very high from irrigation to livestock needs to meat processing. Today 25% of meat consumed in the UK is imported.
“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems” (Source: Livestock Long Shadow)
Greenhouse Gases (GHGs)
Ever heard of New Zealand’s “Fart Tax” on livestock? Meat production generates high GHG emissions which contribute to global warming. Through flatulence and manure, livestock produces methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), two very potent greenhouse gases. Intensive farming makes the problem worse as the number of animals is greatly increased and concentrated.
CO2 emissions are also a problem. Even though, they are not produced in great amount by the animals themselves they are generated by production, farming infrastructure, transport and deforestation.
All meat is not created equal when it comes to Greenhouse Gases. A study done by the EWG found that “lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon generate the most greenhouse gases. Chicken, in contrast, generate no methane and have far fewer emissions during production.”
One of the facts I find really shocking is that in terms of GHG emissions “the consumption of 1 kg domestic beef in a household represents automobile use of a distance of ~160 km (99 miles)”.
Last month, Gucci launched the world’s first “Zero-Deforestation” leather handbag. You might be wondering what does this have to do with food?
Leather is a direct bi-product of the meat industry which is responsible for high levels of deforestation. In Brazil cattle ranches are expanding rapidly, encroaching on rainforest as they need more grazing space. Also a lot of forests are being cleared away to make space for growing feedcrops for animals.
Greenpeace “Slaughtering the Amazon” report states that “the cattle sector in the Brazilian Amazon is the largest driver of deforestation in the world, responsible for 14% of the world’s annual deforestation”.
Deforestation impacts GHG emissions. Forests act as carbon storage as they use CO2 to grow. Once the trees are cut, the CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Deforestation adds more atmospheric CO2 than the sum total of cars & trucks on the world’s roads.
Brazil is the largest exporter of beef. According to the Guardian in 2007, 3% of beef sold in the UK was imported from Brazil.
Gucci’s “Zero-Deforestation” leather handbag is an attempt to show that through sustainable management, cattle ranches can be efficient without resorting to cutting down trees.
From the irrigation of feedcrops through production chain to the final consumer product, water is needed in large amount throughout the meat production process. The numbers are again staggering: 15,415 litre of water are required to produce 1kg of beef in comparison to 287 litre of water for 1 kg of potatoes.
Our growing population put strains on water availability. This is a resource we do need to conserve as it is at the heart of life itself. Shifting our eating habits to a more plant based diet can make a great difference.
Meat production is a big polluter. Pesticides and insecticides are used on feedcrops and this pollutes air and groundwater. Another consequence of intensive animal farming is that livestock generates a huge amount of waste. Manure and urine are stored in large waste lagoons which emit high levels of methane, toxic gases and are nest for bacteria. Leaks and overflows can pollute surrounding areas, air and groundwater.
So what can we do as individuals?
As the global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the FAO is forecasting global meat production to increase by 65% within the next 40 years. Looking at the issues around meat production, this is simply unsustainable. For one thing, Earth has simply not enough space!
The FAO suggests that by 2050 each one of us should consume no more than 70-90g of meat per day. Does this mean that our diet will become deficient in proteins? Not at all.
On average 100g of meat contains around 35g of protein and an average size adult needs only 45-55g of protein per day. So you are left with 10-20g of proteins that can be found in a plant-based diet. Plants are a great source of protein outside meat, fish and dairy and they need to play an increasing role in our diet.
Adopting a flexitarian diet and eating less meat is not only good for your health but also a necessity for a sustainable future.