This is No Cowspiracy: A Glimpse at Why We Should Reduce the Amount of Meat We Eat
Growing up there were two cardinal rules in my family. One, never take the last Diet Coke, and two, every meal must have meat. Burgers, shredded beef, chicken, fish, and my mother’s rather unfortunate meatloaf were staples throughout my dependent years. I never really questioned if what I was eating had any sort of affect on the world beyond the dinner table. Really, the only thing that mattered was, did it taste good and was it healthy. However, food production utilizes a tremendous amount of energy which can be extremely costly to the environment. For example, agricultural activity alone accounts for roughly 22% of the total greenhouse gas emissions produced around the world(1). Livestock, including feed production, makes up 80% of this sectors emissions(1).
Greenhouse gases have been linked to global climate change trends. Such trends question the security of future food supplies. Extreme weather events and changes in temperature are predicted to result in agricultural winners and losers, creating an inequality in food production(1). By 2020, crop yields could increase by 20%, for example, in regions of East Asia while decreasing up to 30% in central and south Asia(1). The same models show African countries loosing up to 50% of their agricultural output(1).
Eating is obviously a pivotal part of survival. However certain foods, like meat, have a substantially larger environmental impact. Under current trends, food-related agricultural emissions of methane and nitrogen could increase to about 12.7 billion tons by 2070(1) . I am hardly an example of a fulltime meatless meal-timer. However, making a big reduction in the amount of meat you eat, if not going vegetarian entirely, can make for a better change. And if you choose to eat meat, staying away from beef products would help reduce the meat industry’s environmental impact and overall footprint by a tremendous amount.
But why beef in particular?
For one, methane is a by-product of a cow’s digestive tract(2) . Methane, being 23 times more warming to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, becomes a huge problem when considering the global rise in temperatures(3) . In fact, livestock is considered one of the biggest contributors to anthropogenic methane internationally on top of also being the main source of ammonia emissions(3). This, added with the fact that livestock production consumes over 8% of global human water use, emphasizes the high environmental cost of producing beef protein as opposed to vegetable protein(4).
Yet, the current global average meat consumption is 100g per person per day, with high income countries averaging a daily meat consumption of 200-250g(1). This amount of meat can generate a large amount of greenhouse gases especially when, for example, the UK alone expels 57.5 million tonnes of CO2e annually, just from the rearing of cattle for consumption (4) . Meatless alternatives, on the other hand, cause only a fraction of the GHG emissions.
Land use for cattle is a huge problem as well, particularly land use for feed. Approximately 34% of the world’s croplands are used to produce feed grains and legumes for livestock(5) . And, managed grazing lands occupy an astounding 25% of the global land surface, serving as a major driver of deforestation, woody encroachment and desertification(4). Overgrazing by livestock has also lead up to 73% of dryland areas to be degraded(4). In fact, beef production can take roughly 27-49 m2 of land, to produce just 1 kg of beef(6) . In comparison, 1 kg of pork has been shown to require 8.9–12.1 m2 of land, and 1 kg of chicken 8.1–9.9 m2 of land(6).
Today’s high selection of protein supplements and recipe resources makes switching to a full, or partially veggie based diet more conceivable. And, around the world governments are starting to understand the importance of doing just that. For example, Germany’s environment minister announced that their government would be instituting a ban on meat at official functions held by the Ministry of Environment in light of how burdensome meat production is on the environment. Similarly, the Chinese government has reported that they want to cut their national meat consumption in half. Therefore, while changing how we eat will do its part in reducing the global anthropogenic footprint, we can also make a huge impact by how proactive we are within our local government. Voting with a purpose, not just with our forks and making our concerns be heard is arguably equally as important as being a conscious consumer.
1. Hendenus, F., Wirsenius, S., Johannson, D. “The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets.” Climate Change. 2014; 124:79-91
2. Subak, S. “Global environmental costs of beef production.” Ecological Economics. 1999; 79-91
3. Bahr, C. “Greenhouse Gas Taxes on Meat Products: A Legal Perspective.” Transnational Environmental Law. 2015; 4:153-179
4. Garnett, T. “Livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions: impacts and options for policy makers.” Environmental Science and Policy. 2009; 491-503
5. McAlpine, C., Etter, A., Fearnside, A., Seabrook, L., Laurance, W. “Increasing world consumption of beef as a dirver of regional and global change: A call for policy action based on evidence from Quuensland, Colombia, and Brazil.” Global Environmental Change. 2009; 21-33
6. Vries, M., Boer, I. “Comparing environmental impacts for livestock products: A Review of life cycle assessments.” Livestock Science. 2010; 1-11