Meating our Environment’s Strain

In late 2009, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang of the Worldwatch Institute, a reputable environmental think tank, published a study which estimated that livestock and their by-products are responsible for 51% of global GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.  Their conclusion echoed what a UN study had warned a few years earlier: the meat industry is the number one cause of global warming.

There is a greater urgency now more than ever onto why we need to think and reflect more closely about what we eat and what we’re going to eat in the future. What is clear is that our current global diet is not sustainable. No matter whether you are an omnivore, a vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or a dedicated steak aficionado, the stakes are too high to condone a reasonable questioning of our global appetite for meat. I don’t aim to delve into an extensive, ethically-oriented argument about the philosophical and moral implications of killing animals for food. This can provide intriguing material for discussion; however, it is not the urgent question at the moment. The facts are quite clear; our world’s immense meat industry has devastating and crippling effects on our environment, and we must take on a responsibility to take action in order to avert the most extreme perils of global warming.

It’s awfully difficult to imagine why the meat industry would have such immense effects. When we commonly think of global warming and human contributions to it, images of smoking chimneys, exhaust pipes, and the burning of non-renewable fuels flash to mind, but rarely does the picture of a meat factory. So why exactly does this seemingly innocuous industry cause such harm to the environment?

The effects of the meat industry are quite multitudinous, but they primarily lie in air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, desertification, land degradation and the overuse of resources. Its effects are so wide-spread, that the UN concluded that the livestock sector is one of the top three causes of every single significant environmental problem on the planet.

When it comes to pollution, a groundbreaking 2006 United Nations report discovered that raising animals for food generates 40% more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than our global transport system – that is, all the cars, trucks, planes, motorbikes, boats, etc in the world combined.  A study by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible “for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.”  The most common GHG emitted by livestock is methane, which is released into the atmosphere through the digestive and flatulent procedures of ruminants, or to put it more bluntly, their farting and burping. Methane has a GWP (Global Warming Potential) twenty one times higher than carbon dioxide, the most infamous greenhouse gas.

 When it comes to water, author John Robbins has estimated that it roughly takes “60, 108, 168, and 229 gallons of water to produce a pound of potatoes, wheat, corn and rice respectively.” To make a pound of beef – we require 12,000 gallons of water. In addition, livestock produce a huge amount of waste. Farm animals in the U.S produce more waste in one day than the amount that entire country’s population produces in 3 years. US meat processing company Smithfield had 7,000 violations of the Clean Water Act in one year.  The overuse of water by factory farms is so large, that according to Ed Ayres of the World Watch Institute, skipping one hamburger saves as much water as taking “40 showers with a low-flow nozzle.” Our increased consumption of fish has also had extreme effects on aquatic ecosystems. In the world today, “over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted”, according to the FAO. In many ways, our depletion of fish is an even more crucial issue than the factory farming of cows, poultry and pigs, as approximately seven out of ten people on the planet rely on marine products as their principal source of protein.

The effects of the meat industry on land and forestry are also broad. Areas for animal grazing occupy 26% of the ice/water free surface of our planet. Of all our arable land, 33% is used to grow crops to feed livestock. As we continue to look for more and more land, with farmers doing their best to match the world’s global demand, the pursuit of lands for animal grazing leads to deforestation in many corners of the world. In the Amazon region, grazing now occupies 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon region. In Brazil, “60 -70 percent of rainforest destruction is caused by clearing for animal pasture.” This is the reason why the livestock industry is responsible for “nine-percent of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions”, according to E Magazine.

Furthermore, the meat industry’s strain on the environment hasn’t been helped by our global rise in demand for meat, in addition to rising population levels.  Americans eat 150 times more chicken than they did 80 years ago. They consume approximately 270 pounds of meat, fish and poultry a year, more than 50 pounds more than 50 years ago. Between 1961 and 2007, our global per capita consumption of meat has doubled, with the global meat supply growing from 71 million tons to 284 million tons. In addition, on a dietary level, our average consumption of meat is “something like 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance”, as explained by the New York Times’ Mark Bittman. Prospects for the future don’t look too good either, with world meat consumption expected to double again by 2050, which is resulting in what Henning Steinfeld of the United Stations has called a “relentless growth in livestock production.”

According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 925 million suffer from malnutrition. It is absolutely elementary, both morally and politically, that we attend to their “silent emergency, to borrow the World Health Organization’s term, and one way by which we can alleviate their suffering, is by perhaps diverting at least some of the large amounts of food that we use to feed the billions of livestock in the world, and using them to feed those bereft of food security. David Pimentel, professor of entomology at Cornell, points out that “if all the grain currently fed to livestock in the U.S. was consumed directly by people, the number who could be fed is nearly 800 million.” And that’s only the United States. In the rest of the world, a substantial portion of our crops (estimates vary, but some show more than half) goes to feed the 50 billion animals that we factory farm every year.

So, what are our prospects?  In 2010, a report by the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program), from their International Panel of Sustainable Resource Management, stated that “a global shift towards a vegan diet” would be vital for “mitigating issues of hunger”, fuel poverty, and averting the worst effects of climate change. It would be impractical to imagine that the whole world will radically change their dietary patterns in the next few years, as furthermore, many communities are strongly dependent on animals for providing them with nutrition. I’m also not advocating that we all must all try to immediately drastically undertake a severe shift in our in-take of food; that we all must be vegan, or abstain fully from this or that – although this might be the ideal some cases, we must be pragmatic when striving to make changes in the world’s food consumption. Even modest decreases in our consumption of meat, can bring radical changes to the world we live. These aren’t complicated options or choices. We can support local, organic, non-industrial farms relying on sustainable techniques such as permaculture. We can also do our best to decrease our consumption of meat. According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U.S. roads. And that’s just one meal. Let’s at least start there.

Our global diet is unsustainable; and we must act upon it quickly. As populations continue to grow, and demand continues to surge, this is a problem which will continue to become more prominent. But the most inspiring thing about this predicament is that it can be directly changed and improved by one group of people, us – the consumers. Hope for change rests on our shoulders; in our awareness of the true costs of industrial meat production (not just environmental, but also health and nutritional costs, as well as the extensive cases of animal cruelty that occur on a daily basis in most factory farms across the world), and in our perseverance in acting upon our convictions. The decision lies in our hands.

September 29, 2011 / Daniel Macmillen

4 thoughts on “Meating our Environment’s Strain

  1. Pingback: Opinion: Meating our Environment’s Strain | The Open Wall

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