Back in November 2006, the UN FAO produced a report (1) detailing how livestock are a major threat to the environment, responsible for more climate change emissions than the entire transportation industry, at 18% of human induced greenhouse gases. We've suspected for a long time about the effects of meat production on the environment. It’s now 2017, and the question we have to ask is – has anything changed?
Hang on - What’s wrong with meat?
In the US and Canada, thanks to high demand for meat products, farm animals now outweigh people 4 to 1. That’s a lot of animals. And that is bad news for our planet – here’s why.
First off, a meat-based diet requires 7 times more land than a plant-based diet (2). Billions of farm animals need a lot of grazing land, but also demand a vast amount more to grow the crops they will be fed. Not only could that land be used to grow food for humans – with our dramatically ballooning population, this is no small issue! – But to find that land, we have to destroy wildlife habitats.
Livestock now cover 30% of the Earth’s land surface. In Latin America, 70% of former Amazon forests are now grazing land. Back here in North America, agricultural land now occupies a huge 1.6ha per person! With a plant-based diet requiring only 0.2ha (2), we could devote the rest to reestablishing habitats and rebuild thousands of endangered populations.
Plus, cattle excrete a pretty massive 40kg of manure per kilogram of beef (3) – and all that animal waste ends up polluting rivers and groundwater with nitrogen phosphorus and nitrates (4), further destroying our natural ecosystems.
Methane, manure, deforestation and the sheer amount of energy it takes to produce meat, all have a big nasty effect on our changing climate.
Firstly, beef farming produces staggering amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as well as other greenhouse gases released in animals’ manure. On top of that, huge amounts of carbon dioxide are pumped into our atmosphere in our industrious efforts to produce fertilizers and pesticides to grow feed crops, to manufacture feedstuffs, run slaughterhouses, run farming facilities, and pump colossal volumes of water.
A Swedish study (5) showed beef, cheese and pork released up to 30kg of C02 per edible product, 30 times more than plant-based protein like legumes - whereas vegetables and fruits totaled less than 2.5kg C02 per kg, and carbohydrate-rich foods such as potatoes, pasta and wheat were less than 1.1kg/kg. The study noted that foods which have travelled long distances by plane are considerably higher – all the more reason to buy local, yay!
Finally, the destruction of vast areas of rainforest for grazing land is ripping out the Earth’s last protection against climate change – the ability to convert CO2 back into oxygen. Two football fields of Amazon rainforest per second are destroyed.
GRAZING / EROSION
When land is overgrazed, it lets weeds attack and destroys the root systems which keep soil held tight. This can lead to soil erosion, loss of plant biodiversity and therefore declining wildlife (4). According to a UN study ‘Global Assessment of Soil Degradation’, overgrazing and farming practices are the leading cause in moderate to extreme degradation.
According to the boys over at Cowspiracy, the movie that catapulted the environmental effects of meat production into the mainstream eye three years ago, one single hamburger requires a staggering 660 gallons of water – around the volume of two 4-5 person hot tubs.
Farm animals are naturally inefficient
Getting our energy from plant sources is much more energy-efficient than plant sources. Why? Well, we need to eat daily – of course. But so do those animals, daily, until they are slaughtered for the one meal that they will bring us. Most of the plant-food they are fed goes toward movement, living, producing manure, and growth of non-edible body parts. Very little of that energy ends up being our lunch. If we were to just eat the original plants destined for the animals, our energy production would be far more efficient.
Meat production requires 10 to 20 times more energy per edible ton than grain production (3) – and that is the fundamental concept behind animal agriculture’s massive environmental effects. Not to mention, most calculations don’t take into account the extensive energy required for growing the plants that will end up fed to animals – ploughing, harvesting, pumping irrigation water, transporting, producing fertilizer and pesticides, plus processing into feed.
A final note, often overlooked but not insignificant, is that the energy consumption and resources used in the creating and retailing of meat products themselves – their processing, packaging, storing and refrigeration, is often much more than their plant-based counterparts. These foods often require little to no production processing, refrigeration, or in the case of fresh produce, even packaging.
So – what’s changed?
As anyone who has tried to get healthier meals into schools will know, it is very difficult to change systems that have been in place for decades. But change is happening, and quicker than you might expect.
Google reported a 90% increase in ‘vegan’ google searches in 2016 – people are really talking about this. But it’s not just talk – according to this report by Mercy For Animals, vegan and vegetarian trends are on the rise worldwide!
Here in Canada, meat consumption has dropped dramatically since 1999 (see right).
With the rise in popularity of ‘meatless Mondays’, and the mainstream success of documentaries such as ‘Cowspiracy’, ‘Forks over Knives’ and ‘GMO OMG’, things are definitely changing. There is increased demand in supermarkets for fresh produce, healthier ingredients, and sustainable practices. The old, forgotten Farmers Market is enjoying a well-deserved resurgence and sales of pulses and legumes are exploding!
We as a consumer base are waking up to the environmental effects of our actions.
If you want to preserve habitats, protect wildlife, reduce emissions, save water and make a drastic reduction to your ecological footprints, and keep our environment pristine - the solution is simple.
Eat more plants!
3. “Connections: Canadian Lifestyle Choices and the Environment.” A State of the Environment fact sheet. No 95-1 (Ottawa: Environment Canada, 1995), p. 7.
4. Alan Durning, and Holly Brough, Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment (Washington: Worldwatch Institute, 1991), pp. 18-20, 25.