With a large majority of the world’s population classified as meat-eaters, it’s no surprise that this consumption of animal products might lead to some negative consequences. You might be thinking that several of these consequences relate to physical health, and while that certainly plays a role, eating meat plays a significant role in our environment.
Sourced from the OECD in 2021, it appears as though Argentina was consuming the most beef and veal (in kilograms per capita), followed closely by the United States and Brazil. For poultry, Israel came in first, followed by Malaysia and Peru, while pork consumption was highest in Vietnam, followed by Korea and China. These statistics can and will ebb and flow throughout time and vary depending on economic stability and how many people eat meat. However, it does give us a global outlook on the amount of meat.
But why do statistics like these matter? Is a plant-based diet better for the environment, or does meat production harm the planet?
Today, we’re going to dive into just that – determining what happens to the planet when we eat meat, factors of the environment impacted by meat consumption, and ways you can help!
Of all the ways our world is negatively affected by consumer factors (think air pollution, extinction of animals, the tearing down of trees and forests for buildings and other manufacturing plants), one might not think that meat has anything to add. After all, meat is a fantastic energy source. Couple that with being full of iron, protein, and vitamins, providing a plentiful food source for many people. While some types of meat are better for health than others, such as lean cuts of poultry rather than fatty red meats, many benefits of meat can be found when consuming a plant-based diet. Vitamin B12 is in fortified foods, dairy, and even nutritional yeast.
According to Environmental Science and Policy, the available livestock that allows for meat consumption is topping the list for global warming initiatives; for several reasons. Think of it this way – it takes land to raise livestock for food, right? That means deforestation has to occur to make more room and clear more land for agricultural objectives. Essentially, approximately half of the habitable land on this planet (about 51 million kilometers) is for agricultural purposes, and this number continues to grow.
One study, in particular, dove into the details of the number of carbon emissions that come from meat production. The study did include how it is produced and processed. According to Food Research International, diets containing higher amounts of red meat had more of a negative impact on the environment than other diets, specifically in regards to soil degradation, the growth of crops for the animals, and pollution from that livestock. Not surprisingly, those who consumed a plant-based or vegan/vegetarian diet had the most negligible impact on the environment.
Back to the topic of deforestation. All of the lands needed to grow crops, house livestock, and process meats accordingly has led to the removal of trees and wildlife, leading to overgrazing and the degradation of essential plants and animals in specific ecosystems. We might think that overgrazing isn’t terrible; however, a constant influx of animals grazing in one spot repeatedly eventually renders the soil unusable for further vegetation growth.
And all this vegetation (if it’s still present) needs water, right? Another significant impact on the environment can be felt worldwide. All that livestock needs water to survive, and their required vegetation for sustenance also needs water to grow. Both of these factors combine to consume large amounts of water from lakes, bays, and rivers, which can deplete other important wildlife and production in the area. Still not convinced? According to the USDA, this water irrigates more than 12 million acres of vegetation – corn to be used for grain, to be specific – in 2017. It is the largest amount of acreage of irrigated land in the United States, all is for growing food for livestock!
Methane gas is another area of environmental concern. Animals cannot directly break down the cellulose in the grass on which they graze. However, they have a particular area of the digestive system that can break down the nutrients within the grass. This process then produces methane, which can negatively impact the environment. According to the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, methane has a “global warming potential rating of 25 times that of carbon dioxide over 100 years, though it has a lifetime of 9 to 12 years in the atmosphere.” This is essential information, seeing as how methane can effectively hold heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and negatively impacting the environment. While you might think that transportation efforts such as buses, planes, and cars are the bulk of the greenhouse gas emitters in the world, livestock does the same, if not more!
Lastly, another big area of concern is the conversion of grain into meat, also known as the grain: meat conversion ratio. This is the ratio of how much grain an animal requires to pack on the meat that humans will then consume. Larger animals (such as cows) will require more feed, while smaller animals (such as chickens) will require less. This grain (and the water and land it grows on) significantly impacts the environment. Based on information from PETA and the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, one single pound of meat requires at least ten pounds of grain. That statistic in and of itself is highly explanatory in regards to meat consumption and the effect on the environment!
What Can You Do?
Not everything is lost when it comes to consuming meat; in fact, there are plenty of ways to change the scenario, even by choices you make at home every day. For starters, aim to consume a whole, nutrient-dense diet. While many of us think that protein from meat is the only way to get valuable vitamins and minerals in the diet, other foods like tofu and beans can give you those same micronutrients and an added dose of fiber! In addition, you can slowly begin to incorporate plant-based ingredients into your diet and enjoy the health-related benefits as well.
Another factor to consider is choosing your products and other goods at a local farmers markets or grocery. Shopping local has a plethora of benefits, one of the top being that you’ll get fresh, in-season foods from your neighbors at competitive prices – without having the goods shipped from all over the country. Fewer methane gas emissions, yes, please!
If you aren’t used to a plant-based diet, that’s okay! There’s no need to jump in with both feet, and you shouldn’t. Always speak with your family doctor before converting to a plant-based diet to ensure there are no contraindications to your current health. Slowly incorporating more plant-based items into your daily meals will not only come with ease but will allow you to broaden your palate while simultaneously easing the burden on the environment. You might think just one person at a time can’t make much of an impact…. but it can!