Meat production is costing the earth. Cutting back, or eliminating, our meat consumption, is one of the easiest things we can do for our planet and our health.
Cutting back, or eliminating, our meat consumption, is one of the easiest things we can do to live more ethically and sustainably. And it’s also something we have in our power to do for the betterment of our planet.
According to a study from the University of Oxford published in the journal Science, eating a vegan diet could be the “single biggest way” to reduce your environmental impact on earth. In fact, eating less meat is a more effective intervention towards reducing one's carbon footprint than cutting down on flights or buying an electric car. Researchers found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73 percent.
In the last 50 years the number of people on the planet has doubled. But the amount of meat we eat has tripled. As the world’s population heads towards 10 billion, the current trends in meat consumption and production cannot be sustained.
With global heating, flooding, and droughts taking centre stage in our daily news , it's clear that our climate crisis is becoming ever more urgent.
Meat production is costing the earth, and so much more.
Here are five very compelling reasons you should give up meat.
1. Meat is Environmentally Unsustainable
The global production of food is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases emitted by human activity, with the use of animals for meat causing twice the pollution of producing plant-based foods, a major study by Nature Food found.
Of the total greenhouse gases produced due to food production, 57 percent is from animal based foods, while 29 percent to plant based foods. According to FAO, roughly twice as much of the world’s surface is used for grazing as for growing crops, and around 30 percent of the earth’s land surface is currently used for livestock farming.
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawn from rivers, lakes, and aquifers, and as water use grows and temperatures rise, this increases water stress in many parts of the world.
Since food, water and land are scarce in many parts of the world— and getting scarcer still with droughts ravaging Europe, the United States, Africa and other parts of the world— this is a shockingly inefficient use of resources.
This is particularly the case with raising cattle for beef. To produce one kilogram of beef requires 25 kilograms of grain – to feed the animal – and roughly 15,000 litres of water versus 322 litres of water for the same in vegetables. And that 1kg of beef emits about 100kg of CO2 emissions, which is by far the highest emissions of any food.
Around 30 percent of the earth’s land surce is currently used for livestock farming.
Yet, with all these resources spent, animals fed entirely on pasture produce just one gram out of the 81 grams of protein consumed per person per day. Animal farming takes up 83 percent of the world’s agricultural land, but delivers only 18 percent of our calories.
The world population is projected to reach almost 10 billion people by 2050. It is unsustainable to feed that many people an animal protein rich diet.
Industrial farming at the current scale has resulted in land degradation and deforestation, over-extraction of groundwater, emission of greenhouse gases, loss of biodiversity, and nitrate pollution of water bodies.
In the US alone, animal farming is estimated to account for 55 percent of soil and sediment erosion, 37 percent of nationwide pesticide usage, 80 percent of antibiotic usage, and more than 30 percent of the total nitrogen and phosphorus loading to national drinking water resources.
It is estimated that cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of the deforestation in the Amazon.
Vast swathes of forest are cleared in carbon sinks like the Amazon to make way for grazing cattle and cattle feed like soy. It is estimated that cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of the deforestation in the Amazon, with natural habitats the size of 40 football fields lost to deforestation every minute.
The Amazon absorbs more greenhouse gases than any other forest, and its destruction releases 340 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year, equivalent to 3.4 percent of current global emissions.
The deforestation of the Amazon threatens the most biodiverse regions in the world, with many plant species already endangered. If nothing is done to stop the destruction, an estimated 40 percent of this unique forest will be razed and dozens of animal species threatened with extinction by 2050.
Furthermore, Indigenous communities, like the Awá and Guajajara in the Amazon, who have occupied land in the region for centuries, are displaced and their lives threatened as their forests are illegally logged to make room for cattle farms and cattle feed crops, as well as for mining.
Deforestation doesn’t just threaten forests, but also the culture and the way of life of the Indigenous communities who rely on them.
3. Meat Production Disproportionately Affects Lower Income Countries and BIPOC Communities
It is ironic that one of the arguments against a plant-based diet is that it is elitist and inaccessible, when in many countries around the world eating meat is still a luxury.
In higher income OECD countries like the US, Australia, the UK, and countries in the EU, agriculture is heavily subsidised. As a result, meat consumption is high.
China, the most populous country on earth, has also seen rapid economic growth in the past decades and an increase in meat consumption. It accounts for one third of the growth in meat consumption over the last 20 years, although its per capita consumption of meat is still less than half that of the USA.
In the US, beef and dairy farming receive the biggest subsidies, resulting in cheaper meat and the average American consuming about 219 pounds of meat a year, more than twice the global average and nearly twice as much as Americans ate in 1961. Following hot on the heels of the US is Australia where the average person consumes 203 pounds of meat a year.
The US government spends up to $38 billion each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries, with less than one percent of that sum allocated to aiding the production of fruits and vegetables. This means that a lot of tax payers money is going to the production of foods which emit disproportionate amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
The responsibility for global meat reduction lies largely with the world's richer countries, as they consume the most meat and dairy produce, fuelling global warming. Your meat may be cheaper at the checkout counter but it comes at a huge healthcare and global environmental cost.
This growing appetite for meat also hurts lower income countries and indigenous communities, according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who will be "the worst hit" by climate change and more vulnerable to climate impacts on energy, food and water security.
A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), found that agricultural subsidies in economically advanced countries such as the US keep international market prices artificially low, forcing poorer nations to import food that local farmers could otherwise produce more efficiently. Local farmers cannot compete with these market prices, and are no longer able to afford to grow local crops. The FAO reports that eliminating agricultural subsidies in the US alone would help alleviate poverty for millions of people around the world.
One in every three food grains in the world are fed to factory farmed animals. Feeding grain to livestock increases demand and drives up prices, making it harder for the world’s poor to access food. Grain and the excessive amounts of water required to irrigate feed for industrial farmed animals, could be better used to feed billions of people instead.
The United Nations World Food Council estimates that transferring 10-15 percent of grains and cereals fed to livestock to humans is enough to raise the world’s food supply to feed the current population.
One in every three food grains in the world are fed to factory farmed animals.
There is also a connection between animal agriculture and racial discrimination. For instance, populations near factory farms tend to be low-income communities or communities of colour. These farms pollute the surrounding areas so much that residents suffer a host of illnesses from breathing in the many harmful gases and toxic waste these facilities emit.
An evaluation of the Civil Rights Act by the EPA found a “linear relationship between race/ethnicity [of residents within 3 miles of industrial hog operations] and...density of hogs,” and expressed “deep concern about the possibility that African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans have been subjected to discrimination.”
4. Animal Welfare
"The fate of industrially farmed animals is one of the most pressing ethical questions of our time," writes historian and philosopher, Yuval Noah Harari.
Animals are conscious sentient beings (and recognised by the European Union as such) who have the capacity to experience sensations like pain and emotions like fear. There is no doubt that eating meat is unethical and causes immense suffering and pain.
All it takes is one Google search into factory farming to see the horrors and cruelty that we contribute to each time we eat meat. There is nothing natural about factory or industrial farming. In fact, it is as far removed from the ideal of a happy farm, marketed by advertisements, as you can get.
Factory farmed animals are confined to tiny cages, pens or crates—with little or no natural light—where they cannot move; they are routinely mutilated and have their teeth clipped, tails docked and beaks trimmed, all usually carried out without pain relief; mothers are separated from offspring; and animals are selectively bred to be fast growing and high yielding, resulting in lameness, weakened or broken bones, infections and organ failure.
According to a study by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation cited in the World Economic Forum, over 70 billion chickens were slaughtered for food in 2020 alone – a figure that excludes male chicks and unproductive hens killed in egg production. Half a billion sheep are killed every year. Nearly 1.5 billion pigs are killed to feed the growing appetite for pork, bacon, ham and sausages – a number that has tripled in the last 50 years. And almost 300 million cows were slaughtered for meat production.
And when it comes to seafood, the number of individual fish and shellfish is almost impossible to calculate. One hundred and fifty million tonnes of seafood were produced for human consumption in 2016 – nearly half from aquaculture (for example trout or shrimp farms) rather than caught in fisheries.
Over 70 billion chickens were slaughtered for food in 2020 alone
And then there’s dairy. A cow does not produce milk unless she gets pregnant and births a calf—you are drinking secretions meant to nourish a baby cow. The dairy industry is built on the exploitation of female cows, getting them pregnant through artificial insemination, and then separating the calf from mother to take her milk. This causes a lot of emotional misery to both calf and cow.
And while dairy farms need female cows to produce milk, male calves are killed straight after birth as it is cheaper to do so than to raise them. Once female cows are 'spent' from the abuse wreaked upon their bodies, and can no longer serve their purpose, they too are slaughtered.
The path from farm to your plate is paved with violence, leading Harari to remark that "industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history."
Going meat-free is the compassionate choice.
In the US alone 80% of all antibiotics are used in animal agriculture. And between 30 and 90% of the dosage is excreted and flows directly into the environment. Factory farming relies heavily on antibiotic use to accelerate weight gain and control infection, which runs rampant when animals are crowded together in filthy conditions.
This in turn has resulted in antibiotic resistance and a superbug epidemic that can be found around the world. The medical journal The Lancet, reports that antibiotic-resistant superbugs cause an estimated 1.2 million deaths a year globally.
The average meat intake for someone living in a high-income country is 200-250 grams a day, far higher than the 80-90 grams recommended by the United Nations.
High meat and animal-derived protein consumption is also linked to a host of health problems like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and obesity. Furthermore, the World Health Organization concluded that processed meat and red meat causes cancer.
Yet, while between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020 alone, 2 billion adults are overweight or obese and 1 in 5 deaths around the world are related to poor diets. This leads to more deaths globally than tobacco, drugs and alcohol combined. Switching to a plant based diet could save millions of lives every year.
For more information on factory farming, meat and its impact on the environment, our health and animals:
Animal Liberation - Peter Singer
Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat - Philip Lymbery + Isabel Oakshotte
Eating Animals - Jonathan Safran Foer
The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter - Peter Singer
How Not to Die - Michael Greger