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Meat Free for the Planet

Scientists across the world agree that the world urgently needs to reduce its carbon emissions to avoid climate crisis, and animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gases.

Photo: Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations

Did you know that changing our diets is the single easiest thing we can do as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint?

Meat consumption is directly linked not only to climate change but human labour exploitation and abuse, deforestation and disease, to say nothing of animal abuse and suffering.

Scientists across the world agree that the world urgently needs to reduce its carbon emissions to avoid climate crisis, and animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gases. According to a recent Johns Hopkins Centre for a Liveable Future report on the connection between diet, people and planet, if global trends in meat and dairy intake continue, global mean temperature rise will more than likely exceed 2 degrees Celsius even with dramatic emissions reductions across non-agricultural sectors.

The livestock sector is also the world’s largest user of agricultural land, through grazing and the use of feed crops. And it also plays a major role in management of land, water and biodiversity. These resources are becoming scarcer and are increasingly threatened by degradation and climate change.

Clearly, an alternative model to the current system of farming is needed if we are to have sustainable food system.

Here's a look at why you should ditch meat for the planet.

“It will be impossible to defuse the ticking time bomb without reducing our consumption of animal products” - Jonathan Safran Foer

Deforestation and resources

According to a FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) report 26% of our planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and 33 percent of croplands are used for livestock feed production. In Australia, a continent plagued by droughts and fires, agriculture is responsible for 67% of water usage.

To put it in perspective, a single beef patty requires 2,500 litres of water to produce. This is an astonishing amount when you consider that … of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water, and that 17 countries, home to one quarter of the world’s population — including India, Pakistan, South Africa, Lebanon— are already suffering a water crisis. This could have a devastating impact on food production and exacerbate conflict as well as human migration.

Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation—both legal and illegal. The fires that blazed across the Amazon in 2019 were fuelled by the need to clear land for cattle feed pasture land. In fact, a 2018 study found that about 12.4 million acres of forest are cut down each year to clear room for industrial agriculture.

Carbon Footprint

Animal agriculture puts a lot of stress on the environment, using many natural resources. Livestock are the leading source of methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) and nitrous oxide emissions, which are emitted by livestock urine, manure, and the fertilisers used for growing feed crops.

According the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, after China and the United States. In fact, the FAO asserts that livestock are a leading cause of climate change, responsible for approximately 7.1 million Gigatonnes of CO2 emissions per year, or 14.5 percent of annual global emissions.

In 2019 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report estimates that 23% of greenhouse gas comes from agriculture, livestock and the clearing and overuse of land and forests needed to raise them. And then there’s the carbon footprint of transportation and packaging, and feed production which bumps that figure up to 37% or 45% according to one estimate.

“If global trends in meat and fairy intake continue, global mean temperature rise will more than likely exceed 2 degrees Celsius even with dramatic emissions reductions across non-agricultural sectors.”

Factory Farming & Disease

In the US alone 99% of all meat is factory-farmed where animals are tightly packed in small filthy disease-ridden enclosures.

Unsurprisingly, the US is also one of the world’s largest users of antibiotics in food production. In fact in 2009 the FDA reported that U.S. livestock and poultry got fed 29 million pounds of antibiotics per year. That’s 80% of all antibiotics in the US used on livestock, while the remaining 20% were used for human illnesses.

Most antibiotic use on factory farms is designed to promote growth and improve feed conversion ratio. But they are also fed to farm animals as a ‘preventative’ so that they can better survive their overcrowded and filthy faeces-ridden enclosures.

Without appropriate regulation, factory farms are contributing to the growth of drug resistant bacteria which travel from the farm to your plate. The health implications for consumers ranges from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections, and the rapid evolution of superbugs that can kill, to severe respiratory problems. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistance is responsible for 25,000 annual deaths in the EU and 35,0000 deaths in the US. At least 2.8 million Americans develop a drug resistant infection each year.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

The West’s growing appetite for meat

Many naysayers like to point fingers and call veganism or vegetarianism a ‘white privilege’ or diet trend which presumes that a plant-based diet is a white western construct. This of course ignores non-western cultures who practice veganism or vegetarianism like Rastafarians, Jains, some Jews (including a number of prominent spiritual leaders), Mahayana Buddhists, and Hindus (India has the highest percentage of vegetarians), to say nothing of the many people around the world for that have been living meat-free lives because of necessity (in many countries vegetables and grains are cheaper and more accessible than meat), politics or economics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is wealthier parts of the world—Hong Kong, Australia, the US and the EU— who consume the most meat, while consumption of fruit, vegetables, pulses and whole grains is below recommended levels. This brings a host of other health problems from diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Why is the west so obsessed with meat? And why are so many—even in the face of devastating environmental data—resistant to cutting it out of their diets? Part of it is a socially engrained idea that eating meat is healthier—despite evidence to the contrary; because of habits and traditions; the belief that one can’t get protein any other way; the link between masculinity and meat (cause' real men' eat meat....and risk heart disease); and because as humans, well, we supposedly have the God given right to eat animals, as we’re on top of the food chain.

Agricultural subsidies

And the other big problem, of course, is government agricultural subsidies. In the United States, the EU, Australia, and the United Kingdom, the animal agriculture industry is highly subsidised by the government, which makes meat cheaper and promotes a dependence on animal protein. This also propagates the very western-centric thinking that meat is cheaper than a plant-based diet (which is not the case in many developing countries around the world).

Wealthy countries spend over US$300 billion per year on subsidising animal agriculture. In fact, according the Centre for Global Development all rich countries (Australia, EU, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, US, Switzerland, Norway) spend more on their own cows, per head, than on aid per poor person. And yet, animal-based products themselves only account for 37% of protein and 18% of calories according to an Oxford University study published in the scientific journal, Science.

Wealthy countries spend over US$300 billion on subsidising animal agriculture.

So high is the West’s consumption of meat, that to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord the US and UK in particular would need to cut beef consumption by 90% and milk by 60%. At the current rate we are using one and a half Earth’s worth of resources to produce food for the world’s population of 7 billion people. Meanwhile, 850 million people around the world still suffer from hunger.

In fact, if meat consumption in high-consuming countries declined to about 1.5 burgers per week — about half of current US levels and 25% below Europe’s current levels (still above the national average for most countries) — it would nearly eliminate the need for agricultural expansion, and thus deforestation, even in a world of 10 billion people. If you want to talk about privilege, eating meat is a privilege.

The case for a plant-based diet

Animal product-free diets deliver greater environmental benefits than purchasing sustainable meat or dairy. The Science journal study finds that switching to a vegan diet could reduce a person’s carbon footprint by up to 73%, as well as help reduce global acidification, eutrophication (algae overgrowth and oxygen depletion in water), and land and water use. “The effect is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car”, according to Joseph Poore, research director and lead author of the study, as these only cut out greenhouse gas emissions.

“It will be impossible to defuse the ticking time bomb without reducing our consumption of animal products” author, Jonathan Safran Foer, writes in his book We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Switching to a plant-based diet greatly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint and is one of the most significant ways of reducing greenhouse gases from the agricultural sector.

So, next time ask yourself, what’s the real cost of your burger?


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