The Environmental Impact Of the Meat Production Industry
Is meat really behind some of the biggest crimes committed against our natural world and the human race?
Big Macs, Extra Crispy Strips, Whoppers.
We knew all along that there was something wrong with them, but are they really that evil?
Discover all there is to know on the backlash of the meat-craving craze we’ve been living in, as well as the environmental impact of meat production… and decide for yourself.
- The Environmental impact of the livestock industry
- Carbon footprint of different meats
- Meat production and global warming
- Eating less meat is better for your health
- It causes animal suffering
- The demand for meat is growing as population grows
- The wall of shame: Who is responsible? (countries and regions)
- The hall of fame: Which countries are eating and producing less meat?
- What positive impact would it have on the planet if humans were to considerably cut down on meat consumption?
- Bottom line: Should you give up eating meat?
The Environmental impact of the livestock industry
Unknown to many, the livestock industry has a negative impact on the environment.
In 2006 the UN published an article declaring how rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector put together (1).
Cattle-rearing generates only 9% of human-induced CO2 emissions, but 65% of human-induced nitrous oxide and 37% of human-induced methane.
This is especially worrying as nitrous oxide is 296 times more effective than CO2 in trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, while methane is 23 times more powerful.
Due to this and its many other adverse impacts, the livestock industry is now considered one of the most harmful to our living planet.
That’s a huge call, but your are about to find out why its seen in this light. Lets start with our earths most precious resource
The Staggering use of water in the Livestock Industry
Around 92% of humanity’s freshwater consumption is used for agriculture, and almost one third of that corresponds to animal usage.
It is estimated that, in the United States alone, livestock consumes 34 trillion gallons of water per year.
To put this figure in perspective, it amounts to the recommended annual freshwater intake of nearly 5 and a half billion people.
That is roughly 17 times the current U.S. population.
Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, which is another extremely damaging human activity, consumes 100 billion gallons of water per year in U.S. territory. In other words, 340 times less than rearing farm animals.
So, every time we eat a pound of meat product, we are at the same time consuming quite a lot of water. Actually, quite a lot is an understatement.
|Per pound of meat||Gallons of water used to produce|
Despite there is limited information on the topic, we know that close to 3 and a half million gallons of water were used in 2010 for aquaculture-related activities (including fish farming) in the United States alone.
Check out Water Footprint Network’s article to learn about the difference in water footprint for crop and animal products (2).
Deforestation and land clearing
At present 26% of all ice-free land on the planet is used for livestock grazing, while one third of arable land is used to grow crops meant for livestock feed.
In total, animal agriculture occupies about 45% of the planet’s land.
Along these lines, it may come as no surprise that beef production is the largest driver of tropical deforestation globally (3).
The world’s second-largest beef exporter, Brazil, is a country that has witnessed the consequences of rearing cows on a massive scale.
From 1993 to 2013 cattle rearing in the Brazilian Amazon grew by 200%, while the remaining regions of the country saw an increase of only 13%.
The result was that an area of the Amazon rainforest almost the size of Italy (300,000 km2) was cut, burned, and turned into pastures.
Deforestation at such a massive scale in these types of ecosystems can lead to an increase in average temperatures and heat extremes, longer dry seasons and increased intensity of droughts, as well as a decrease in the amount and frequency of rainfall.
Additionally, there is the issue of soy cultivation across the Amazon rainforest, which 80% of is destined to be used as animal feed and has left a scar that crosses borders in the South American continent.
To learn more, go through the New York Times’ article on Amazon Deforestation, Once Tamed, Comes Roaring Back (4).
Wipe-out of biodiversity
With the disappearance of jungles and forests comes the extermination of a myriad species. This is why livestock production is the largest driver of habitat loss.
The major concern, however, is that a rise in both livestock and feedstock production is now happening at tropical countries where we are able to find the richest biodiversity of animals and plants.
Pair this rise in livestock and feedstock production to a projected population increase in these biodiverse nations and the outcome is not far from catastrophic.
Forecasts have calculated that by 2050 more than half of the globe’s population will be living in the tropics.
Consequently, by 2050 additional land will be required for livestock production in places such as Ecuador, Brazil, and China – namely 10%, 10%, and 18% of these nations’ total areas will be required.
Other than this, large carnivores have been in decline because of conflicts with farmers who often shoot, trap, or poison them.
Numbers of large wild herbivores, on the other hand, have also dropped due to resource depletion by livestock, land-use change, and hunting.
Vegetation loss, soil erosion, and the dwindling of fish and wildlife are also recognized as consequences of heavy grazing.
For details on the subject please take a look at the research paper Biodiversity conservation: The key is reducing meat consumption (5).
How can meat production trigger dead zones?
Basically, waste runoff from farms (in the form of manure and fertilizers) quickly makes its way into waterways, which then leads to the appearance of adverse algae in huge volumes that, in turn, give rise to belts with low to zero oxygen.
As a result, aquatic creatures like fish, clams, shrimp, and many others, die.
Back in the 1960s a total of 49 dead zones were identified across the world. Merely 48 years later, by 2008, this number had grown to 405 as shown in this map. At present, there are 550 dead zones worldwide (6).
After the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is the biggest ever recorded up to now, covering 21,238 km2, which is equivalent to more or less the size of the state of New Jersey in the U.S.
Multinational Corporation Tyson Foods has already been linked to this assault on our living planet (7).
For further meat industry pollution facts go to the Food Empowerment Project’s post on the issue (8).
You may also be interested in our article on homemade mosquito repellant, every step to reducing our environmental impact counts.
Carbon footprint of different meats
In 2010 Clean Metrics and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) collaborated in preparing a report on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for selected protein-rich foods (9). They assessed the entire lifecycle of the chosen products to arrive at the conclusions summarized below, using carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) as the unit for measuring carbon footprints for every kilogram of meat consumed.
CO2e basically encompasses every GHG, but in terms of the quantity of CO2 that would cause the same amount of warming in the atmosphere.
In other words, the unit does not only include CO2, but also methane, nitrous oxide and other relevant gases when applied.
So What About Beef?
For every kilogram consumed, beef has a carbon footprint of 27.00 kg CO2e. This is virtually proportionate to driving a petrol-fueled, medium-sized car for 100 kilometres.
The majority of emissions come from the animals’ enteric fermentation and feed production, which equal to 46% and 28% respectively.
Animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo contain enteric fermentation as one of the steps in their digestive processes.
During this step microbes located in their digestive tracts, or rumen, break down and ferment food, producing methane as a side product.
So What about Chicken?
For every kilogram consumed, chicken has a carbon footprint of 6.90 kg CO2e. This is roughly similar to driving a petrol-fueled, medium-sized car for 20 kilometres.
The majority of emissions come from feed production and transportation, which equals to 53% and 23% respectively.
So What About Lamb?
For every kilogram consumed, lamb has a carbon footprint of 39.20 kg CO2e. This is virtually equivalent to driving a petrol-fueled, medium-sized car for 110 kilometres.
The majority of emissions come from the methane produced from enteric fermentation and feed production.
Lamb meat has higher net GHG emissions than that of cows just because of its live weight-meat production ratio.
That is to say, in proportion to their weight, lambs produce less meat than cows and, consequently, calculations lead to higher net emissions.
So What About Pork?
Production emissions of consumed pork is significantly higher than beef.
For every kilogram consumed, pork has a carbon footprint of 12.10 kg CO2e. This is roughly similar to driving a petrol-fueled, medium-sized car for 35 kilometres.
The majority of emissions come from manure management and fuel combustion.
So What About Fish?
For every kilogram consumed, farmed salmon has a carbon footprint of 11.90 kg CO2e. This is virtually equivalent to driving a petrol-fueled, medium-sized car for 35 kilometres.
The majority of emissions come from feed production, as well as electricity generation and on-farm combustion that generally include diesel, gasoline, and propane.
In the case of canned tuna caught in the Atlantic, Indian and pacific Oceans, it has a carbon footprint of 6.10 kg CO2e per kilogram consumed. This is roughly similar to driving a petrol fueled medium-sized car for 20 kilometers.
The majority of emissions come from the actual fishing operations and more specifically, from diesel combustion, as well as from the processing and packaging of the meat.
Meat production and global warming
According to a study carried out by the United Nations in 2005 on tackling climate change through livestock the gross GHG emissions from livestock supply chains are of approximately 7.1 gigatonnes CO2e per year (10).
This figure portrays about 14.5% of all human-related emissions with 44% of them consisting of methane, 29% of nitrous oxide, and 27% of carbon dioxide.
Cattle raised for meat and dairy generate the greatest amount of emissions with approximately 4.6 gigatonnes CO2e per year, followed by pigs, chickens, and other small ruminants.
What will happen to our planet if we continue going down this path?
Here’s how climate change will change our lives.
The meaning of a phenomenon such as climate change is, for many people, mind-boggling.
Let’s face it, it’s just hard to imagine that our world can suddenly switch from the current status quo to a complete abyss featuring the melting of all ice, acidification of the oceans, and drowning of countries along with gruesome storms, relentless wildfires, and unstoppable droughts.
A few years ago experts warned humanity of not exceeding a 2ºC rise in temperature for the sake of avoiding these undesirable scenarios of drought, famine, human conflict, and large-scale species extinction.
Climate scientists also estimated that the maximum safe level of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere was 350 parts per million (ppm), with pre-industrial levels having known to be 280 ppm.
However, back in 2016, we slightly exceeded the 400 ppm without there being a reliable way of turning back (11).
Now some scientists believe that the safe 2ºC threshold may be crossed by 2036(12), while others declare to have evidence that forecast the surpassing of a 1.5ºC rise in a 5 year time (13) That is to say by 2023.
Visit NASA’s website to see the changes in global surface temperature that have been recorded since the 1880s (14).
(If your starting to feel empowered like we are, why not check out some other alternative solutions for the home environment to reduce toxins in everyday use that contribute to global pollution such as homemade febreze recipes!)
How many emissions would be offset if farmed meats were to stop?
If farm animals stopped landing on everyone’s plates, 14.5% of all human-related emissions would be offset.
Furthermore, as reported by a paper published by the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), food-induced emissions would fall by 70% by the year 2050 (15).
Another study carried out by Oxford University researchers that looked into the differences in emissions of different diets concluded that a vegan diet has the ability to offset 4.3 kg CO2e (per person per day) in contrast to a diet high in meat (16).
|Diet||Average dietary GHG emissions (kg CO2e)|
|High meat eaters||7.19|
|Medium meat eaters||5.63|
|Low meat eaters||4.67|
Eating less meat is better for your health
Eating less meat is not only good for the environment; it can also positively impact your health and well-being:
We challenge you to go through the following facts and decide which is true and which is false:
- The World Health Organization has classified processed meats (i.e. bacon, ham, sausages, pepperoni, salami, etc.) as a Group 1 carcinogen (17). That is, within the same category as cigarettes, asbestos, and plutonium. Red meat has been classified as a Group 2 carcinogen.
- Within minutes of eating bacterial toxins from meat, the body gets a burst of inflammation that either stiffens or paralyzes the arteries (18).
- Sugar or a high carbohydrate diet has never been the cause of diabetes. Instead, high-fat diets that include meat and dairy are directly correlated to this illness (19).
The correct answers are that all of the information mentioned above is true.
To get more facts or find out why some nations’ health organizations and doctors recommend a diet high on meats, despite there being clear proof of negative health implications involved, watch the groundbreaking documentary What the Health?
The shocking truth of what’s in meat
Extra secret ingredients that abound in meats include antibiotics, hormones, and steroids, as well as pesticides, herbicides, and traces of other toxins that are linked back to GMO feed.
All in all, there’s a total of 450 different drugs being administered to animals. In the United States 28.8 million pounds of antibiotics are sold to the animal agriculture industry every year, which translate into 80% of all antibiotics sold in the country.
Perhaps the most unsettling part of all is that there is insufficient to no research on how many of these drugs affect human health.
For those who would like to dig deeper into how this practice could pose serious threats to humans in the form of antimicrobial resistance, you can peek into the World Health Organization research on the topic (20).
As if that wasn’t enough, another harmful secret ingredient frequently found in meat and dairy products is dioxin.
This is one of the most toxic synthetic chemicals ever known to the human race, causing everything from endocrine disruption problems to cancer, and it turns out that 93% of dioxin exposure comes from eating animal products.
Men are completely unable to release dioxin from their bodies, whereas the only way women can is through breast milk or the placenta when pregnant, thereby directly affecting the baby.
For further information on dioxin please check out the European Commission’s fact sheet on the chemical (21).
Besides the established high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, when it comes to wild-caught fish, one should worry about substances such as mercury, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides and herbicides.
These bio-accumulate in the fish and, when eaten, end up in your body.
Farmed fish, on the other hand, pose the same problem as land raised meat. They are fed antibiotics to fight fungal and bacterial infections recurrent in the overcrowded cages.
Are we being fed sick animals?
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a Californian law looking to ban slaughterhouses from buying, butchering, or selling livestock not capable enough to walk for human consumption (22).
This decision that was taken after shedding light on the disturbing use of drug Ractopamine Hydrochloride, also known as Paylean by Elanco, a drug that is given to a range of 60% to 80% of pigs in the country.
Ractopamine imitates stress hormones, making the animals’ hearts beat faster while relaxing blood vessels.
The idea is to make the animals burn fat and, thus, add muscle weight while needing less food. Suppliers who use it claim earning a profit of $2.00 more per pig.
Documents from the FDA’S Center of Veterinary Medicine affirm that Elanco has received several reports of sickened animals, including some that are unable to walk, in slaughter plants.
Adverse effects have included hyperactivity, trembling and broken limbs, inability to walk, and death.
A commentary on ractopamine featured in a New York Times article by Iowa farmer, Bryan Karwal, affirmed that “it makes them really hyper – when I tried using it, I once went into my barn and my pigs were all standing on top of each other in one corner” (23).
China, Europe, Russia, along with 157 other countries around the world have banned the drug, including all import products that contain it.
Many other nations, however, still have not.
Plant-based substitutes for meat
To get your required daily protein intake, you can switch to plants and vegetables.
Aside from vitamin B12, a plant-based diet contains all the nutrients our bodies need to be healthy and strong.
For example, fruits and vegetables like oranges, tangerines, kiwis, kale, rocket, and spinach are high enough in calcium to meet our needs.
Lentils, beans, nuts and seeds, as well as mushrooms and potatoes are loaded with iron. And so it goes for every other required vitamin and mineral, as well as protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
In fact, every day there is more and more evidence on how the human body is actually made to thrive on a plant-based diet opposite to a meat and dairy based diet.
Watch cutting-edge documentary Food Choices to learn more about this! Or, you can also watch this video for more plant-based recipes you can try:
Beloved plant-based substitutes for meat often involve:
- Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
- Lentils and beans
When it comes to vitamin B12, the recommended daily intake is of 2.4 to 3 micrograms a day.
For those who choose eating a fully vegan diet, it can come from either fortified foods or supplements. Take a look at The Vegan Society’s vitamin B12 post for all you need to know about it (24).
Forks Over Knives also offers a brief beginner’s guide to starting a plant-based diet for all of those foodies who are looking to start anew (25).
It causes animal suffering
It would be incorrect to think that the suffering of these living creatures is merely restricted to their deaths.
Unfortunately, torture is the reality most of these animals experience throughout their entire lives. This is the effect that the current system has had on the overall welfare of farm animals.
How are farm animals treated?
Animal factory farming is often associated with maltreatment. Here are some of horrible truths:
Cows, for instance, are often brought up on a feedlot corn-heavy diet that ends up destroying their livers, because it is not a biologically-correct diet.
What happens is that the pH levels of the cows’ rumen begin to elevate, which eventually leads to a condition named acidosis.
Under this condition, the creatures start to produce an excess of saliva, paw at their abdomens, and eat dirt.
The cows’ bodily systems cannot survive long on this diet, so farmers resort to daily doses of antibiotics to keep them alive.
Now, it is calculated that more than 13% of feedlot cattle are found to have abscessed livers when slaughtered.
Chickens haven’t had their share of luck either.
For countless suppliers in the industry, for example, an A4-sized or less floor space per bird is more than “sufficient” to raise them.
Therefore, about 20,000 to 30,000 chickens are kept in closed confinement without ever having access to natural light.
These spaces are cleaned up once every cycle only, and so an unreasonable layer of excrement ends up accumulating on the floor.
Because this environment results in illness, farmers have to use antibiotics in ridiculous amounts.
Osteoporosis and salmonella are amongst the most common diseases found inside poultry factory farms. Heart attacks and swollen hearts, are two of the most common causes of death outside of slaughter.
Cruel actions such as the beating of chickens have also been reported at such facilities.
Tyson Foods, the world’s biggest chicken meat producer and supplier of fast food conglomerates like McDonald’s and KFC, has already been exposed by an undercover investigation led by Mercy For Animals.
The demand for meat is growing as population grows
According to the World Health Organization, yearly meat production is expected to hike from 218 million tons in 1997 to 376 million tons by 2030.
By 2050 this number is foreseen to reach an overwhelming 465 million tons or more.
As stated by this organization, population growth together with rising incomes and urbanization are the main drivers of this meat consumption upturn.
What impact will this have on future generations?
If all factors were to carry on a business as usual path, the livestock industry would be seizing exorbitant amounts of resources in the form of water, land, and even food.
All of which could be used to support the growing global population.
The effect on biodiversity, especially in tropical areas, would be devastating and would augment the possibilities of an ecological collapse.
Consequently, a domino effect that could lead to serious deterioration of the human society could be unleashed.
Particularly when pairing this scenario with a future that will, seemingly, have climate change as its protagonist.
Add on to this the upswing in polluted water and soil, as well as an increment in greenhouse gases, and a barren future for some of today’s and tomorrow’s generations is not far from reach.
The wall of shame: Who is responsible? (countries and regions)
Because supply naturally follows demand the top 20 responsible countries, or those who happen to eat the most meat, are:
|Rank||Country||Kg of meat per person per year|
|17||Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||91.4|
On the other side of the supply and demand coin, are those who produce the most meat. According to meat production statistics they are:
|Rank||Country||Percentage of production worldwide|
The hall of fame: Which countries are eating and producing less meat?
The plant-based meat-repellent champs are:
|Rank||Country||Kg of meat per person per year|
While the ones that produce less meat are:
|Rank||Country||Percentage of production worldwide|
|8||United Arab Emirates||0.03|
What positive impact would it have on the planet if humans were to considerably cut down on meat consumption?
Cutting down meat consumption offers a myriad of positive benefits for the planet, humans, and animals.
Not only would the act of cutting down on meat consumption considerably reduce human-related greenhouse gas emissions, but it would also help in diminishing water and soil pollution, preventing deforestation and the loss of biodiversity, as well as securing a decent future for generations to come.
Human health and wellbeing would abundantly benefit also, keeping at bay some of the most pressing health issues of today such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and obesity.
What can you do to support this issue?
Here are some things you can do to show your support on this issue:
The least we can all do to support this issue is to communicate the reality of what is going on to others. Don’t sweat it… the facts will do all the talking, so there will be no convincing left to do.
Limit your meat consumption
If you are not ready to go vegetarian or vegan, don’t worry! Simply come up with a couple of meat-free days each week.
Once you get the hold of exquisite vegetarian and vegan recipes, and start feeling the benefits of a non-carnivorous diet, you may want to go all the way.
Every purchase is a vote.
Therefore, purchase organic whenever you can, whether it is meat, grains, fruits or vegetables.
This is one of the most effective ways we can speak out loud as customers and ask for what we, and all these farm animals deserve: a dignified life, health and wellbeing.
Bottom line: Should you give up eating meat?
Let’s wrap it up by calling things by their names…
Are we willing to give up fresh water, the beauty of our forests, the wonders of our oceans, the beatings of an endless number of living creatures, the possibility of a bearable future in this planet, and our own health to have pieces of dead flesh on our dinner tables every single day?
Share your answer to this question (as well as any other meat-relevant thoughts or doubts) on the comment section below.
If you found this article useful, please don’t forget to share it!
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