Environmental concerns of eating meat

In the second episode of the SBS documentary ‘the truth about meat’, Michael Mosley explored the environmental implications of our appetite for red meat. Michael reported that one third of the world’s crops are fed to animals reared for meat and a third of our total land mass is dedicated to producing meat. So what does this mean for our environment and what can we do about it?

Our consumption of meat raises health issues, which were covered in last weeks post, as well as ethical and environmental questions. Each year a staggering number of animals are slaughtered for meat including:

  • 300 million cattle
  • 1.4 billion pigs
  • I billion sheep and goats
  • 5 million horses
  • 2 million camels
  • 3.5 billion ducks and turkeys
  • 60 billion chickens

Unfortunately our desire for eating meat is contributing to environmental concerns through land clearance, growth of crops, water usage, land degradation and methane produced by livestock. Methane is 25 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. It is estimated that an average cow has the same carbon footprint as a family car in the United Kingdom.

Intensive cattle production

America has introduced intensive cattle farming, also known as feedlot farming, to meet the growing demands for red meat. Cattle raised in feedlots produce up to 50% less methane than pasture raised animals. This reduction is due to their diet and their shorter life. They reach slaughter weight sooner than animals reared by traditional farming methods. On the negative side these animals are given antibiotics and hormones. A move away from a mostly grass diet also impacts on the nutritional quality of the meat. The full implications on our health are still unknown. From an ethical perspective, we have to question the welfare of animals raised in such environments.

Can we eat less meat?

Eating less meat is the opposite of the worldwide trend. As an example, in China during the 1960s, the average meat consumption was 4 kg per year, whereas it is now 55kg per year. When we take into consideration population growth, plus a desire to eat more meat, it becomes apparent that it is not possible to sustain increased levels of livestock farming to meet the expanding demand. By reducing the average consumption of meat to 40kg per person per year (about 100g per day) animals could be reared without further land clearance. The smaller number of animals could graze on existing grass and pasture without the need for crop feed. This reduces carbon emissions through less land clearance, crop production and methane.

How much meat we eat and the type of meat raises health, environmental and ethical issues. In some respects it is a personal choice, but we also need to be able to stand back and view the global picture. In next weeks post I will share ways to enjoy food that is good for your health and that of our planet

SBS The truth about meat  – episode 2

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