Meat has long been considered a staple of the American diet, but an increasingly large number of studies are shining a light on its negative impacts. Whether you’re concerned about your health, animal welfare, or the environment, there’s good reason to consider reducing meat consumption.
Today we’ll look at one aspect of meat production (i.e., environmental impact, animal welfare). We’ll show how meat contributes to environmental problems (water pollution, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions) and how it may be harmful to health.
“Much meat, much malady.”
~ Thomas Fuller, English clergyman (1608-1661)
For decades, America has been known for its burgers, barbecues, and bacon cheeseburgers. That’s not about to change anytime soon: Americans love their meat.
But recent research suggests that our love of animal products is not without consequence.
Whether it’s greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, or energy use, meat production significantly impacts our environment.
In light of the growing environmental movement and the increasing number of Americans eating less meat, it may be time to reevaluate how much meat we eat—and what kind of meat we buy.
According to a 2009 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, and other forms of transportation combined. The livestock sector may be responsible for as much as 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The environmental impacts of meat production
One of the main issues with meat is its impact on the environment.
Most studies show that meat production uses large amounts of water, energy, and crops. It also creates excess nitrogen in wastewater, which contributes to overfertilization—a significant problem for water pollution.
Meat produces more greenhouse gas emissions than vegetable protein production, including transportation. One analysis estimated that 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by meat production.
A 2006 report by the United Nations concluded that livestock is responsible for 40% of the world’s methane emissions, which have 20 times the environmental impact of carbon dioxide.
The largest sources are “enteric fermentation” in cattle (i.e., burps) and the decomposition of manure. In addition to methane gas, animal waste releases ammonia and nitrous oxide—greenhouse gases that also contribute to climate change.
So what can we do? Adopting a vegetarian lifestyle is one way many people reduce their environmental impact. But you don’t have to become a full-time vegan to make a difference.
A 2008 study found that the average American would see an immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions if they simply ate one less burger per week. And 2013, research from the University of Chicago concluded that going vegetarian just once a week would be enough to cut your carbon footprint by 60%.
In addition, scientists advise choosing more efficient meats. Beef, for example, requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water than pork or chicken to produce. And it’s important to remember that beef cattle are not as efficient as other animals.
For instance, cows need six pounds of grain and 2,500 gallons of water to make one pound of beef, whereas pigs only require three pounds of feed and 1,000 gallons of water for the same weight gain.
The health costs of meat consumption
In addition to environmental concerns, it’s important to consider the health risks associated with a high-meat diet. Some studies suggest that increased consumption of red meat is linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.
In fact, according to a 2011 Center for Disease Control and Prevention report, around 34% of all U.S. adults have one or more types of cardiovascular disease, which can be partially attributed to poor eating habits. In addition, the link between red meat and cancer is so strong that most dietary guidelines recommend limiting your intake.
The World Health Organization even declared red meat as a possible carcinogen.
Another 2013 study by the journal Nature found that processed meats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, while unprocessed red meat only poses a slight increase in cardiovascular diseases.
And it’s not just your health on the line—animal welfare is at stake, too.
The meat industry has a disastrous track record regarding animal welfare. Indeed, the industry is so cruel that the American Veterinary Medical Association deemed tail docking (i.e., removing a cow’s tail) and castration without anesthesia as ” unacceptable .”
In addition, nearly all U.S. meat companies use growth hormones—such as estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol—to make their animals grow faster. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has stated that “growth-promoting hormones are not antibiotics.” It turns out that these substances may also pose a threat to human health.
While it’s essential to consider the negative impacts of meat production, you can take steps to limit the environmental impact. Eating less meat is one of the most effective ways for individuals to lower their carbon footprints—and it may even help improve health.
With the global human population estimated to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, many experts question whether we can continue to feed everyone a meat-centered diet.
Animal agriculture is an inefficient use of water and other precious resources that directly contribute to greenhouse emissions and climate change. Reducing our per capita consumption of animal-based foods is one of the most effective ways to reduce the environmental impacts of the food we eat.