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Is eating meat bad for the environment?

We take a look at whether eating meat is bad for you or the environment and how you can make your diet more sustainable.

Eating Meat Environment

Our diets play a significant role in areas such as our culture, entertainment, and wellbeing. We have more choice than ever before about how and what we eat, yet a growing population means extra resources are needed. But does that mean that eating meat is bad for the environment? 

We look at how the global meat industry impacts the planet and some of the arguments for and against eating meat. We explore whether it’s bad for you and the environment and some alternatives to eating meat. 

A brief history of meat-eating 

When did humans start eating meat? It’s a question that anthropologists have been exploring for many years now. By studying the teeth of human ancestors known as hominins and the cut marks on the bones of large herbivores, experts suggest that human ancestors began eating meat in their diet around 2.6 million years ago. 

While these ancient ancestors were most likely scavenging for meat rather than hunting for it, it’s thought that the energy-rich protein source played an essential part in our evolution. Our modern brains require a lot of energy, and some experts suggest that meat played a role in boosting our energy intake, helping our brains evolve to be bigger and more complex. 

Eating meat also meant changes in the digestive tract. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the gut shrunk in human ancestors, meaning more energy was available for the brain. Cooking, a practice that dates back at least 800,000 years, made meat more digestible. 

By the time Homo Sapiens emerged around 300,000 years ago, hunting and gathering were common. Our ancestors continued to eat meat, plants, nuts, pulses and fruits, until the introduction of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago. This was when we switched to a more narrow diet of cultivated wheat, barley, oats, rice or corn, depending on location. 

Meat became a luxury in many cultures, only enjoyed on special occasions. However, in modern times, it can be found in abundance around the world. In 2019 alone, an estimated 325 million metric tons of meat was produced. 

Arguments for and against eating meat

Our diets are a highly personal thing. However, it can also be something that we take for granted. Often, this leads to quite large differences in opinion and controversies, particularly on the subject of meat consumption. 

Should we stop eating meat altogether? Or are there benefits of eating meat? There are rarely simple answers to such questions, and there are arguments for eating meat and those against it. Below, we’ve briefly looked at some of these arguments: 

Arguments for eating meat 

The majority of the world’s population eats meat of some kind. A 2018 global survey by market research specialist Ipsos found that 73% of the world’s population was omnivorous, regularly eating both animal and non-animal products. Here are some of the arguments for eating meat: 

  • The nutritional value. As our open step on livestock farming and the environment outlines, meat is rich in protein, amino acids and several essential micronutrients. The EAT-Lancet Commission found that meat and dairy can constitute important parts of the diet but in significantly smaller proportions than whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. 
  • Culture and society. Animals are often used as crucial assets and investments in developing countries. They can be a vital part of the economy, particularly in highly rural communities. 
  • Land usage. Ruminants, grazing animals such as sheep and cows, have evolved to live on marginal lands which are otherwise useless for agriculture. They also largely consume a plant that cannot be eaten by humans– grass.

Arguments against eating meat

Although diets based on animal products are popular, there is a rising number of those who choose not to eat meat, fish, dairy and eggs. In the UK alone, data from 2018 showed that there were 600,000 vegans in the country, up from around 150,000 in 2006. There are plenty of reasons against meat consumption: 

  • Health risks. Diets high in red and processed meats, high-fat dairy foods, processed foods, and sugar are associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancers. Diets rich in fibre, fruit, and vegetables are associated with a reduced risk of these diseases.
  • Animal welfare. The drive towards lower-cost meat and milk is leading to intensive farming. To maintain low running costs, some farming practices restrict animal behaviour and compromise their health and welfare.
  • Sustainability. A 2020 report from IDTechEx found that the meat industry is unsustainable, since animal livestock uses a disproportionately large amount of land. Despite using 77% of agricultural land, only 17% of global caloric consumption comes from animals. 
  • Environmental impacts. As outlined in our open step on controversies in the food system, livestock production methods are considered one of the main drivers of environmental damage, including climate change and biodiversity loss.

The environmental impact of eating meat 

The last two points in our list of the pros and cons of eating meat have had particular attention in recent years. With issues of climate change and sustainability becoming increasingly urgent, many experts advise us to try and limit our consumption of meat. So what is the environmental impact of eating meat? 

In reality, several factors related to the production of meat contribute to its global environmental impact. We’ve highlighted some of these below:  

Deforestation 

The production of meat is, directly and indirectly, related to the loss of forests in South America. According to the WWF, beef and soy production are responsible for deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest and other areas of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. 

Vast swathes of the Amazon are being cleared of habitat for cattle farming and the production of soybean for animal feed. Often, deforested areas are cleared using fire. This burning releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere while also removing a CO2 sink. 

Biodiversity loss 

It’s not just forests that are in danger from the meat industry. As land is repurposed to raise animals and grow soybean, many habitats are destroyed or impacted. Many species face extinction or are under threat due to the destruction of natural environments. 

Estimates suggest that around half of the planet’s habitable land is used for agriculture, with roughly 77% of this used by grazing cattle, sheep, goats, and other livestock. You can learn more about ecology and wildlife conservation with our free online course. 

Greenhouse gas emissions

Meat consumption is responsible for releasing greenhouse gases such as methane, CO2, and nitrous oxide. These gases contribute to climate change, such as global warming. Livestock farming contributes to these greenhouse gases in several ways: 

  • The destruction of forest ecosystems. As mentioned above, this process releases enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. 
  • Raising livestock. Animals such as cows and sheep create large amounts of methane as they digest food. 
  • Decaying manure. The manure that ruminant animals produce also releases methane. 
  • Fertiliser use. Many fertilisers used in soybean production are nitrogen-based, and these produce nitrous oxide emissions. 

Water usage 

It takes a lot of water to produce meat, and beef is the most water-intensive food. It requires two times more water to produce beef than pork and four times more than alternative protein sources such as lentils. 

The issue is further compounded because soybean farming (for animal feed) is relatively inefficient when it comes to water usage. Livestock production also contributes to water pollution around the world because manure contaminates watercourses.

You can learn more about the connection between life and the Earth’s various systems and gain new insights into the natural environment with our online course. 

Soil degradation 

Raising animals often requires a lot of grazing land. However, the intensive nature of this grazing can lead to bare soil, which is then often lost due to wind or rain. As a result, fertile lands become barren, waterways become clogged, and there is an increased risk of flooding. 

Soil is also a large reservoir for carbon, absorbing it as plants and trees die. As soil is lost, it releases that carbon as CO2 into the atmosphere. Animal agriculture, deforestation, and other land-use changes that reduce soil have been the second-largest contributors to CO2 emissions globally. 

Discover the importance of soil and how our activities impact it with our free course, Soil & the World Beneath Our Feet. 

Climate change 

Ultimately, the factors that we’ve outlined so far contribute to climate change. 

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, the meat and dairy industry accounts for roughly 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As we explored in our post on reducing your carbon footprint, the link between carbon emissions and climate change is undeniable. 

Is eating meat bad for the planet? 

The evidence above all seems fairly conclusive, and there is plenty of science and research to back it up. The scale and intensity of meat production, combined with projected population growth estimates, shows that current practices are bad for the environment. 

Should I stop eating meat then? 

There is no precise answer to this question. It ultimately comes down to your personal choice. While we’ve covered a lot of the environmental factors related to eating meat, we haven’t looked in any great detail about the ethical and cultural elements. 

However, several reports and studies, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on climate change and land, recommend reducing meat consumption. 

Although experts involved with the report don’t want to tell people what to eat, they do highlight that “it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect”. 

So, although individual choice plays a significant role in reducing meat consumption, it is also the responsibility of governments and organisations to make policy changes. 

What kind of diet is best for the environment? 

As we explored in our post on how to build a sustainable diet, there are quite a few suggestions as to what a sustainable diet includes. However, generally, it relates to the type of food we eat, as well as how it’s grown, distributed, and packaged. 

The FAO and WHO highlights that a sustainable diet has several notable features: 

  • Includes wholegrains, legumes, nuts and an abundance and variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Can include moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, poultry and fish, and small amounts of red meat
  • Minimises the use of antibiotics and hormones in food production
  • Minimises the use of plastics and derivatives in food packaging
  • Reduces food loss and waste

Other experts, such as the EAT Forum, suggest that our diets should shift towards flexitarian. This means that individuals should eat more vegetarian foods, with small amounts of fish and meat. For eating meat, a general guideline is one beef burger a week or one large steak a month

So, at a time where we’re all having to face up to a climate emergency, eating less meat could undoubtedly help. With our course on the future of food and sustainability, you can learn more about how we can all eat more sustainably. 

Alternatives to meat 

As we’ve already established, meat can provide protein, amino acids and several essential micronutrients to our diets. So if we’re reducing consumption, what are some alternatives to meat? As we explore in our open step on the pros and cons of alternative proteins, there are several options: 

  • Plant-based proteins. Foods such as quinoa, soy, seitan, walnut, and amaranth can provide a rich source of protein and other nutrients. 
  • Algae. With algae, we get a good source of protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids and fibre. It’s also rich in vitamin B12. It also has a higher yield per unit area than other high-protein crops. 
  • Insects. Edible insects are not only a healthy source of protein and minerals, but their commercial production has a much lower impact on the environment than meat in terms of greenhouse gas emission and water consumption.
  • Cultured meat. Meat produced by in vitro cell culture of animal cells could be a food of the future. It uses less land and water and reduces the need for grazing livestock. The nutritional content can be tailored, food-borne diseases can be eliminated, and fewer antimicrobials are needed. 

Of course, none of these alternatives come without potential downsides. Some production processes haven’t been tested on a larger scale, and the cost and health implications aren’t fully understood. 

If you’re looking to find out more about what a healthy diet looks like, our course on nutrition and cooking provides further information. 

Final thoughts 

As we’ve seen, eating meat is bad for the environment at the scale and intensity we collectively are. By damaging ecosystems and releasing greenhouse gases, the global meat industry is contributing to climate change. What’s more, with the world’s population predicted to continue growing, we will need to feed more and more people. The impact of meat on the environment is not currently sustainable. 

By reducing the amount of meat we eat and striving for a more sustainable diet, we can each help to reduce the damage to the environment. And, while there are pros and cons of eating meat, more people are choosing to cut it out entirely. As new technology and legislation are introduced, we can all make a difference in protecting the planet with our dietary choices.

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