Meat and the environment
You might have heard meat is bad for the environment, but why is eating meat having such a serious impact on the world? Well, the reasons and impacts are numerous and differ between farming methods used and the type of meat produced, but here are a few of the general impacts meat has on the environment.
Deforestation occurs not only for pasture land but also to grow crops for livestock to eat
Forests are cut down and cleared to be converted to pasture land and living space for cattle to graze. Deforestation reduces what is left of already limited and fragmented habitats that plants and animals live in.
Deforestation occurs not only for pasture land but also to grow crops for livestock to eat, particularly in intensive farming where animals don’t graze. Large areas of South America are being deforested to grow soy for the purpose of feeding livestock.
The production of meat uses substantially more water than the production of vegetables.
The production of meat uses substantially more water than the production of vegetables. This is because the livestock animals, like humans, need to drink to stay hydrated throughout their lives and also eat crops which require water to produce. There are also other water costs incurred by activities such as cleaning living areas. Only a tiny fraction of water on Earth is accessible and safe to drink, and the production of meat requires a significant proportion of this potable water.
Pollution: waste products enter water bodies…suffocating all life in the water.
Pesticides and fertilisers used in crop production for livestock food and the manure and urine waste created enter the environment and can cause a lot of damage. For example when these waste products enter water bodies, they can cause eutrophication where the algae in the water blooms then dies and results in anoxic conditions in the water, suffocating all life in the water.
the emissions produced by the meat industry top the emissions produced by cars.
Beef production is responsible for producing a significant amount of the greenhouse gas, methane. Methane is a problem because it contributes to global warming which threatens biodiversity. This particularly creates issues for species like sea turtles where the sex of hatchlings is determined by temperature. Other greenhouse gases are also produced through meat production and in such great quantities that the emissions produced by the meat industry top the emissions produced by cars.
Meat uses a lot more energy to produce than fruit and veg.
Meat uses a lot more energy to produce than fruit and veg. This is because livestock such as pigs, cows and sheep need to be fed crop food for the duration of their life before slaughter.
A greater number of people can be sustained on a vegetarian diet than a meat-eating one
The crops produced for livestock food could be eaten directly by humans and would feed more people than the resulting meat product could. A greater number of people can be sustained on a vegetarian diet than a meat-eating one for this reason. And given the unrelenting increase in human population numbers, reduced meat in our diets will become a necessity. This follows a simple ecological relationship that dictates the primary producers (plants) have the largest population to support a smaller population of herbivores; this in turn supports an even smaller population of carnivores.
The production of meat brings farmers into conflict with wild carnivores.
The production of meat brings farmers into conflict with wild carnivores. Big cats and other wild carnivores may attempt to take livestock – an easy meal. This can lead to farmers killing these carnivores which can often be threatened species. The deforestation and fragmentation of natural habitats means that wild carnivores are coming into closer contact with farmlands.
What about dairy?
It doesn’t end with meat consumption. The production of dairy equally uses substantial water, land and brings native animals into conflict with farmers. The badger cull in the UK this year is a prime example of native biodiversity suffering because of our food production system. Reducing or eliminating meat and dairy from your diet mitigates these human-wildlife conflicts and conserves water and energy used in the process.
• Rai, R, Chakraborty R, and P. Shrestha. 2013. Human-Wildlife Conflict: Challenges for Conservation and Livelihood Security in Sikkim and Darjeeling. Indian Mountain Initiative, Sustainable Mountain Development Summit, May 25 – 26, 2013.