The environmental impact of meat consumption

The livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole. Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases (GHG) and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution.

In 2014, the average American consumed 198 pounds of meat. This is not a new trend. We've long been referred to by our European counterparts as a 'nation of meat eaters'. And why not? Humans are programmed to eat meat, to seek more and more protein because the ones that do so successfully are often larger and have evolutionary advantages. Its only recently that being large isn't directly tied to your likelihood of survival.

Throughout history the wealthy and powerful have rewarded themselves with more access to meat. In Medieval times only nobles were allowed to hunt in forests - the poor were expected to subsist on vegetables, grains and fruits for the most part and could only afford meat on very special occasions such as Christmas. Hence the Christmas ham. 

Animal meat from chickens, beef, and pigs are all rich sources of protein and iron. They are also 'resource inefficient' protein sources, which means it takes a lot of water and land to produce a rather small amount of protein. This was never a problem for the majority of human history, as the global population of humans was relatively small and most people on the planet were too poor to afford the amount of meat that Americans eat. This is changing rapidly however.

The growing global demand for meat

There's a correlation between how much money people have and how much meat they consume. Nowhere is this more true than in the world's most populous nation - China. With over 1.3 billion people, China's meat consumption has increased by over 800% in the past 40 years. This increase has happened in conjunction with its rapid economic rise. The graph below shows how China has surpassed even the US substantially in meat consumption:

Keep in mind that 150 years ago, the entire world had a smaller population than China does today. As other third world countries emerge from poverty and become wealthier, their meat consumption will likely rise. That is, of course, if humanity doesn't come up with an alternative protein resource that appeals to the masses. If we don't the environmental cost will be significant.

The environmental cost of meat, calculated

We're going to do a very basic estimation of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the US alone. Again, the average American eats 198 pounds of meat a year or 90 kilograms. Here's the data on how much resources are used to produce just one kilogram of meat:

1 kg of meat Water used (ltr)  Land Used (acres) CO2 Produced (grams)
Chicken 4,325 288 300
Pork 5,988 749 1,130
Beef
15,415
1,345
2,850
Average 8,576 794 1487


Let's assume for discussion sake that American meat consumption is split evenly between the three types of meat above. That would mean per year each of us is producing 134 kilograms of CO2 with our eating meat eating (well over our contribution from driving and most other activities). Our nation as a whole is producing 43 billion kilograms of CO2 from meat eating. If the rest of the world starts eating even half as much meat per person, we'll be chocking on an extra 500 billion kilograms of CO2 per year over the next few decades.

The easiest way to save the planet

By changing the way we produce and consume protein, human beings can drastically reduce global warming and environmental destruction from over farming. Changing how we eat would have a much greater benefit to the world than reducing manufacturing, car driving, and other things that would significantly change and limit our lifestyle. 

Let's assume our population made the following two changes to our meat eating habits:

  1. Reduced our farm animal consumption by 50%, and replaced that protein with enviro-friendly plants and insects
  2. Eliminated beef from our diet and switched to chicken and pork

This behavioral change would reduce our meat related CO2 output by around 75%, bringing it down from 134kg/year to 37kg/year. This is the sort of change that, if realized globally, would prevent the expansion of global warming and reduce some of the damage that has already occurred.

The bottom line

We think responsible meat consumption is a part of human life that no one should feel guilty over it. At the same time we want to encourage our readers to think about their food like they think about their car.

Sure - drive a car. You don't need to drive an H2 Hummer. You can drive a Chevrolet Bolt, a Tesla, a Hybrid etc. 

Likewise, you can help save the planet by avoiding beef and replacing some farm animal meat with alternatives like insect meat. Full disclosure, we're a bit biased about that insect thing! 

Sources:

1. White, Robin R., and Mary Beth Hall. “Nutritional and Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Removing Animals from US Agriculture.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 28 Nov. 2017, www.pnas.org/content/114/48/E10301.

2. "Global Meat Consumption will Soar." www.pri.org/stories/2015-12-01/global-meat-consumption-will-soar-2024-what-meat-eaten-makes-big-difference.

3. “Climate and Environmental Impacts.” EWG, www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/a-meat-eaters-guide-to-climate-change-health-what-you-eat-matters/climate-and-environmental-impacts/.

4. “How Much Water Is Needed to Produce Food and How Much Do We Waste?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 Jan. 2013, www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/jan/10/how-much-water-food-production-waste.

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