Have you ever wondered what impact our meat eating habits have on the environment? Or about the animals we raise and kill for their meat? I didn’t, until a few years ago.
Like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we are omnivorous which means we can eat meat and plants for food.
Unlike our ancestors, nowadays, most Americans “hunt” our meat at the grocery market or a restaurant. We are far, far removed from how our meat is raised, killed, and processed.
Education of a Meat Eater
As a child, I grew up eating meat, mostly chicken, beef, pork, and turkey. As an adult, I continued similar eating habits. I knew animals were raised and killed specifically for our food but didn’t think much about it. The environmental impact of eating meat was not on my radar screen.
There was never one of those aha moments where I suddenly looked at eating meat in a different light. It was a series of events, bits of information, my growing interest in the environment in general, and a dinner conversation with my oldest son.
At the time, he was taking a food sociology class to fulfill a college social science requirement. During one of his visits home, he talked about industrialized meat production and how corn is in just about every food Americans eat nowadays. I was fascinated and appalled. I wanted to know more so started reading books, watching videos, and reading articles on the Internet.
Environmental Impact of Meat
Our meat eating ways have a significant impact on the environment including greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and pollution, and land use.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Greenhouse gases trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere and contribute to global warming which affects rainfall, sea levels, ecosystems, and our ability to continue to live on the planet. Let’s look at how several greenhouse gases are emitted as a result of livestock production (animals raised for meat and dairy).
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) – burning fossil fuels and deforestation are major causes of CO2 emissions. Power plants that burn fossil fuels provide energy to factories that make farm equipment and supplies, fertilizers and pesticides for feed crops, and process and package meat. Fossil fuels run farm equipment and trucks that transport supplies, animals, and meat. When forests are cut down to clear land to graze animals or grow crops to feed them, fewer trees are available to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
Methane (CH4) – Cows, goats, and sheep are ruminants which mean they have a special digestion system that enables them to turn grass into food. Unfortunately, this results in the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Animal waste that is collected in large amounts and allowed to decompose anaerobically also releases methane.
Nitrous Oxide (N2O) – fertilizer used to grow crops for humans and animal feed is the main source of nitrous oxide emissions.
According to a 2006 report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This figure considers the entire commodity chain.1
An excerpt from The Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eaters Guide puts things in perspective.2
“If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.”
Water Usage and Pollution
Livestock production accounts for over 8% of global human water use; mostly to irrigate feed crops.3 Livestock represents a significant source of water pollution. Contaminants from animal waste and fertilizer and pesticide residue from feed crops leach into the soil and run off from fields, pastures, and feedlots into rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Meat has a big water footprint. For example, the global average water footprint of beef is 1,849 gallons / pound of which 99% is used to grow feed for the cows.4 The water involved in producing an 8-ounce steak is equivalent to the household water use of one person for 9.2 days (EPA estimates an average family of 4 uses 400 gallons of water a day5).
Feeding the World Meat
A June 2012 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations entitled World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050 provides a worldwide perspective on the earth’s capacity for feeding the 9.3 billion people that are expected to inhabit the earth by 2050.
If current trends continue, a higher percentage of people will be eating meat as regular part of their diet. As the demand for meat grows, livestock production in developing countries will move away from small farms to the industrialized processes used in developed countries.
- Global meat consumption is expected to increase from 85.3 pounds per person per year (38.7 kg / capita) in 2007 to 108.9 pounds (49.4 kg / capita) in 2050.6
- About 36% of the world consumption of cereal grains goes to feed to animals.7
- Livestock production is the world’s largest user of land, directly through grazing and indirectly through consumption of fodder and feed grain.8
Today, the majority of animals raised for food spend most if not all their lives crammed in with thousands of other animals, often under inhumane conditions, and are fed food they wouldn’t normally eat. Does a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) seem like a nice place to live to you? It isn’t, and this method of meat production is especially hard on the environment.
As a result of what I’ve learned, I changed my meat eating habits and they continue to evolve. I try to purchase grass fed, pasture raised, organic meat whenever possible and eat substantially less meat. Take this opportunity to evaluate your own meat eating habits and determine if a change is in order.
- Meatless Monday – More Fruits and Veggies Monday
- Vat Meat, Cultured Meat, In Vitro Meat – Would You Eat It?
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (p. xxi)
- Environmental Working Group – Meat Eater’s Guide: Report
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (p. xxii)
- Water Footprint Network – Product Gallery, Beef
- U.S. EPA WaterSense – Indoor Water Use in the United States
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050 (p. 20)
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050 (p. 69)
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050 (p. 132)
- Center for Investigative Reporting – The Hidden Cost of Hamburgers (a short animated overview of industrial meat production)
- Environmental Working Group – Meat Eater’s Guide: Report (good infographic)
- Food, Inc. (an excellent documentary film about industrial meat production and corporate agriculture, don’t watch before eating)
- United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) – Growing greenhouse gas emissions due to meat production
- U.S. EPA – Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data
- U.S. EPA – National Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data
- U.S. EPA – Overview of Greenhouse Gases – Methane Emissions
- Wikipedia – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)