The scale of the problems we face can make many of us feel helpless, and yet each of us has the power to make changes in our lives that can have a meaningful impact on the future.
Depending on where and how it is produced the FAO estimates that the livestock industry is responsible for between 13.5 and 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the UK livestock are responsible for around 8.5 per cent of GHG emissions. Some of these are from the methane emitted from livestock. Methane is 23 times more powerful as a global warming gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). Other emissions such as nitrous oxide come from the manure produced by ruminants and other animals such as poultry and pigs. Nitrous oxide – has 298 times the global warming potential of CO2. Still more GHGs come from the fertilisers used to grow animal feed, and from processing storage and transport of meat products as well as from the clearing of rainforest to make room for livestock. Beef is the most energy intensive of all the meats we eat. According to environmental group Greenpeace eating 1kg of beef (the average weekly intake of meats of all types in the UK is between 1kg and 1.6 kg) represents roughly the same greenhouse emissions as flying 100km of a flight, per passenger; this is twice the carbon footprint of eating pigs or poultry.
Researchers at the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Tsukuba, Japan, agree. In 2007 they found that producing 1kg of beef results in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the amount of CO2 emitted by the average car over a distance of 250 kilometres.
Making a political statement
Politicians follow. They don’t lead. And because of meat’s association with affluence and the fear that asking people to eat less meat might make them unpopular, most politicians shy away form this issue. Unlike oil, the price of meat has remained relatively stable for many years. It is unlikely, due to the heavy subsidies given to livestock farmers, that big price rises will force consumers into eating less – in the way that they have been used to prod us into driving less. So the best hope for change lies in average people becoming more aware of the true costs of industrial meat production and taking action themselves.
Alleviating world hunger
Meat producers are hoping to double the global production of meat by 2050. But this is not inevitable – or desirable. Animals convert plant protein and energy into meat protein and energy inefficiently; it takes 8 kg of grain, for instance, to produce 1kg of beef. This means that anyone who consumes large amounts of meat – pretty much the whole of the industrialised world – may be consuming a disproportionate amounts of the world’s available nutrients.
Currently some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, while the majority of corn and soya grown in the world – which could be feeding them, goes to feed cattle, pigs and chickens. By some estimates 20 vegetarians can be fed on the amount of land needed to feed one person consuming a meat-based diet.
Growing crops to feed animals means there is less land on which to grow crops for humans. The knock-on effect of any increase in meat production is likely to reduce the land and resources available for producing other foodstuffs and push future food prices further beyond the limits of affordability for the world’s poorest people.
Most of us eat more meat and other protein rich foods than we need to stay healthy. In 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund report recommended limiting the consumption of red meats such as beef, pork ad lamb because of a ‘convincing’ link with colorectal cancer. Links have also been found between high meat diets and obesity and heart disease.
Remember also that climate change is a threat to our future health. As the world warms up it is likely that levels of air pollution, and thus allergies and respiratory diseases, will rise, as will the rate of infectious diseases.
Protecting animal rights
According to the Worldwatch Institute, globally some 56 billion animals are raised and slaughtered for food each year. Of these 67 per cent are grown on industrial ‘factory’ farms. Factory farms are sources of cruelty and waste on scales unimaginable to most of us. These facilities rely on commercial breeds of animals that gain weight quickly on unnatural diets of high-protein feeds. Here animals live in crowded, stressful and often unhygienic conditions. Many of the world’s 17 billion chickens, for instance, each live in an area that is less than the size of a sheet of paper. Cattle in such farms often stand knee-high in their own waste.
Under such conditions, animals are kept ‘healthy’ with regular doses of antibiotics – traces of which can remain in the meat we eat, and which have been associated with the rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria in animals and humans.
Filed Under: Environment