The Environmental Impact of Meat
I’m part of a sustainable Facebook group where lately, there have been some heated discussions about the environmental impact of the meat industry. Many argue that meat and dairy have less impact than vegan food, but it’s not that simple.
When it comes to eating animal products, buying small, organic-farm-raised meat and dairy directly from farmers has a lower impact. Local, organic farmers tend to avoid giving their animals pharmaceuticals and hormones and feeding them with synthetic feed. And they generally aren’t cutting down acres of trees for pasture.
When it comes to vegan food, it all depends on whether the food is highly processed and world imported. My family prefers to eat locally grown, minimally processed food, which is much better for the environment.
The sad fact is that meat has between three and 60 times higher climate impact per kilogram than plant-based protein sources. This is because cows, sheep, and other ruminant animals exhale methane, which “in the short term is worse than carbon dioxide.” It also takes enormous amounts of feed to raise our meat animals—and energy to heat the barns. At our world in data you can actually see charts of the carbon footprint of different foods, meat and vegetables.
While local, organic beef may have less impact, most people do not eat meat or dairy from small organic farms but rather from factory farms.
Factory farms are incredibly damaging to the health of our planet. Here’s why—
The entire basis for factory farms is to provide cheap food at high volumes for a large number of people. To profit, factory owners take shortcuts at the expense of both farm animals and the environment.
Factory farms are a significant source of land and water degradation.
Meat production requires a tremendous amount of water and land, and factory farming is a key factor in the deforestation happening worldwide, most notably in Latin America. On average, every eighteen seconds, one hectare of rainforest is lost to cattle ranchers. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 70 percent of the Amazon forest has been turned into land for grazing.
In the quest to produce cheaper meat, factory farms feed animals hormones so they will grow faster and bigger. The animals also live in small, confined areas, causing disease outbreaks, for which they’re continually fed low doses of antibiotics. All these medications cause considerable damage to our ecosystem and our bodies.
Factory-farmed animals are treated horribly from the time they are born until they go to slaughter. Female animals are repeatedly impregnated, and their babies are taken from them minutes after birth. Male animals usually are killed for meat. When we demand cheap food, we allow these practices to continue. Ultimately, the animals and the environment pay the ultimate price for our luxury.
Let’s talk about waste.
With the mass production of meat comes lots of animal waste.
Manure produces methane, a “greenhouse gas” that damages the ozone layer, leading to overheating the planet.
Factory-farmed animals produce three times more waste than people, which is stored in huge so-called lagoons that are outdoors and uncovered. Often, they are as big as several football fields and are unfortunately prone to leaks and spills that contaminate and damage the environment. In 2011, a mishap at an Illinois hog farm caused 200,000 gallons of manure to spill into a creek, resulting in the death of 110,000 fish.
Waste doesn’t just apply to animal waste. Half of all grain crops produced in the world are being used to feed the world’s 65 billion farm animals instead of the 795 million people in the world who are starving.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the beef industry that causes damage to the planet—all types of animal agriculture are major contributors to global warming. Animal agriculture is the leading source of overfishing, destruction of wildlife, deforestation, and depletion of freshwater resources to hydrate livestock or irrigate fodder.
Climate scientists say curbing global warming is difficult, but it has to be done. One thing we humans can do is simply to eat less meat—all kinds of meat.
Becoming a vegan or vegetarian might not be the right choice for everyone, but simply going meatless a day or two per week can help our planet and greatly reduce global warming. If you’re interested in plant-based food as a family learn more how my family eat and see an example of a meal plan here
Read my post about the use of antibiotics in meat here