Meat and Sustainability: What you need to know

It’s sometimes difficult to discuss meat-eating without getting emotional. But we’re not going to get into ethics here – everyone has their own feelings on the rights, feelings, and needs of animals. What’s harder to argue however, is the issue of sustainability. ‘Environmental Vegetarianism’ is a choice being made by more and more consumers in the west, and when you look at the facts, it becomes easy to see why: because even if your conscience can live with it, if seems the planet might not be able to.

When we think about environmental damage and what we can do to curb it, recycling and making smarter transport choices easily come to mind. What most people fail to realise however, is that our appetite for meat is a driving force behind almost every major category of environmental damage. The demand for meat has increased 5-fold in the past 50 years. This means that there is more and more pressure on the availability of water, land, feed, fertilizer, fuel, waste disposal capacity, and most of the other limited resources of the planet.

More chickens are killed in the US every year than there are people in the world, and there are one billion cattle alive, weighing twice as much as the human population. Livestock is the world’s largest land user, and forest is being cut down at an alarming rate to accommodate cattle. On top of that, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, livestock is responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gases, more than cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together.

It is very true that crops also need arable land to grow – but farm animals take much more land than crops do to produce a given amount of food energy. Far more energy is put into animals per unit of food than for any plant crop because cattle consume 16 times as much grain as they produce as meat: it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. In fact, a meat-eater requires 10 times as much land to provide adequate food as does someone on a vegetarian diet. Meat production also requires a huge amount of land, water, and energy (it takes a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of grain-fed beef), making it highly unsustainable and resulting in waste which pollutes the air, earth, and water systems.

It would seem that cutting out meat entirely or at least partially is one of the most important personal choices we can make to address climate change. Meat eating on a large scale is leading to—deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.

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