Environmental Effects of Meat Production: How Our Dietary Choices Affect the Planet
by Begüm Güven & Ece Hasgül
Use of Land
The livestock industry rapidly grew up after the 2000s, along with the meat consumption. That meant farms needed more space in order to raise their cattle. Currently 5.1 billion ha (equal to 51 million km2) of land is used for agriculture only. This accounts for the 50% of the habitable land, in comparison to the forest taking up 37% and urban cities taking up only the 1%. Of course not all of the non-ice glazed land is sufficient nor fertile for the crops.
77% of the agricultural land is for the livestock, including the grazing lands and the arable lands used for production of the livestock’s feed. As you see, the needed amount of land is not only where these cattle are piled onto each other, but also all these crops that need to be yielded to feed the cattle and make sure that they get fat and produce meat fast enough. Especially beef even when compared to the other meat products such as poultry and pork is the worst in the utilized land and percentage of calories ratio: requiring 30 million km2 to produce yet accounting less than 2% of the calories consumed throughout the world. (1)
In a research that studied the possible scenarios of global land use in 2030, it is estimated that the agricultural area will expand to 5.4 billion ha if we keep our dietary habits. In a different scenario which assumes mainly high-income regions will have a minor transition towards vegetarian food that cut the meat consumption by 25%, land use in these regions can decrease further, by about 15%. Which shows that how much a difference in our daily lives can make in a global perspective. (2)
Agriculture is by far the largest consumer of the Earth’s available freshwater. With the outcomes of climate change, water sources become less dependable and more unpredictable. The amount of agricultural land used to produce meat is directly proportional to the liters of water that is needed. Particularly the water used in cropping the straw which initially what feed-through cattle’s main nutrition makes a huge difference. These animals have to be fed in tremendous amounts in order for them to reach desirable weights. And similarly, beef is the type of meat which calls for the most amount of water.
“The production of one kilogram of beef requires 15,414 liters of water on average. The water footprint of meat from sheep and goat (8,763 liters) is larger than that of pork (5,988 liters) or chicken (4,325 liters). The production of one kilogram of vegetables, on the contrary, requires 322 liters of water.” (3) As water stress increases every passing day and water becomes scarce, this amount of water may even be considered luxury.
In a 2017 UNICEF (4) report it was stated that Some 3 in 10 people worldwide, or 2.1 billion, do not have access to safe, readily available water at home, with 844 million of them lacking even a basic drinking water service. It won’t be wrong to assume that with the rise of global population demand for water will increase whereas fresh water will decrease due to climate change in the ongoing trend. If we don’t use all that precious land just to feed cow and sheep, we can harvest other grains instead which would require less water and feed more people.
Livestock production is the biggest reason of habitat loss, and as with growing populations, we experience this phenomena mostly in tropical countries. This is also where the majority of biological diversity lies. When introduced to the livestock sector, the environment goes through a sudden change. The soil is now grazed, which implies its degradation. (5) Grazing is a means of animal husbandry in which domestic livestock consume wild plants and other forages. It is also one of the biggest threats to imperiled species since these domestic and wild animals compete for the same resources in this example. It gets worse when livestock grazing takes place in tropical areas as mentioned. Because not only domestic animals get the first place in the race, wild animals in turn are identified as predators which make them a source of threat. When profitable animals are considered, all those that are excluded from that criteria turn into the enemy. Then what we encounter is programmes such as predator control or Wildlife Services that “deal” with those that are a threat to cattle and sheep. Mexican wolves for example, were going almost extinct due to the blames coming from livestock sector. (6)
We can also consider domestic animals as alien species: species that were not part of the ecosystem before. Even plants that are planted for domestic animals to consume can be seen as introduced to a foreign environment and somehow invasive. They are planted and protected to the detriment of natural flora. Flora that we can never replace and imitate once we disrupt it. (7)
Gas Emissions and Climate Change
It almost goes without saying that meat production goes hand in hand with deforestation of Amazon forests. This is one of the causal relations of climate change to the livestock sector we can think of. Another more hidden yet important way livestock contributes to global warming is the amount of heat-trapping gas it produces. Lamb, beef and cheese mostly come from ruminant animals, and due to their digestive systems, big amounts of methane are generated. Methane is a greenhouse gas, 25 times more potent than carbondioxide. (8) Ruminant animals also require more energy used in their feeding process. Livestock sector in turn, uses up significant portion of natural resources and is responsible for 14.5% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. (9)
In livestock, problems start with the feeding and ends with manuring. If we talk about US livestock for example, their animals are fattened on soybeans and other grains. These require fertilizers which, when applied to soil, produce nitrous oxide. And the discharge of the animals is used as manure, which also releases nitrous oxide as well as methane. Manure also pollutes air and water. (10)
The meat consumption is not sustainable, it is even three times higher than the point that is healthy. What is worst is that those that produce livestock and those that are the keepers of the livestock are susceptible to climate change. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are where rural communities count on livestock for food and livelihood. And they are also one of the most vulnerable populations in regards to global warming. Meaning, the sector will shoot at its own shoes if interventions don’t succeed. Animals, forages and labor capital will be affected in different ways though all will be negative. But we are not hopeless: in every aspect of the sector, whether it be production, distribution or consumption, there are moves to make. But one thing is clear: we must change the means of livestock production and consumption.
Meat production is not the only actor in the climate crisis, fossil fuels and greenhouse gases still have prominent roles. Nevertheless, many research studies estimated that even a simple change in our dietary choices, such as cutting down the amount of beef and lamb consumed, can create a positive impact on all of the four aspects; land, water, emissions and biodiversity as they are linked to each other.