Environmental Impact from Meat Consumption

Understand How Meat Impacts the Planet and How you Can Purchase Sustainable Meat

Let me begin this article with full disclosure. I am not a vegetarian, although I was a vegetarian that ate dairy and eggs for about 7 years. When I got pregnant with my first child I began to crave chicken. Today I eat meat or poultry a couple times a week. This article is not advocating a vegetarian life style; instead I will look at the environmental impact of meat consumption and explore viable solutions to reduce the negative effects caused by the meat industry.

When we look at the environmental impact of various industries, meat producers are listed as major contributors of environmental degradation on a global scale. One of the major factors for this is the rapid increase in meat consumption over the past 3 decades. As the world has become more affluent the demand for meat has rapidly risen. The environmental impact of meat production is significant in several areas. Let’s take a look at each of these areas.


Negative environmental impact from increased meat production

Water consumption – Large quantities of water are needed for animals and the crops the animals feed upon. The amount of water needed for a pound of meat is many times greater then the amounted needed for a pound of legumes, seeds, vegetables or grains fit for human consumption.

Deforestation – As consumer demand for meat increases more land is needed. Hundreds of miles of the South American rainforest is burned and cut annually and converted to crop and grazing land. The New York Times reported that 1,250 miles of Brazilian rain forest were lost for feed and livestock production in just 5 months.

Water pollution – Commercial livestock are often raised in crowded facilities and their waste can overwhelm landfill and water outlets. The smell from some of these meat factories can be so offensive that adjacent land in uninhabitable.

Decrease of staple crops for underdeveloped nations – As meat demand rises more farmland is devoted to feed crops for livestock and taken away from less profitable grain production that was previously produced for people in underdeveloped nations.

Fuel consumption – Fuel is burned to transport feed to the livestock as well as the slaughtered animals to the stores. More fuel is needed per pound for meat then per pound for grain or produce.

Development of resistant antibiotic bacteria – Commercial meat production keeps the meat producing animals in crowded facilities. Cattle are raised on grain instead of grass to speed up growth and increase weight. The unnatural diet and crowded conditions makes the animals more susceptible to disease, so they are treated with high dosages of antibiotics. Eventually bacteria become resistant to the current medicine and new forms of antibiotics must be found. There is a risk that certain bacteria might become resistant to all forms of antibiotics.


Meat consumption and environmental sustainability 

Although statistics vary there is an acknowledgment both inside and outside the livestock industry that there are problems.

Reduce consumption – According to statistics gathered by the Humane Society of the United States, meat consumption in the US has increased from 144 pounds annually per person in 1950 to 222 pounds in 2007. As countries around the world become more affluent, consumption increases. Some individuals have chosen a vegetarian lifestyle where as others, myself included, choose to eat less meat. If meat is a major component of your diet, you might choose to decrease size of servings and eliminate two or more meat meals each week.

Select graze fed beef – Cattle that graze require less water and fuel in their production. They are also more resistant to bacteria.

Better waste management – Programs in Israel and Korea are exploring ways to turn animal waste into electricity. US hog farmers have explored methods of turning manure into fuel. More stringent regulations around waste removable have been advocated.

Buy local– Buying local reduces fuel costs.

Read the food labels and certifications - There are certification bodies that work to ensure consumers make informed choices when purchasing meat, fish, and poultry.

Make non-meat eating fashionable – Educating the public to non-meat choices and looking for exciting new dishes will encourage a reduction in the demand for meat.

People may never stop eating meat, but the consumption levels need to start leveling off. If we continue to educate the public and offer exciting options, more and more people will begin to choose non meat options. As our awareness of the environmental impact of the meat industry continues to grow, I hope pressure will increase to find ways to reduce the environmental impact of the meat industry.


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