The Giant, Ugly Footprint of Meat & What You Can Do About It

How can eating meat harm the planet?

Producing meat for human consumption takes a hefty tole on the environment. There are several factors to consider including greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and the massive resource footprint of meat, among other impacts.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The production of livestock worldwide accounts for 14.5%, with cattle contributing 62% of total greenhouse gas emissions. These gases include nitrous oxide and methane, a greenhouse gas 28 – 36x more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100 year period. Cattle contribute a lot of methane through their digestive processes, their manure, the energy used to raise them, and the production of crops to feed them.* The whole process has a lot more steps than producing crops to feed humans.

Producing beef results in 27 kg CO2-eq per kg of consumed product, second only to buffalo meat. That means every time you eat 1 kg of beef, you are also okay with emitting almost 60 pounds of greenhouse gases. Compare this with 0.9 kg CO2-eq, roughly 2 pounds, for lentils.

I know you’re worried about getting enough protein, but the average person needs 0.36 multiplied by your body weight in pounds. That’s about 47 grams daily for me, which you can get from lots of different sources other than meat and animal products. If you still insist on protein protein protein, check out this link on the different emissions per grams of protein. I’ve also made an info-graphic of my favorite plant proteins. Now and especially within the coming years, there are other options if you simply can’t give up the taste and feel of a good hamburger. Companies such as Beyond Meat and Morning Star Farms create meat substitutes using vegetables that are just like the real thing.

Deforestation

I like how the Rainforest Partnership sums up the connection between the issue of beef and the decimation of our forests,

“What do hamburgers and chainsaws have in common? Both cause massive deforestation of tropical rainforests across the world.” 

– “The Beef Industry and Deforestation”, Rainforest Partnership, Aug 8, 2016

Deforestation is caused by a number of different products, such as palm oil and soybeans, but the largest culprit by far is cattle. There is a high demand for beef and dairy around the world, resulting in more pressure to produce with less land area. In South America especially, cattle ranching has lead to the decimation of forests. Every year, 2.71 million hectares of tropical rainforests are destroyed to creature pasture for cattle. For those of us that have trouble visualizing a hectare, imagine 2.71 million soccer fields worth of forest being chopped down.

The numbers may only touch the surface of the problem when solely accounting for areas destroyed for pasture without the inclusion of deforestation for livestock feed. Instead of growing crops for direct human consumption, rainforests are systematically destroyed to fatten beef for our burgers. And when I say “our” burgers, I mean the U.S, as we consume a pound per person per week of beef.

Why do forests matter?

Tropical rainforests are hot spots for biodiversity in our world. This means there are many different types of creatures, some endangered, who live and thrive in these areas. In fact, 50% of the world’s terrestrial plant and animal species reside in these areas around the world. Indigenous groups also strongly depend on the resources of these lands for their existence. As we destroy our forests, we threaten not only animals, but the homes and heritage of other human beings.

Rainforests also provide humans with invaluable materials. Of the medicines we use in modern, western society today, around 25% of all drugs are derived from rainforest plants. The cure to many diseases could be locked away, and potentially destroyed if we don’t care for these ecosystems. We have only studied a small portion of the total plant species in our rainforests (5%), meaning there is so much more we can gain by protecting these areas against deforestation.

Forests store massive amounts of carbon as well. They act as sinks, collecting and storing the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. If these trees are cut and burned, where does all of that carbon go? Back into the atmosphere! The burning of forests “can release hundreds of years worth of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a matter of hours,” according to the Climate Institute.

“Deforestation accounts for around 10% of total heat-trapping emissions—roughly the same as the yearly emissions from 600 million cars.”

– “What’s Driving Deforestation?”, Union of Concerned Scientists

The solution to stopping deforestation due to cattle ranching has to come through changing rancher practices, pressure from the government, and public awareness and support. We also have to consider though that our demand and consumption of beef drives this industry and tells producers they can continue with destructive, harmful practices to the environment.

The Resource Footprint of Meat

What do you think it takes to produce a pound of beef or pork? I can confidently say I’ve never raised a cow in my backyard, nor have I been a cattle rancher or beef industry executive. We are cut off from the whole system of production, which means we haven’t seen how inefficient and resource intensive the whole system is. Until I actively looked for this information, I had no idea how much stuff, such as food, water, and land, go into producing just one pound of meat.

Our earth is covered with water, yet most of it is out of our reach. Humans can only use about 0.3 percent of the total water on earth. Out of that small amount of water, 70 percent is used for agricultural activities. Although growing crops contributes to this water footprint, meat is the biggest culprit. By examining the water footprint of meats like beef and pork, compared with common crops such as soybeans and corn, we see there is a tremendous difference in how much water is being used.

Data from Water Footprint Calculator

As mentioned previously, cattle ranching and meat production require a lot of land around the world. In fact, “livestock takes up nearly 80% of global agricultural land, yet produces less than 20% of the world’s supply of calories,” according to Hannah Ritchie of Our World in Data. Imagine if even a portion of this land was converted into land to grow crops for people to eat. There is some land that isn’t suitable for cultivating crops where cattle ranching makes the most sense; however, this doesn’t compare with how much land has been created for pasture through deforestation as mentioned previously.

My biggest issue with the intensive resource use of meat is the production of food for livestock instead of people. When land is used to grow corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, etc., for animals instead of for the growing population of the earth, it’s a slap in the face to efforts fighting for food security. That food could be used to feed a large portion of the world instead of satiating the 1 percent with burgers and steaks.

– “Meat and Animal Feed”, Global Agriculture

The problem here is the relationship between how many calories are produced for human consumption versus how much material is used to cultivate them. We simply don’t get as much out of a cow that we have to provide food, water, and land to as opposed to growing the food itself.

What You Can Do About It

I’m not saying you need to become vegan, vegetarian, fruitarian (yep that’s a thing), in a night. This is a big deal though, especially when considering all of the other sources of environmental degredation out of our direct control. You can take direct action NOW and you don’t have to wait for legislators to argue over whether or not climate change even exists.

Meatless Mondays

I’d like to believe most people are aware of Meatless Mondays, but if you’re not it’s very straightforward. It’s like being a vegetarian once a week. Not only is it good for your body to eat less meat (because some foods processed meat increases your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure), it’s also extremely beneficial to the planet. This is especially true if you try to do this more than once a week. Try cutting down your total beef consumption, see what works for you. If you’re already eating a predominantly plant-based diet and participating in Meatless Mondays, that’s dope. If not, you should seriously consider how much good you could do from making this simple switch.

The World Resource Institute website has a bunch of other really interesting charts and additional information. Check it out if you want to learn more about how shifting your diet can change the world!

Here are some a-mazing resources to take a look at if you want to do and learn more but are not sure where to start:

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