Meat and the Environment
Jasmijn de Boo is CEO of the Vegan Society and has eleven years experience in education and in the animal protection movement – including campaign management, research and policy development. She possesses expertise in several issues, including vegan nutrition and health; animals used in research, testing and education and alternatives; companion animals; farmed animals; and wildlife.
Many published studies and reviews selectively quote statistics and evidence in favour of the prevailing bias. An example of this type of bias was evident in Korthals's (2011) poor review in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics of the book Meat the Truth edited by Koffeman (2009). The book outlines facts about the environmental impact of the livestock sector on climate change. Korthals did not seem to like the idea of meat consumption moderation or abolition, as suggested in the book. Accordingly, in search of "positive aspects of livestock farming" he cited the justifications expressed in Fairlie's Meat, a Benign Extravagance. Scientific criticism is important, however Fairlie's arguments fell far short of such standards. His claims (which were not peer reviewed) just seem to serve his so-called 'intellectual' justification for eating animals. Believing in sustainable meat consumption is akin to denying the reality of the climate change already visible today.
Out of control
There are climate change naysayers, and those who believe climate change is a moral issue on a par with slavery (Prof Hansen in The Guardian, 6 April 2012). Nasa climate scientist Prof Jim Hansen says that the latest climate models had shown the planet was on the brink of an emergency. Over the next few decades the effects of an out of control climate system will be disastrous for ecosystems, sea level and species extinction. Along with other scientists and economists, he calls for a worldwide tax on all carbon emissions. They believe a global levy on fossil fuels (oil, gas, shale gas and coal) "is the strongest tool for forcing energy firms and consumers to switch quickly to zero carbon and green energy sources".
Other leading scientists have expressed similar warnings, and focused on similar solutions. Unfortunately, the inconvenient truth that farming non-human animals for food is responsible for at least 18% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in CO2 equivalent (when all GHGs were converted to equivalent CO2 potential) (Steinfeld et al., 2006), is often ignored in scientists' and policy makers' recommendations. Other GHG emissions caused by the exploitation of other animals for food, such as methane and nitrous oxide, have a much higher global warming potential than CO2 (23 and 296 times respectively). 'Farmed' animals are also responsible for 64% of ammonia emissions, causing acid rain and acidification of ecosystems. In all, human farming of other animals is in the top three causes of all major anthropogenic environmental problems, from local water pollution to global climate change.
Land grab and water shortage
The majority of CO2 emissions are caused by land-use changes, in particular deforestation caused by expansion of pastures and growing crops fed to cows, pigs, chickens and other animals killed at a massive scale (over 60 billion a year worldwide). In addition, overuse and subsequent declining soil fertility pushes people to find new land to expand the agricultural base. This may also lead to deforestation, which in turn causes soil degradation. This vicious circle makes current agricultural practice unsustainable. Continuing to intensify production on already degraded lands is not a sustainable solution. Rich countries, such as the UK, and other countries that rely heavily on animal protein, import tonnes of energy-inefficient feedcrops without paying for the consequences. This causes significant problems for many developing countries and biodiversity-rich nations.
Lugschitz et al. (2011) calculated that the EU average land consumption per capita (i.e. land used to produce the agricultural and forestry products consumed) is 1.3 hectares, while citizens of countries such as China and India require less than 0.4 hectares per capita. Nearly 60% of the land used to satisfy the demand for agricultural and forestry products in the EU comes from outside Europe. Germany and the UK each import products requiring more than 80 million hectares of land a year. This is neither fair nor sustainable.
In addition, the production of animal products is responsible for nearly one-third of the total water footprint of agriculture globally (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2012). Water scarcity is likely to increase, and billions of people and animals will suffer as a result. The authors state that the water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value, and that it is more water-efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products.
Less is more
Van Beukering et al. (2008) calculated that if all British people ate a meat-free diet seven days a week, they would save 91 megatons of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, which would save as much as 254 million return flights from London to Ibiza, or eliminating all GHG emissions from 12.5 million households in the UK.
A recent study by the Sustainable European Research Institute (commissioned by the German Vegetarian Society (VEBU) and the Austrian branch of the international environmental activist network Greenpeace) found that meat alternatives have a lower environmental impact than meat. One kilogram of soy meat released about 350 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere compared with about 7,200 grams from the same amount of ground meat. The factors that were considered included water consumption, transport and the use of both renewable and non-renewable resources.
Therefore, alongside measures to curb energy consumption, solutions to avert climate change and halt biodiversity loss must include moving towards plant-based living. Based on Defra reports from 2006 and 2008, Stephen Walsh (2009) concluded that 'producing a basic vegan diet has about a third of the resource demands and global warming impact of a conventional diet – a substantial advantage, particularly in terms of land requirements'.
In his interview with The Guardian, Prof. Hansen concluded that "we can't simply say that there's a climate problem, and leave it to the politicians. They're so clearly under the influence of the fossil fuel industry that they're coming up with cockamamie solutions which aren't solutions."
I would add that politicians and other decision-makers are also clearly under the influence of the agricultural sector, and lack concern for both future human generations and sentient non-human animals. A global levy on all animal products would not be misplaced in this context. However, policies and subsidies promoting plant-based living are by far preferable from an environmental and humanitarian perspective. And of course, plant-based living respects the animals' right to life and freedom.
Carrell, S. (2012). Nasa scientist: climate change is a moral issue on a par with slavery. The Guardian, 6 April 2012.
Fairlie, S. (2010). Meat. A benign extravagance, HempShire: Permanent Publications.
Koffeman, N. (ed.) (2009). Meat the truth. Essays on livestock production, sustainability and climate change. Amsterdam: Nicolaas Pierson Foundation.
Korthals, M. (2011). Emotions, Truths and Meanings Regarding Cattle: Should We Eat Meat? J Agric Environ Ethics, DOI 10.1007/s10806-011-9334-2.
Lugschitz, B., Bruckner, M., Giljum, S. (2011). Europe's global land demand – A study on the actual land embodied in European imports and exports of agricultural and forestry products. Vienna: Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI).
Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A. (2012). A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products. Ecosystems, DOI: 10.1007/s10021-011-9517-8.
Steinfeld H., Gerber P., Wassenaar T., Castel V., Rosales M., de Haan C. (2006). Livestock's long shadow: environmental issues and options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.
Van Beukering, P., Van der Leeuw, K., Immerzeel, D. and Aiking, H. (2008). Meat the Truth: The contribution of meat consumption in the UK to climate change. Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Walsh, S. (2009). Environmental impact of vegan versus conventional diets in the UK. The Vegan. Birmingham: The Vegan Society.
Meat alternatives more climate-friendlier than meat, study finds: http://news.monstersandcritics.com/health/news/article_1682707.php/Meat-...