Recently, the public has taken a renewed interest in the meat industry and how it affects the environment. This has led to many movements and changes in approach to how the industry operates. Some vie for more extreme measures, such as eliminating meat consumption altogether. Others are milder, led by the belief that changes can be made without major disruptions.
Water is a resource often overlooked, as most don’t feel threatened by potential shortages. However, it is a limited resource: particularly noticeable in the meat industry where so much of it is used each day. For example, it takes around 15,400 litres of water per kilogram of edible meat produced. Pork is close to 6,000 litres/kg, and chicken requires nearly 4,300/kg. In comparison, vegetables use only about 300 litres/kg, and fruits require around 1,000 litres/kg.
Cattle produce methane in large quantities. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes greatly to global warming. Its immediate effects on the air quality are already noticeable, particularly in areas where cattle farms operate in an industrial capacity. Methane production can be reduced in part by moving to different types of meat. For example, cows release 16 kg of c02 per kg of meat, while sheep release about 13 kg of c02 per kg.
Producing meat requires quite a bit of land, as animals need to graze and swaths of land must be given time to recover in between grazing periods. This forces farms to expand, reducing our forests as more and more land is used for grazing. On average, meat makes up only 18% of our overall calorie intake, while 85% of all farmland is used for meat. This is a wasteful way to approach meat production.
Similar types of problems arise with off-farm meat production. Freshwater farming of fish produces methane at a surprisingly high level that rivals those of cattle production. Currently, farms are the source of nearly all methane emissions from Europe and Asia.
Taking into account even the most eco-friendly farms, we must still compare them to the production of vegetables and cereals. It seems that even the most inefficient farms produce vegetables in more eco-friendly ways than the best of those who produce meat. Environmental impact isn’t the only metric to take into account here, but it’s a crucial one.
Meat consumption will only rise in the future, worsening the numbers mentioned in our report. The global meat industry is thriving, lifting portions of the world in China, India, and Africa out of poverty. It won’t be easy to ask these populations to simply strip meat from their cultures. We must work to find more nuanced solutions to improve upon the industry, rather than try and put a stop to it.