Livestock, red meat and the environment

(first published March 2007, updated May 2009)

I’ve never been much of one for extremist vegan propaganda, but I’ve been making some changes to diet based on increasing evidence that the production of meat, or should I say our consumption levels, is a major environmental and humanitarian issue.

I could quite happily eat meat in 3 meals a day, 7 days a week. I’m not particular; you name the species, I’d probably eat it – rather strange for someone who professes to love animals and the environment I guess, but I’ve always seen meat consumption as being quite natural for a human and risky to go without it for any length of time.

What I did come to realize is that my meat consumption was way over the top and I needed to do something about it. I also needed to look more closely at how I source meat products and the treatment of the animals that have died for my meal. I’m not one of those people who balks at the idea of killing my own meat at all,  but I don’t want an animal to suffer terribly for my dinner.

The idea of living without meat may seem rather frightening, but…

A report from the LEAD (Livestock, Environment And Development) Initiative; which is supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and other major “mainstream” organizations has really set my mind spinning. The 400+ page report really spells out what our meat addiction is doing to the environment.

Some key findings:

– Meat production by 2050 will double what it was in 1990

– Livestock currently provides a third of human protein intake

– Grazing lands take up 26% of the ice-free land on this planet

– Feedcrop production is 33% of all arable land on Earth

– 70% of previously forested land in the Amazon is taken up by pasture

– Livestock account for 9% of all human activity related carbon dioxide emissions

– Livestock are responsible for 37% of all human activity related methane emissions, and methane has 23 times more global warming potential compared to carbon dioxide

– Livestock account for nearly two thirds of human related ammonia emissions

– In the USA, Livestock are responsible for over half of the country’s erosion and sediment issues.

– Livestock account for 20% of the Earth’s animal biomass

– 30% of the earth’s land surface which was once wildlife habitat is now occupied by livestock

.. and these incredible statistics are only scratching the surface. While I haven’t read the full 400 hundred pages of “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, a skim through the data certainly stirred up some guilt in me. You can download a copy of Livestock’s Long Shadow here (pdf 5 mb)

A few more mind boggling statistics from the New York Times:

– The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961

– In 2007, meat supply was estimated to be 284 million tons. 

– World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050

– Americans make up around 5 percent of the world’s population, yet slaughter nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.

Even trying to imagine 10 billion animals is hard, let alone the thought of them all being consumed every year – and factory farms can be truly horrifying places.

So, what to do? Well, for starters I cut right down on red meat as I understand this to be the most resource intensive animal-derived food. If you’re a heavy red meat eater, you may not want to go “cold turkey” so to speak. Try replacing a few meals a week, say one lunch, one dinner, one breakfast; where you would have red meat with poultry, fish to start getting accustomed to lighter meats. If you can use cheese or eggs as replacements, even better – but easy on the portions because of the fat and cholesterol.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend going from carnivore to vegan in one fell swoop as most vegan meat replacements will, well, probably taste terrible to you – they did to me anyway. Our tastes buds and stomachs need to be accustomed slowly, otherwise eating will become a horrible experience and you’ll likely feel hungry a lot.

Aim to replace red meat nearly totally with poultry or fish within a month or two of starting. During that process, try to eat free range poultry if possible; mainly for the humanitarian aspects; even though that’s a tricky one as well as chickens that have lived in true free range conditions aren’t necessarily slaughtered using “best practices” to ensure the animal suffers as little as possible; so this is an aspect you may wish to research further. If you find yourself with heavy duty meat cravings and there’s not a chicken to be seen, try satisfying it with cheese or (free range) eggs.

I think after weaning yourself off red meat for the most part, you’ll then then find mock meat and other vegan replacements more tasty and satisfying and you may even decide to move further along the road to vegetarianism or veganism. I can’t offer much advice past this as that’s where I’m still at now.

As for me, eh.. you never know. I have been known to eat the odd tofu dish from time to time without gagging, I’m now eating and enjoying brown rice instead of white (something I thought could never happen) and white bread has been forsaken mostly in favor of wholemeal bread. I do believe these changes in tastes are partly due to reducing red meat consumption dramatically. I’ve also come across some tasty mock meat products. Just by replacing meat based hamburger products with a mock meat equivalent, that’s shaved about 6 kilos (about 13 pounds) of meat consumption from my diet a year. Not much in itself, but a replacement here and a reduction there all adds up.

Giving up red meat for health reasons was never on the cards for me, but after learning more about the environmental issues; I simply couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Normal medical disclaimers apply; consult your doctor first, blah blah blah :).