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The environmental impact of meat consumption: understanding why a burger a day will not keep climate change away

Image by Stijn te Strake from Unsplash

Meat consumption is a major contributor to climate change, and its effects are widespread. The production and consumption of meat contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water use. As the global population continues to grow, the demand for meat is also increasing. Unless significant changes are made the consequences of the high consumption of meat will be drastic for our environment and our future.

Image by Gabriella Clare Marino from Unsplash

Global meat consumption has increased significantly in recent decade: per capita consumption has nearly doubled since the early 1960s, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). While an average of 23.1 kilograms of meat per person were consumed annually in the ’60s, the figure rose to 43.2 kilograms in 2019.

One of the main ways that meat consumption contributes to climate change is through the production of greenhouse gases. According to data from FAO, 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to livestock farming. Not only does the livestock industry emit carbon dioxide (CO2), but it also emits methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) — two gases considered to play a very similar role as CO2 in driving global warming.

Explainer: Greenhouse gases are gases in the earth’s atmosphere that trap heat. They play a crucial role in keeping the earth’s temperature at an average of 14˚C. Without this greenhouse effect, temperatures on earth would drop to as low as -18˚; too cold to sustain life. However, human activities are changing the earth’s natural greenhouse effect leading to a dramatic increase in the release of greenhouse gases. Scientists have agreed that greenhouse gases are the cause of global warming and climate change.

A 2021 study by Nature Food found that that plant-based foods account for just 29% of greenhouse gases emitted by the global food industry. On the other hand, 57% of greenhouse gas emission in the industry are linked to breeding and rearing cows, pigs and other livestock, as well as producing feed.

Taking a deeper look into livestock farming, beef and cattle milk are responsible for the most emissions respectively contributing to 41% and 20% of the sector’s overall greenhouse gases. Followed then by pork, (9%), buffalo milk and meat (8%), chicken meat and eggs (8%), and small ruminant milk and meat (6%).

By Alessia Bonori

Another way of looking at it is considering the environmental impact in producing just 1 kilogram of the different foods. Greenhouse gas emissions vary depending on the kind of meat produced and consumed. With 99.48 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram, beef production still comprises the biggest source of greenhouse gases. This is more than double the carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram to lamb and mutton production (39.72 kilograms).

Imgae by Ronan Furta from Unsplash

In addition to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, the production of meat necessitates a lot of water and land. Large-scale deforestation and destruction of natural habitats are some of the consequences resulting from the production of feed crops for animals. Livestock industry requires 116 times the land needed to cultivate rice. According to a recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study, animal farming accounts for 78% of agricultural land worldwide. Livestock also requires a lot of water for drinking and growing feed crops, which can strain water supplies, especially in areas where water is already scarce.

Reducing meat consumption is one of the most effective ways to reduce the environmental impact of food production. This can be achieved by reducing the amount of meat consumed, as well as by choosing more sustainable sources of meat, such as grass-fed beef or free-range poultry. Plant-based diets are also a more sustainable and healthier option. Limiting the consumption of meat or eliminating it entirely from your diet can help reduce your carbon footprint considerably. Europeans and North Americans, for instance, could cut back one-quarter of their annual average greenhouse gas emissions if they switch to plant-based foods.

The impact of meat consumption on climate change is of serious concern, and it is likely to become even more pronounced as our population continues to grow. Making even small changes to your diet and supporting more sustainable food production practices is one way we as individuals can help. Nevertheless, bigger and more drastic actions need to be taken by governments. Large scale interventions in the livestock industry are vital to reduce emissions.

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