The impact of meat on the environment

Reducing the amount of meat you eat is a surefire way to have a positive impact on the environment. Not least because food production accounts for around a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and farming animals makes up half that figure! 

Why is meat so bad for the environment? 

The production of red meat, particularly beef, is an intensive process. Of course, processes vary depending on where and how the animals are reared. However, deforestation, intensive use of water, and greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane go hand in hand with livestock farming. It’s estimated that for every kilogram of beef, 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases are produced.  

What about methane? 

Sheep, goats and cows are animals known as ruminants. Their stomachs essentially contain lots of bacteria that helps them break down fibrous materials like grass. In the process of digestions they 'pass' a lot of methane which ultimately ends up in the atmosphere as a highly potent greenhouse gas. Methane does have a shorter lifespan than Co2 in the atmosphere, but its impact on global warming, over a 20 year period, is around 30 times that of Co2.  

Why so much water? 

Farming beef is incredibly water intensive. According to the water footprint network, one kilogram of beef needs about 15,000 litres of water. This is an inordinate amount when you consider that on a calorie by calories basis, this is around 20 times higher than that of cereal crops. Around 98% of the water used is to grow animal feed, with only 2% being consumed as drinking water by the animals. Crazy, right!  

Land use and deforestation 

Around 50% of the earth’s habitable surface is used for food production purposes; livestock takes up 77% of that space. Of all livestock types, cows are one of the most land intensive given they require a huge amount of roaming land and animal feed to grow and breed. On a like for like protein basis, beef needs around 20 times more land than protein rich crops like pulses. The demand for more land means more forests are cleared which is having a significant impact on biodiversity and endemic species that rely heavily on canopy cover to survive.            

What next?  

Hopefully this module has given some insight into the impact of livestock farming on our environment. We’re by no means suggesting that you give up meat immediately (unless you want to), it’s far more beneficial to start with modest changes, and then progress in a manner that sustainable for you over time. There’s also financial and health benefits to consider when reducing your meat consumption which should also add additional incentives to explore the options.  

5 ideas to help you minimise meat consumption

1. Change out one meat meal  

Put simply, eating less meat reduces the demand for grazing land and the associated soy production to feed livestock. Around 70% of the forest clearing activities undertaken in the Amazon rainforest right now are to make way for cattle ranches.   

2. Replace beef with chicken 

Eat chicken 1-2 times a week in place of beef. These chicken meals will contribute 106kg of greenhouse gas emission over a year period (per person), compared to 604kg had you stuck with beef.

3. Eat more beans 

Bean varieties are an excellent source of protein and a brilliant replacement for meat, particularly in meals like chilli's and tacos. Start by reducing meat and increasing bean content until you are meat free. Give it a go, you'll hardly notice the difference.

4. Track the impact of your eating habits

Check out the climate change food calculator produced by the BBC to see the environmental impact of the meat on your plate.

5. Find out how your meat was reared  

The way meat is farmed has a huge impact on its environmental impact. Before you purchase, check to see where your meat came from. Beef produced on deforested land can account for more than 12 times more greenhouse gases than cattle reared on natural pasture land. 

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