Why the world should eat less meat

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I have been a vegetarian my whole life and have managed to develop into an adult without brittle bones or hooked on vitamin supplements. But I’m not against eating meat; some people believe they need to eat meat to be healthy, so they should do so. However the extent to which our Western society is consuming meat is not only potentially damaging to our health, it is damaging the planet. It is now common place to eat meat in every meal; even 50 years ago this would have been an unaffordable luxury. Researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that switching from a standard American diet to a vegan diet is more effective in the fight against climate change than switching from a standard American car to a hybrid. [1] I am not arguing that everyone should become a vegan, or even a vegetarian, but that we should be more aware of the impact of our diets. It is time we understand that what we put on our plates may have more of an impact on the health of our planet than anything else.

The livestock industry is one of biggest single contributors to environmental degradation. According to recent reports done by Goodland and Anhang they find that the livestock industry (directly or indirectly) accounts for 51% of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, that’s 32.6 billion tons of carbon every year. [2] Cattle emit methane and nitrous oxide, which is actually far more damaging than carbon dioxide. Recent measurements of methane trapped in polar ice showed atmospheric concentrations of methane have dramatically risen in the past 100 years. At the current rate, methane is expected to cause up to 17% of global warming over the next 45 years. [3]

However, land usage is arguably the biggest threat. Livestock cover 30% of the land on earth, and this does not include the land used to grow the crops that feed them. “Expanding livestock production is one of the main drivers of the destruction of tropical rain forests in Latin America, which is causing serious environmental degradation in the region.” [4] 38 million acres of rainforest is cleared every year, on this trajectory, all the earth’s rainforests could be destroyed within our lifetimes. [5] It is no coincidence that the US imports 200 million pounds of beef every year from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama, the same region that contains 58% of the world’s rainforest. This deforestation increases carbon emissions, water shortages, and a great, irretrievable loss to biodiversity. Water consumption is another concern: half of the water consumed in the U.S. is consumed by livestock. [6] With water shortages and droughts now sweeping the earth this should be brought to people’s attention. Many industries are affected by these water shortages such as, food and drink, tobacco, and metals and mining sectors;[7] making everything from electricity to bread more expensive around the world. This industry is exceedingly wasteful, and still it grows.

Massive subsidies in the livestock industry still propel the European market. These subsides seem to encourage overproduction and unsustainable farming with financial aid for the export of a given product outside the European Union market and the buying and storing the surplus to guarantee a certain profit. The EU should be supporting alternatives, and the growth of more sustainable and healthier industries. [8] People are consuming more meat and dairy products every year, as it is increasingly cheaper, readily available and more widely advertised. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes. [9] Considering the industries current environmental impact, imagine what doubling it could do.

I am not arguing that we should all stop eating meat. But we should definitely be more aware of the real costs of this industry. For students, eating less meat can also save money, which is definitely a bonus. So, twice a week try to have a vegetarian day, it won’t cost you to do it, might even save you money, but it will definitely cost us all not to.

Article by Malaika Cunningham.
Edited by Matthew Byatt.

1 http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/meat-and-environment.aspx
2 World Watch
3 Johnson, Methane Emissions from Cattle, Journal of Animal Science, 1995
4 Food and Agricultural Organisation, http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2005/102924/
5 Thom Hartman, ‘The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight’, Hodder and Stoughton, 2001
6 Idim
7 Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/nov/12/water-supplies-global-businesses
8 http://www.nutritionecology.org/download/dossier_CAP_en.pdf
9 http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/index.html