Overconsumption of meat has the greatest negative impact on environmental and human health. Diets need to change. In order to eat within our planetary boundaries (i.e. feeding ourselves without damaging the planet), we should consume a maximum of 100g of red meat, 200g of poultry and 200g of fish per week. However, high-income countries are currently consuming double this, with middle income countries predicted to follow the trend over the next ten years.
The pressures on the world’s food system will increase exponentially in the coming decades as the worldwide population is set to rise to ten billion people by 2050. A paradigm shift is needed in how food is produced at every level of the food chain. If we are ever to achieve planetary balance and environmental health, world leaders must stand up to powerful food companies by implementing new laws and creating effective, tangible change.
The health of humans, our planet, domesticated animals, and wild animals are interlinked. This article will provide an overview of the many reasons why we all need to eat less meat, including human health, environmental health, food efficiency, economic consequences, and animal welfare, while looking at the factors that contribute to unsustainable eating patterns and what we can do to help.
Whilst meat contains essential nutrients, important for human nutrition, such as B12, iron and calcium, excessive consumption is associated with adverse health, such as bone, kidney and liver disorders, obesity, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. People who consume red and processed meat four times per week have a 20% increased risk of bowel and colon cancer. That’s four meals per week, not four days per week.
We would still be able to achieve adequate protein levels by eliminating meat entirely and instead obtaining our protein from plants. Protein is essential for building muscle mass, repairing injuries, maintaining strong immune systems, and transporting and storing nutrients.
Protein is made up of amino acids; there are 20 in total, nine of which – known as essential amino acids – our bodies cannot naturally produce. However, meat is far from the only source of protein; beans, peas, nuts, quinoa, soy, mushrooms and hemp all provide enough protein to render meat almost redundant. But trying to eliminate meat entirely from the human diet is an extreme over-correction, unnecessary and unrealistic.
By just halving our meat intake we would deliver dramatic improvement in general health. In fact, a small amount of animal protein is actually vital for human health. Vitamin B12 – which the human body needs to make red blood cells, nerves, DNA, and more – does not occur naturally outside of animal products. Many vegans never address their B12 deficiency through supplements, placing themselves at higher risk of suffering numbness in the hands, legs, or feet; cognitive difficulties; anemia; weakness; fatigue; sleep disorders; Alzheimer’s; and depression.
The human health implications of animal agriculture go well beyond those due to direct consumption. Livestock farmers suffer from respiratory diseases at a much higher rate than the general population. The way animals are raised also affects our health; the growing reliance on antibiotics is contributing to antibiotic-resistance in humans.
Meat overconsumption is detrimental to our environment in every way, harming our land, our waters and our air. Livestock farming generates as much greenhouse gas emissions as all cars, trucks and automobiles combined – accounting for 56% of all Greenhouse Gas emissions from the food sector. Those are startling statistics.
Animal agriculture is a leading cause of habitat destruction – such as deforestation in the Amazon. The Amazon rainforest acts as a huge sponge for carbon dioxide, cooling global temperatures by absorbing harmful carbon in the atmosphere. Rising deforestation rates will degrade Amazon forests into desert, causing 50 billion tonnes of carbon to be released into the atmosphere over the next 30 to 50 years. To put that in perspective, we are hurtling towards a world with a rapidly growing population, ever-decreasing food sources, and a significantly worsening environment.
In Latin America, large areas of forest have been cut down to make way for soybean crops – 90% of which is used to feed livestock. Cattle farming is the single largest driver of deforestation across the region (70%), resulting in annual forest loss of 2.7 million hectares – ten times that of the much-maligned palm oil. Cattle also emit significant quantities of the greenhouse gas, methane, which is 23 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide.
Aside from contaminating water supplies, rivers, and streams, animal products also have a significantly higher water footprint than plant-based farming. The production of 1kg of beef, for example, requires 43,000 litres of fresh water (raising the livestock and growing the crops needed to feed it) compared to the 1,000 litres required to grow 1kg of grain. In terms of calories, beef has a 20 times greater water footprint compared to cereals, and a 6 times greater water footprint compared to its protein-rich pulses, such as beans and peas.
The seafood industry, as well, is far from free of environmental consequences. Global fish populations are collapsing as unsustainable rates of depletion continue to rise. As fish populations have decreased, the industry has turned to more intensive practices, such as trawling, where nets are dragged along the ocean floor, causing significant damage.
Coral reefs, vital in maintaining fish populations and oceanic biodiversity, are especially damaged by trawlers. Another effect of trawlers is bycatch (marine life that is accidentally caught), which threatens the population of many species, including sea turtles, dolphins, and seals.
Red meat, poultry and seafood intake in North America, South America and Europe is approximately 500% higher than daily recommended levels. Meanwhile, consumption of fruits, vegetables and plant-sourced protein is approximately half of the recommended levels. In order to meet ever-rising demands, livestock production systems are using more and more fit-for-human-consumption crops to feed animals.
In Ireland, we are used to seeing herds of sheep and cattle, grazing on grass, roaming happily across large, open pastures. Grass is inedible for humans, but provides all the nutrients necessary to turn these herds into delicious, fit-for-human calories. But most countries are not blessed with Ireland’s abundance of lush grassland. Instead, crops which would be better used to feed humans are being diverted to animals, creating an unsustainable and hugely inefficient system.
Globally, over one third of grain is fed to livestock, with significant calories lost along the way, severely exacerbating an already failing food system. Animal products provide only 18% of global calories but use 83% of farmland. If all crops currently used for animal feed were instead directly consumed by humans, it would create 70% more calories, which could feed up to 4 billion more people.
While many efforts to address food security have focused primarily on improving crop yields, it is also possible to dramatically increase the availability of food in the world by shifting the allocation of our crops from animal feed and biofuels towards more direct means of feeding the human population.
Animal products are the third most subsidised food group in OECD countries, behind only sugar and rice, creating artificially cheap meat. These subsidies lower food prices, increase consumption and reduce farmers’ incomes in countries where such subsidies are not available.
When external factors are accounted for, the true cost of animal agriculture is far higher than what consumers pay at the tills. If health care costs were included in the price of meat, red meat costs would increase by up to 25% and processed meat by up to 100%. The global health care costs of red and processed meat are $285 billion annually.
Wastage of meat has economic consequences too. Meat, fish, dairy and eggs are wasted by households each year at almost twice the rate of fresh fruits and vegetables. And if the moral dilemma of animal welfare was included, the true cost of meat production would be astronomic.
Every generation is more progressive than the one that preceded (a scary thought). Just as we look back on past generations and wonder how some things could have been acceptable, let alone considered commonplace and standard, so too will future generations scrutinise in horror what we in 2020 have normalised. In my opinion, the practice of factory farmed meat will be looked upon by our grandchildren with the same depression with which we now view gender inequality, segregation, and even slavery.
When I was training as a chef, one of my lecturers showed us videos of undercover documentaries of exactly what happens at these factory farms. Because we should all know where our food is coming from. I’m not advocating for vegetarianism, and I believe the adage that “we would all be vegetarian if we had to kill our food” is nonsense on so many levels. But I do believe that if everyone saw the way most animals are treated before they become food, it would severely altar attitudes.
What I am advocating is for more humane treatment of animals at early stages of the food chain. The current methods treat animals as inanimate objects rather than living creatures, because the giant, faceless food corporations make more profit that way. The only way things will change is if demand for meat drastically diminishes.
Take for example the living conditions of egg-laying hens or chickens raised for meat: kept in rows of small cages piled on top of one another, reducing their mobility and ability to complete normal biological functions, such as standing, turning, or stretching. Dairy cows, sheep and pigs are often kept in similarly cramped conditions, living a life of unimaginable pain and cruelty. Indeed, their death is the high point of a factory farmed animal’s miserable existence – although the final moments of these animals are often the most torturous.
Such conditions are most prevalent in larger countries, such as China, the United States, Brazil and Australia. Other western countries, including Ireland, France and New Zealand, carry an air of superiority when it comes to such matters. After all, drive from Dublin to Dingle, Lyon to La Rochelle, or Hamilton to Hastings, and you’ll pass endless grazing herds of sheep and cattle as far as the eye can see. But did you ever wonder where the chicken and pigs are? When it comes to pork and poultry, we’re just as guilty.
Then there’s the abomination that is foie gras. The abhorrent way this food is created is the stuff of nightmares. Foie gras is produced by force-feeding ducks to unnaturally enlarge their livers. During force-feeding, a large metal tube is pushed down the bird’s throat and food is then forced down the tube from a funnel. The bird’s beak is then wired shut to prevent vomiting. The process continues for around two weeks until the liver has swelled to ten times it’s normal size, making movement and even breathing difficult. Revolting.
Accessing ethical and sustainable foods is not easy for many reasons. The global food system is not only inherently complex, but also deeply embedded within cultural, economic and political norms that are hard to change and do not incentivise healthy, sustainable food consumption.
Social factors, such as holiday traditions, change our perception of meat from a source of nourishment to a cultural symbol, closely linked with personal, family and group identity. Take Christmas dinner for example; so many of us in the west will prepare at least two large pieces of meat, traditionally, turkey and ham. However, as families come together, traditions often merge. Many families will prepare a full turkey or goose, a large cut of ham or bacon, a roast or confit duck, smoked salmon, and a beef wellington – all in the name of continuing different family traditions.
Most food choices are ingrained habits and difficult to change. When grocery shopping, we tend to fill our trolleys with the same kind of foods week in week out, especially those of us who mainly shop in supermarkets. If you picked up chicken, pork, beef and fish last week, chances are you’ll get them this week and again next week. Likewise, when preparing our meals, the first consideration is almost always the choice of meat.
Humans tend toward behaviours with short-term payoffs without considering long-term consequences – even our own health. This is evident when we see politicians make decisions designed to help them get reelected in a few years but will be ultimately detrimental further down the line. Because voters generally fall for these cheap tricks and reelect these same politicians, the problems descend into a vicious circle. In terms of food, most people will prioritise taste, convenience and price over long-term sustainability, never worrying about the consequences to their own health or the living conditions of future generations.
The same politicians responsible for such short sighted policies are also vulnerable to the influence of large food companies and their lobbyists. The power of these companies is used to great effect to manipulate not only policy makers but consumers at every level.
How can we eat less meat?
As we examine how best to curtail meat overconsumption and unsustainable diets, the most controversial option is potentially the most effective. Many people believe governments should introduce measures to eliminate choice, such as restrictions on processed meats, a tax on red meat, and greatly increased legislation surrounding factory farming. Several groups argue politicians should not intervene in what citizens are eating, yet almost all countries have policies related to reductions in alcohol, tobacco and drugs – why should food be any different?
The advance of lab grown meats, increasing advocacy for eating insects as a protein alternatives, and the popularity of vegan substitutes, such as the Impossible burger, means there is light at the end of the meat tunnel. But changing consumer behaviour is too slow and too small in scale to have any meaningful effect. Therefore, it is crucial that immediate steps are taken at the highest levels.
Governments should also limit, or even remove meat subsidies. This would disincentivise farmers from concentrating their efforts on livestock production and shift the focus to a more earth-friendly food chain. The domino effect of fewer farmers producing animal products would see those who continue the practice receiving higher prices for their more premium products.
We do not need to stop eating meat, in fact I hope we never do. But by halving our intake of animal protein, we would eliminate all the for-profit suffering experienced by animals across the world. Small, family farms, specialising in one or two animals would adequately provide for the meat needs of every citizen on earth. And for those carnivorous gluttons out there who want steak and bacon seven days a week, may I suggest a hunting licence and some butchery training.