Take a quick stroll down the supermarket aisles and you’ll quickly see how popular plant-based foods are becoming. There are fridges full of milk alternatives and plant-based minced ‘meat’ that looks and tastes like the real thing.
But that doesn’t mean the world is going vegan. In fact, meat consumption is increasing around the world. The average amount of meat eaten per capita has risen by about 20 kilograms since 1961. Australians eat 93 kilograms of meat each year on average making them the world’s biggest carnivores. That’s even more than US citizens who consume an average of 91 kilograms annually.
As more people enter the middle class in countries like China and other emerging economies the demand for meat is increasing. In Asia alone, meat production is 15 times higher than it was in 1961.
To keep up with the demand for meat, intensive animal farming is also on the rise. And that raises problems for the climate as well as animal welfare concerns. In fact, ordering a steak for dinner could contribute to more extreme weather events like cyclones.
Meat production and cyclones
The intensive farming of animals requires a lot of land. About one third of the world’s crop land is used for producing livestock like cows, sheep, pigs and chickens. As well as being used for animal pasture, much of the world’s crop lands are growing animal feed. It’s estimated that it takes 25 kilograms of animal feed to produce just one kilogram of beef.
In places like the Amazon forest, about 7.3 million hectares of land are cleared each year with more than 60% of that land used to graze cattle. This creates a vicious cycle for the environment.
Tropical rainforests like the Amazon act as carbon sinks because they play a critical role in removing carbon from the atmosphere. But if rainforests are cleared for agriculture they can no longer perform this crucial job. A 2017 study suggests that as rainforests become thinner they can even start releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
Intensive animal farming is also one of the biggest causes of greenhouse gases. It’s estimated that each year, global livestock creates 14.5% of all anthropogenic (human-created) greenhouse gas emissions including methane. Beef and dairy cattle are the worst offenders and produce 61% of the livestock industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is largely due to the way cows digest their food, which results in them burping methane.
Rising greenhouse gases are contributing to the Earth’s increasing temperature and scientists say there’s strong evidence connecting climate change with heatwaves that cause bushfires. Climate change is linked with more frequent, hotter and longer heatwaves in all of Australia’s capital cities as well as California’s 2017 bushfires.
In the North Atlantic region a statistically significant rise in the number of cyclones has been observed, while Fiji experienced its most intense cyclone on record in 2016. Australia lacks the long-term data to measure trends in the consistency and frequency of cyclones, but the Climate Council says climate change has created a warmer and wetter atmosphere which has resulted in a more energetic climate system. This means that all extreme weather events, including cyclones and storms, will become more intense as a result.
The environmental case against meat
Producing livestock requires far more water than growing fruit and vegetables. To illustrate, you’ll need about 322 litres to produce an average kilogram of vegetables. To produce the same amount of chicken meat, you’d need more than 13 times that amount of water. A kilogram of beef has a massive water footprint of 15,400 litres. This issue is going to become even more critical as freshwater sources from glaciers disappear and droughts become more commonplace.
Meat production can also lead to water pollution. Effluent water from slaughterhouses contains high levels of organic waste which can kill fish and create algae overgrowth in natural water systems.
The consumption of meat is also contributing to the earth’s biodiversity crisis. In May this year, the United Nations released a report warning that human activities such as livestock grazing and deforestation could lead to the extinction of one million species within the next few years. Shrinking biodiversity also will have a knock-on effect for the entire ecosystem.
Eating for the planet
Many people are deciding to adopt a ‘flexitarian diet’ which means they reduce their meat reduction throughout the week. It’s never been easier to cut down the amount of meat and animal products you consume. For example, new meat alternatives like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger provide a delicious and climate-friendly alternative to meat. We support alternative meat advocate Food Frontier with a multi-year grant from the Australian Ethical Foundation.