Meat consumption and its impact on the environment

By eating meat and dairy food products, one could potentially be affecting climate change drastically. This is due to such a large demand for these food groups that is already unsustainable as it is, considering the fact that these products are some of the most harmful to the environment when compared to other food groups. And it is only going to get worse in the next thirty years as our population is going to grow to around 9 billion people, meaning an extra 2 billion mouths to feed by 2050. An enormous number of crops are needed to feed livestock in order to produce meat and dairy, as well as water, raw materials and very large amounts of agricultural land.

Apart from the fact that consuming too much meat can have negative effects on your health such as cardiovascular disease or an increase in colorectal cancer, experts are suggesting that a plant-based diet may be the only way to reduce the impacts that are taking place not only on the environment, but on our food security, landscape and nature.

Enormous amounts of antibiotics are used on livestock to prevent diseases such as swine flu or mad cow disease from spreading between the animals, and at times to humans too. The antibiotics being used on these animals contribute to antibiotic resistance on both animals and humans without even realising it. When the livestock produce waste through excretion, apart from releasing methane and nitrous oxide, which are two gases that are far more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide, the waste contaminated with antibiotics leaches into ground water and crops, which in turn cause serious harm when consumed by humans.

The water footprint of animal products when compared to plant-based crops and animal is generally an exaggerated amount especially when it comes to beef which seems to be the top water consumer at a whopping 15,415 L/kg. Fruits and vegetables have a much lower water consumption than meat and dairy products (particularly chocolate and butter items from the dairy section). Even though pulses and nuts seem to use up a lot more water than the fruits and vegetables (nuts using 9063L/kg and pulses using 4055L/kg), in comparison to beef it is still at a much lower water footprint.

Water pollution that results from maintaining livestock mainly affects ecosystems and drinking water sources. This mainly results from the use of chemical fertilisers/pesticides and manure which likely contains medicinal properties such as antibiotics, vaccines or growth hormones and all these chemicals end up leaching into ground water, an important freshwater source, or runoff into other freshwater sources polluting eco-systems. Marine life is also affected from this pollution, as the excess nutrients making their way to the aquatic ecosystem are causing eutrophication, changing water properties drastically and killing off most living creatures living in that water.

A lot of people think that the transport system is the largest contributor when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, however the global agricultural livestock industry produces more emissions than when combining all the cars, trains, ships and planes put together. A study on food consumption conducted by Nu3 has shown that Malta ranks 32nd out of a total of 130 countries in the generation of carbon emissions. This study shows that the Maltese lifestyle is generating almost 600kg per person per year of GHG emissions, and this is only coming from around 19kg of beef consumed on average. 190 kg of milk and cheese products are supplied per person also, and these generate around 270kg carbon emissions per year.

There are debates on how to measure these emissions, whether it should be calculated on the amount of GHGs are produced directly by livestock or by the total GHG emissions produced from production of fertilisers, pesticides and feed, draining of peatlands, growing soybeans which lead to deforestation and ploughing. Environmental scientists argue that any emissions generated in a life cycle of a product being created should be included in the carbon footprint from its production until it is used and disposed of. When it comes to livestock production, the most harmful emission released is nitrous oxide, also referred to as laughing gas, and it is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This gas, along with other GHGs is generated from the production and use of organic and mineral fertilisers. Together they generate more than a third of each GHG emission resulting from livestock production.

Beef production is considered to be the world’s largest land user when it comes to livestock, land use and deforestation, which are all inter-connected. Production of beef is the largest culprit with respect to deforestation. Apart from using up land for the creation of pasture, the production of soy to be used as feed for cattle leads to the enormous amount of deforestation happening in the Amazon right now.

At the end of the day, if people were to switch over to a plant-based diet, or at least restricting their meat intake, especially when it comes to beef, the world would be a much more sustainable place to live in for both the current generation and future ones that come after us.

Article written by Derek Fenech.


Friends of the Earth Malta gratefully acknowledges financial assistance from the European Union. The content of this article are the sole responsibility of Friends of the Earth Malta and cannot be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union. The European Union cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information provided contained therein.

This project is co-financed by the  Ministry for Education and Employment (MEDE) and the Parliamentary Secretary for Youth, Sport and Voluntary Organisation.

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