Does a juicy double cheeseburger sound mouth-watering to you? Then there is a great chance you are terribly annoyed by vegetable-lovers who see you as that ‘meat-monster’, carelessly gorging innocent lambs while destroying the earth.
Vegetarianism and veganism gained interest among a new generation of self-educated people. The movement is still relatively small but gaining popularity, with 3% of the US population, and 10% of Europeans following plant-based diets.
Northern-American and European meat-consumers and producers are hooked on meat, and the meat industry forms a vital part of the economy. In the United States, red meat and poultry production totaled a record of 94.3 billion pounds in 2015, with the average American eating around 200 pounds of meat per year. Worldwide the sale of this meat forms around 1.4% of the GDP, generating 1.3 billion of income for the people involved.
A German public policy group published the book Meat Atlas, which categorizes countries according to their meat production (see this graphic). They describe that the ten major meat producers that are making the most money out of meat production by way of intensive livestock farming are: Cargill (33 billion a year), Tyson (33 billion a year), Smithfield (13 billion a year) and Hormel Foods (8 billion a year). With so much money in hand, the meat industry and their affiliated parties control the market and try to keep people hooked on meat, while incoming consequences for animals, public health and the environment seem to be of a lesser concern.
(Image by Rhonda Fox)
In this article, we look at how meat production and consumption impacts our health and that of the planet. If we keep on eating meat at the rate we do now, the earth might not be able to keep up. Time to have a nuanced look on meat!
The facts are not lying. The US is the country with the highest meat consumption on earth (similar to dairy), and pays the highest doctor bills for it. Each US citizen devours around 200 pounds of meat per person per year. And on top of that, the US population has twice as much the obesity, diabetes and cancer rate as people in the rest of the world. A growing amount of evidence from scholars all over the world (see below) suggests that the consumption of meat on a regular basis, and especially processed red meat, causes an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, a stroke or a heart disease.
We use an excessive amount of land for livestock…
To produce one piece of beef, an average of 25 kg of food is needed, mostly in the form of grain or soybeans. This food has to grow somewhere: more than 90 percent of all Amazon rainforest land that has been cleared since the seventies is used for livestock production. Thereby, one of the main crops grown in the rainforest is soybean used to feed the animals. Not only is the rainforest in service of the meat industry; according to the United Nations Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO), an average of 75 percent of all agricultural lands, which is 30 % of world’s total ice-free surface, is used for the production of food for livestock and as land for grazing.
In the future, we will need to use even more land to cater the meat appetite of the world: The FAO predicts that the world-wide consumption of meat will grow with at least 40 percent compared to 2010. This is mainly due to people from developing countries outside of North America and Europe, who will start consuming more meat, because of their newly acquired wealth. The research firm FarmEcon LLC predicts, however, that even if we use all the cropland in the world to feed livestock, this growing demand of meat will not likely be met.
Another disturbing fact is that livestock production accounts for 18% of direct global greenhouse gas emissions according to a report of the FAO. Livestock, and the business to sustain them, spew more carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and similar gasses into the atmosphere, and that is more than the emissions attributable to the entire transportation sector. If we want to prevent the earth from warming up more than 2 degrees, the amount of which the climate top in Paris predicted will save us from an environmental disaster in the future, then we should drastically decrease our greenhouse gas emissions.
Meat-eaters would shrug their shoulders and laugh about the generality of these statements. But it is interesting that, over the last few years, dozens if not hundreds of academic studies have been dedicated to the effect of meat on the human body and environment. A growing number of scholars hold the livestock industry responsible for being the leading cause of many environmental issues like depletion of land and freshwater resources, emissions of greenhouse gas and a degradation of our public health. Let’s dive into the details of it.
Meat is proven to have beneficial nutritional value. It is a rich source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B, and it is for a good reason that it came to be the backbone of many meals. Journalist Marta Zaraska investigated with her book Meathooked how our love for meat grew into such big proportions. “Our ancestors often went hungry, and so meat was a very nutritious and valuable product for them. They really didn’t worry whether they’d get diabetes at the age of 55,” according to Zaraska.
In her book, Zaraska writes that before the 1950’s, meat was a rare treat for people. Psychologists say that the less available something is, the more we value it, and that was exactly what happened. During the world wars, meat became extremely scarce. However, the army rations were heavy on meat, and thus soldiers from poor backgrounds discovered the abundance of meat. After the war, a richer middle class society started to include more meat in their diets, and meat became indispensable for a lot of people. “Meat came to symbolize power, wealth and masculinity, and this keeps us psychologically hooked on meat,” says Zaraska.
According to her, the meat industry is insensitive to the call of vegetarians, because it is a business like any other. “The industry does not really care about your proper nutrition, it cares about profits. In US there is a tremendous amount of money involved in meat production – the industry has $186 billion worth of annual sales, which is more than the GDP of Hungary, for example. They lobby, sponsor studies and invest in marketing and PR. They really care only about their own business”.
Meat can start to have a negative effect on the body when it is eaten regularly or in large portions (every day a piece of meat is too much). It contains a lot of saturated fat, which can, if eaten a lot, cause the cholesterol level in your blood to raise. High cholesterol levels are a common cause of heart disease and stroke. In the United States, the meat intake is the biggest in the world. An average American eats more than 1.5 times the optimal amount of protein that they need, of which most of it comes from meat. 77 grams of animal protein and 35 grams of plant protein makes a total of 112 gram of protein that is available per capita in the US per day. The RDA (daily allowance) for adults is only 56 grams from a mixed diet. Doctors warn that our body stores the excess protein as fat, which creates weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, inflammation and cancer.
Is eating vegetables better for the body? The most cited and recent works on the difference between animal protein diets and vegetable protein diets (like all kinds of vegetarian/vegan variants) are published by Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Andrews University, T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and The Lancet, and there are many more. One by one, they tackle the question if plant-protein can nutritionally replace animal protein, and they answer this question with a yes, but under one condition: the plant based diet should be varied and contain all the nutritious elements of a healthy diet. These studies point one after another at red meat and processed meats for being a bigger malefactor to human health than other sorts of meat. The studies also point at the fact that we need to lessen our meat intake, because of the overdose of proteins it gives the body.
The study of the Massachusetts hospital (sources all cited in the above) monitored the diet, lifestyle, mortality and illness of 130,000 people for 36 years, and found that participants who ate plant protein instead of red meat had 34% less chance to die an early death. When they would only eliminate eggs out of their diets, it gave a 19% reduction in risk of death. On top of that, research of Harvard University found that eating a small amount of red meat, especially processed red meat, could be linked to higher risks of getting high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and dying from cardiovascular disease. A likewise result was concluded by the Lancet study, where for one year, 28 patients were assigned a low-fat vegetarian lifestyle, without smoking, and with stress management training and moderate exercise, and 20 people were assigned to keep their own ‘usual’ diets. At the end of the study it could be concluded that comprehensive lifestyle changes may be able to bring about regression of coronary atherosclerosis after only one year.
While the study of the Andrews University concluded similar findings, they also found that vegetarians tend to have lower body mass index and lower cancer rates. That is because they have a lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol and a higher intake of fruits, vegetables, fiber, phytochemicals, nuts, whole grains and soy products. Lower cancer rates were also confirmed by Prof. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, who observed in what is called the “China Project”, that diets presumably higher in animal protein were associated with liver cancer. He discovered that arteries destroyed by animal cholesterol can be repaired by a plant based diet.
Medical scholars also point at the fact that the food that is given to livestock often contains antibiotics and arsenical drugs, which farmers use to boost the meat production at the lowest cost. These drugs kill the bacteria in the intestines of the animals, but when used often, makes some bacteria resistant, after which they survive and multiply and are spread into the environment through the meat.
Recently, the European Medicines Agency published a report in which they describe how the use of the strongest anti-biotics on farms has risen to record levels in the major European countries. One of the anti-biotics that had an increased use was the medicine colistin, which is used to treat life-threatening human illness. The WHO advised before to only use medicines classified as critically important for human medicine in extreme human cases, if at all, and treat animals with it, but the report of the EMA shows the contrary: antibiotics are in high use.
There is still a lot of discussion among health practitioners about the negative influences of meat for human diets. More research must be done to discover what the exact health effects are of different kinds of plant-based diets and what the effects are of all the other habits that veggies are more likely to follow, such as no excessive smoking and drinking and exercising regularly. What all the studies do univocally point out is that overeating meat has bad health effects, with red meat as the biggest ‘meat’ enemy of the human body. And overeating meat is exactly what a lot of the world population seems to do. Let’s look at the effects that this overeating has on the soil.
Veggies in the soil
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 795 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world suffer chronic undernourishment during 2014-2016. A terrible fact, and relevant for this story, because food shortage is primarily related to rapid population growth and the declining per capita availability of land, water, and energy resources. When countries with a big meat industry, like Brazil and the US, use land from the Amazon to grow crops for their cows, then we basically take land that could be used to feed humans directly. The FAO estimates that an average of 75 percent of agricultural lands is used for the production of food for livestock and as land for grazing. The biggest problem is thus the inefficiency of land use, due to our desire to eat a piece of meat every day.
It is known that livestock farming has a depraving effect on the soil. Of the total available arable land, 12 million acres each year is lost to desertification (the natural process by which fertile land becomes desert), land where 20 million tons of grain could have been grown. This process is caused by deforestation (for cultivation of crops and pasture), overgrazing and intensive farming that depraves the soil. Livestock excrement leaps into the water and into the air, and pollutes rivers, lakes and the soil. The use of commercial fertilizer can give the soil some nutrients when soil erosion takes place, but this fertilizer is known for a large input of fossil energy.
On top of this, animals consume an average of 55 trillion gallons of water annually. Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein, write researchers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
There are more efficient ways to treat the soil, and we will research below how biological and organic farmers made a good start in creating sustainable food cycles.
We already discussed the amount of greenhouse gasses that the meat industry produces. We have to keep in mind that not every animal produces as much greenhouse gasses. The production of beef is the biggest malefactor; cows and the food they eat take a lot of space, and on top of that, produce a lot of methane. Therefore, a piece of beef has a bigger environmental impact than a piece of chicken.
Research published by The Royal Institute of International Affairs, found that cutting down the average meat intake within accepted health guidelines could bring a quarter of reduction in the amount of greenhouse gas that is needed to limit global temperature increases to below 2 degrees. To reach a total dent of two degrees, more than only an adoption of a plant-based diet is needed, which is confirmed by another study from the University of Minnesota. The researchers suggest that additional measures, like advances in mitigation technologies of the food sector and reductions in non-food related issues, are needed.
Wouldn’t it be advantageous for the soil, the air, and our health to turn a part of the pastures used for livestock into pastures that grow vegetables for direct human use?
Let’s keep in mind that suggesting a ‘plant-based diet for everyone’ is impossible and done from a position of food excess. People in Africa and other dry places on this earth are happy to have cows or chickens as their only source of protein. But countries like the USA, Canada, most of the European countries, Australia, Israel and some South American countries, who rank at the top of the meat-eating list, should make dire changes in the way their food is produced if they want the earth and its human population to survive on the long-term, without prospects of malnutrition and environmental disasters.
It is highly challenging to change the status quo, because the world is complex and asks for context-specific solutions. If we want to change something, it should be gradual and sustainable, and serve the needs of many different groups. Some people fully oppose all forms of animal farming, but others are still willing to breed and eat animals for food, but would want to change their diets for a better environment.
It is first needed for people to become conscious of their excessive meat intake, before they will change their dietary choices. “Once we understand where the hunger for meat comes from, we can find better solutions to the problem,” says Marta Zaraska, the writer of the book Meathooked. People often think they can not eat less meat, but wasn’t that also the case with smoking?
Governments play an important role in this process. Marco Springmann, researcher of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, says that governments could incorporate sustainability aspects into national dietary guidelines as a first step. The government could change public catering to make healthy and sustainable options the default ones. “The German ministry has recently changed all food offered at receptions to be vegetarian. Unfortunately, at the moment, only less than a handful of countries have done something like this,”says Springmann. As a third step of change, he mentions that governments could create some imbalance in the food system by removing subsidies for unsustainable foods, and calculate the financial risks of greenhouse gas emissions or health costs associated with food consumption in the price of these products. This will stimulate producers and consumers to make more informed choices when it comes to food.
Dick Veerman, a Dutch food expert, suggests that a de-liberalisation of the market is needed to change the uncontrolled supply of meat into a sustainable supply. In a free market system, the meat-industry will never stop producing, and the available supply automatically creates a demand. The key is thus to change the supply. According to Veerman, meat should be more expensive, and include a ‘meat tax’ in the price, which compensates for the environmental footprint it makes to buy meat. A meat tax will make meat more of a luxury again, and people will start appreciating meat (and animals) more.
Oxford’s Future of Food program recently published a study in Nature, that calculated what the financial benefits are of taxing food production based on their greenhouse gas emissions. Imposing a tax on animal products and other high-emission generators could lower meat consumption by 10 percent and cut one billion ton of greenhouse gases in the year 2020, according to the researchers.
Critics say a meat tax would exclude the poor, while rich people could just proceed with their meat intake like never before. But the Oxford researchers suggest that governments could subsidize other healthy options (fruits and vegetables) to help people with low incomes easing into this transition.
A growing number of start-ups is investigating how to make the perfect chemical imitation of meat, without using animals. Start up like Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, Impossible Burger and SuperMeat all sell chemically grown lab-meat and dairy, processed by what is called ‘cellular agriculture’ (lab-grown agricultural products). The Impossible Burger, produced by the company with the same name, looks like a real beef burger, but doesn’t contain any beef at all. Its ingredients are wheat, coconuts, potatoes and Heme, which is a secret molecule inherent to meat that makes it appealing to the human taste buds. Impossible Burger recreates the same taste as meat by fermenting yeast into what is called Heme.
Lab-grown meat and dairy has the potential to eliminate all the greenhouse gases produced by the livestock industry, and can also lessen the land and water use that is needed to grow livestock in the long term, says New Harvest, an organization that funds research into cellular agriculture. This new way of agriculture is less vulnerable to disease outbreaks and spells of bad weather, and could also be used next to the usual livestock production, by topping up supplies with lab-grown meat.
Artificial natural environments
Using an artificial environment to grow food products is not a new development and is already applied in so-called greenhouses. When we eat less meat, more veggies are needed, and we could use greenhouses next to regular agriculture. A greenhouse is used to create a warm climate where crops can grow, while being given the ideal nutrients and water amounts that secure optimal growth. For example, seasonable products like tomatoes and strawberries can be grown in greenhouses all year round, while they would normally only appear in a certain season.
Greenhouses have the potential to create more vegetables to feed the human population, and micro-climates like this could also be applied in urban environments. A growing number of roof top gardens and city-parks are being developed, and there are serious plans to turn cities into green livelihoods, where green hubs become part of residential areas to let the city grow some of its own crops.
Despite their potential, greenhouses are still seen as controversial, due to their occasional use of manufactured carbon dioxide gas, which causes increased greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon-neutral systems should first be implemented in all existing greenhouses before they can become a ‘sustainable’ part of our food system.
Sustainable land use
When we lessen our meat intake substantially, millions of acres of agricultural lands will be available for other forms of land use. A re-division of these lands will then be necessary. However, we must keep in mind that some so-called ‘marginal lands’ cannot be used to plant crops on, because they can only be used to graze cows and are not fit for agricultural production.
Some people argue that these ‘marginal lands’ could be turned into their original vegetational state, by way of planting trees. In this vision, fertile lands could be used for creating bio-energy or growing crops for human consumption. Other researchers argue that these marginal lands should still be used to let livestock graze to provide for a more limited meat supply, while using some of the fertile lands for growing crops for humans. This way, a smaller number of livestock is grazing on marginal lands, which is a sustainable way of keeping them.
The downside of that approach is that we don’t always have marginal lands available, so if we want to keep some livestock available for a smaller and sustainable meat production, some fertile lands need to be used to let them graze or grow crops for the animals.
Organic and biological farming
A sustainable way of farming is found in organic and biological farming, which uses methods that are designed to optimize the productivity and fitness of all living parts (soil organisms, plants, livestock and people) of the agro-ecosystem, with an optimal use of the available ground. All residues and nutrients produced on the farm go back into the soil, and all grains, forages and protein fed to livestock are grown in a sustainable way, as written in the Canadian Organic Standards (2015).
Organic and biological farms create an ecological farm-cycle by recycling all the rest of the products of the farm. Animals are by themselves sustainable recyclers, and could even be fed by our food waste, according to research from Cambridge University. Cows need grass to make milk and develop their meat, but pigs could live from waste and form by themselves the basis of 187 food products. Food waste accounts for up to 50% of total production globally and so there is enough food waste to reuse in a sustainable way.
There are many ways of changing the current food system into a system that provides less meat, while producing enough other proteins to feed the world population. Changing our food system should start with creating awareness about our excessive meat consumption. Both top down methods (imposing new diets/meat taxes with the help of governments) and grass-root methods (civil initiatives) could be combined to generate the fuel to change the overconsumption of meat. The current meat industry is old-fashioned, inefficient and non-sustainable, and will in the longer term destroy the livelihood that we all value.