As the extent of climate change becomes increasingly alarming, meat consumption is receiving media attention as it has been targeted for potential action repeatedly.
While some organizations claim that livestock farming drives climate change, individual studies, on the other hand, state that regenerative agriculture can actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
For this reason, this article addresses two key questions on a scientific basis:
- Do we need to eat less meat to protect the environment?
- Are there ways to eat meat and still reduce environmental impact?
What Is the Impact of Meat on the Environment?
Meat consumption enjoys a significantly low reputation since statistics on social and other media blamed meat for more than 50% of greenhouse gas emissions.
The fact that livestock alone is said to account for the lion’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions piqued my interest.
Due to this wildly ambitious claim, we need to look at actual numbers.
Impact of Meat on the Environment by the Numbers
Fortunately, anyone can access greenhouse gas emissions data publicly.
For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publishes annual figures of the largest greenhouse gas emissions sources in the United States.
The latest statistics are from 2018 and attribute the following shares of greenhouse gas emissions to different sectors (EPA 20181):
- Transportation: 28%
- Electricity: 27%
- Industry: 22%
- Commercial & Residential: 12%
- Agriculture: 10%
- Crop cultivation: 5.5%
- Livestock: 3.9%
That livestock cannot account for 50% of all emissions in an industrialized country is something I expected.
However, the contribution of only 3.9% to the USA’s total greenhouse gas emissions amazes me.
Nevertheless, the media treats meat consumption as the bogeyman of climate change par excellence.
But how could this extreme assumption evolve?
Why Meat Impact on the Environment Was Overestimated
In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published an explosive study.
The study, titled “The Long Shadow of Livestock,” claimed that livestock production was more damaging to the climate than all forms of transportation combined (FAO 20062).
But this comparison had a significant flaw. While it calculated the contribution of transport to global greenhouse gas emissions directly, it calculated livestock indirectly.
In short, the figures for transport only reflected the exhaust emissions of vehicles.
On the other hand, for livestock, all factors that may be associated with the production of meat were taken into account.
For example, this includes agricultural feed and fertilizer production, electricity generation of farming operations, transportation of animals and meat products, or animal waste and gases.
In turn, the transportation industry should have included vehicles, roads, airports, and bridges. Moreover, they should have considered emissions necessary to bring materials for vehicle parts to the manufacturer.
Also, vehicle manufacturing requires enormous amounts of energy and employees who need food that has been grown, processed, and transported, etc.
Consequently, you can’t compare such differently calculated figures. In the end, even the lead author of the FAO study, Henning Steinfeld, had to admit this publicly.
Hence, he corrected that he should have compared about 5% of the global emissions from livestock with about 14% from transport (Mottet et al. 20183).
How Eating Less Meat Impacts Environment and Climate Change
Since greenhouse gases are essential protagonists of this topic, we have to make a quick digression to understand how eating meat can impact climate change.
In the earth’s atmosphere, some gases can absorb the energy of the sun. Because they trap the sun’s heat and let less of it back into space, such as a greenhouse does, they are called greenhouse gases.
When it comes to meat consumption, the following greenhouse gases are addressed (EPA 20184):
- Methane (CH4)
- Carbon dioxide (CO2)
- Nitrous oxide (N2O)
Additionally, the so-called greenhouse effect describes the earth’s gases remaining in its atmosphere, trapping heat and causing climate change.
If greenhouse gases continue to rise, more heat is trapped. As a result, we witness global warming.
If there is one greenhouse gas that immediately comes to mind when discussing meat and climate change, it is probably methane. After all, due to digestion, ruminants directly emit methane.
However, it’s not only animals that emit methane but also landmasses themselves.
For example, marshland and rainforests produce methane. Besides, there is a vast array of methane sources that are created by us.
These include the burning of biomass and fossil fuels, landfills, or even simple compost piles. And most studies do not consider that local ecosystems play a significant role in methane emissions.
As a result, methane emissions from cattle are often overestimated.
For example, although the global cattle population increased by more than 100 million head between 1990 and 2005, atmospheric methane concentrations stabilized entirely during this period (Glatzle et al. 20185).
The natural carbon cycle neither destroys nor generates carbon atoms. For this reason, it is a recycling process.
Carbon from the atmosphere enters living organisms on earth (e.g., plants you consume) and then returns to the atmosphere. This cycle repeats itself continuously.
Because photosynthesis previously absorbs them, not a single molecule of CO2 from humans or animals can increase the CO2 content of the earth’s atmosphere (Glatzle et al. 20186).
Instead, in the context of livestock farming, additional CO2 in the atmosphere is due to the following processes:
The latter is a particular problem because our planet is always trying to keep the carbon cycle balanced through photosynthesis (Gervais et al. 20167).
Consequently, in 2013, 36% more CO2 was sequestered by vegetation in spring and summer and rereleased in winter than 45 years before.
Finally, CO2 cannot be reduced to air-polluting emissions only, as many media like to practice.
CO2 and the natural carbon cycle are essential for any form of life on earth and, therefore, cannot be replaced (Glatzle et al. 20188).
N2O also follows a natural cycle from the atmosphere to the earth and back again.
Where livestock is kept, there may be an increased turnover rate of nitrous oxide, as livestock requires and releases more N2O. However, the net nitrogen balance of the soil remains the same.
Moreover, studies show no significant differences in nitrogen emissions between pasture where cattle graze and those where not.
Ultimately, a piece of land emits the same amount of N2O, whether it undergoes animal digestion or not (Nichols et al. 20169).
Nonetheless, there are exceptions to this as well. When farmers use artificial nitrogen fertilizer, they increase the nitrogen cycle balance (Glatzle et al. 201810).
Can Eating Less Meat Save the Environment?
Now that we better understand how meat consumption can affect climate change, we can answer the initial question.
Can we eat less meat and thereby stop climate change and save our environment?
What would happen if we stop eating meat entirely?
Fortunately, researchers asked themselves precisely the same question in a recent sustainability study.
They concluded that by eliminating all livestock production, giving up meat could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by only 2.6% (White et al. 201711).
Hence, you don’t need a Ph.D. to deduce that eating less meat cannot save the environment.
While the calls to give up meat 1-2 times a week are noble, they can only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 0.4% to 0.8%.
However, that doesn’t mean that meat consumption is not a factor in climate change. But it’s not the factor we can target to make a big difference, as many people believe.
Nevertheless, when it comes to eating meat, we can act in a far more sustainable way and improve many places.
For example, we could eat less of the wrong meat to impact our environment positively.
How to Eat Meat and Reduce the Impact on the Environment
If we now summarize what we have discussed so far in connection with meat, the environment, and climate change, we can stress out significant negative aspects:
- Transportation and other fossil fuel combustion
- Synthetic fertilization
- Feed production
However, there is also good news because all these aspects are by no means necessary, as they are merely side effects of industrial livestock farming.
The more we can bring livestock farming back to a natural approach, the closer we come to eliminating the imbalance in the greenhouse gas emissions.
Furthermore, those measures that put us on this path are more straightforward than you might think.
1. Eat Local Meat
This point should be obvious.
When meat travels across the continent, it burns fuel and produces emissions that harm the environment.
It also has to be stored and cooled in the meantime, which produces even more greenhouse gas emissions.
Hence, the easiest solution to save yourself from this negative environmental impact is to buy meat regionally.
If meat only travels from a farm in the region to the local slaughterhouse and butcher, there is hardly any need for intermediaries.
Furthermore, meat from the butcher or farmers’ market is usually wrapped in paper instead of plastic, which has a positive impact on the environmental balance and climate change.
If you also contribute and create demand, the local market has a chance to grow!
It does matter where the meat comes from.
2. Buy Pasture-Raised Meat
By now, it should be clear that husbandry and feeding are the essential factors for the quality of a piece of meat.
But what people often forget is that natural feeding, e.g., with grasses, and livestock farming with appropriate free-range access, are just as essential for a positive environmental balance:
- Fossil fuels: When animals graze and defecate, they reduce the need for artificial fertilizers, which account for up to 50% of energy use on commercial farms (Xun et al. 201812; Woods et al. 201013).
- Methane: While animal grazing improves ecosystem microbial diversity and reduces methane emissions, artificial fertilizers do the exact opposite (Xun et al. 201814; Cai et al. 201615; Seghers et al. 200316).
- Carbon: Rotation of animals on pasture can enhance soil carbon sequestration, thereby fully offsetting carbon emissions from an animal grazing farm (Byrnes et al. 201817; Stanley et al. 201818).
- Water: The significant water waste of conventional livestock production hides in the cultivation of feed, such as soybeans and corn. Moreover, fertilizers and pesticides can pollute local water to the point that it no longer supports animal life (Joyce et al. 200019).
Accordingly, eating less cheap meat has a positive effect on our environment.
Furthermore, anyone who has ever eaten both knows the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef.
If you want to take a local free-range approach to the next level and have sufficient space in the backyard, you might even consider getting chickens, delivering zero-emission free-range eggs and meat.
3. Eat Nose to Tail
Eating meat per se doesn’t have to be reprehensible, but how we practice it these days is.
Even though we struggle with diseases like cancer, arteriosclerosis, or metabolic syndrome, characterized by too much growth, we reduce the meat to fillets and simple proteins.
Approximately one half of a cow represents lean meat. The other part consists of offal, skin, connective tissue, cartilage, bones, etc.
For example, these are precisely the places where you can find collagen, easily absorbed by the body.
There is beauty and health hype around collagen since it is the essential building block for our skin, teeth, joints, connective tissue, and bones. And there is just no plant source for it.
Moreover, you can find the most nutrient-dense foods that our planet has to offer among organ meats.
Nevertheless, these parts, which we need so much, end up in waste, pet food, or other industries.
Instead, we could eat these parts as we once did, become healthier, waste less food, and reduce the number of animals raised and killed.
However, we prefer to get vitamins, minerals, and collagen from highly processed supplements, even though we could be sustainable and get these nutrients directly from natural sources.
Hence, we are wasting resources in two ways. On the one hand, we throw the nutrients we desperately into the garbage.
On the other hand, we raise the demand for substitute products that we would not otherwise have needed requiring a great deal of energy and transportation.
Meat, too, can be eaten sustainably by giving the whole animal the appreciation it deserves.
Not Only Meat Has an Impact on the Environment
Since meat consumption is a smaller factor in climate change than many assume, we cannot save the environment only by eating less meat.
Blaming meat for climate change is easy and distracts from the more significant climate change problems, such as the dependence on heaps of outdated coal-fired power plants.
Furthermore, people tend to forget that there are significant differences when it comes to meat.
Those who appreciate pasture-raised, grass-fed meat get far better quality and contribute to the ecosystem’s biodiversity, which can ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Meat Impact on Environment FAQ
How does reducing meat consumption benefit the environment?
Eating less meat is only good for the environment if it is meat from industrial agriculture. Grazing grass-fed cattle can even benefit the environment.
How what we eat affects the environment?
How what we eat impacts the environment depends on how it is raised, processed, and transported. While grain-fed beef from a foreign country may badly affect the environment, local grass-fed meat can be useful.
Is eating meat actually bad for the environment?
While industrial meat production can be bad for the environment, pasture-raised meat can positively impact the environment.
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