With evolving time, the human diet has evolved as well. We no longer are running around the forest with a spear to hunt down a deer for dinner. Our diet reflects a significant evolution of our culture and well-being. The growing population and its growing demand for different kinds of food have left us with unlimited choices regarding how we want to shape our dietary habits. Yet, a significant human population of the earth relies heavily on meat and its products.
The consumption of meat and its association with the environment has been a major topic in climate change discourse these days. From the resources exhausted to satisfy the needs of farm animals to the high level of methane gas emitted by them, the conversation on climate change cannot be complete without talking about the adverse effect of meat and its farming.
According to a significant new study, a third of all the global-warming gases released by human activity is caused by the world’s food production, with the production of meat from animals polluting the environment twice as much as that of plant-based foods. So does this mean that we should all collectively just stop eating meat?
The answer to this question is- yes and no. Well, don’t get me wrong. As a vegetarian myself and an advocate against animal cruelty, I do have some personal opinions on this topic. But what does science say about meat eating and the responsibility of individuals to save this planet from the ultimate doom?
The Statista Global Consumer Survey asked people in 39 different countries about their diets, and on average, 86 percent of them said they included meat in it. This shows that, despite the popularity of plant-based foods and meat substitutes, eating meat is still the norm almost everywhere in the world.
Every bite of meat that you take, every single leg piece and sausage you eat, the environment pays its price. Ruminants are notorious for accelerating global warming. They also only convert a portion of the calories they are fed into the meat. Livestock requires feed made from wheat, maize, soy, and barley to produce meat and other animal-derived goods like milk, cheese, and eggs. The production of feed is not, however, the only issue related to livestock farming. It necessitates enormously more water, energy, and land resources. According to data by Four Paws International, about 43% of the cropland is used to produce animal feed.
Transporting the animals to be slaughtered and processed at the end of their lives requires even more energy.
The more meat we eat, the more the world is going hungry.
The entire system of food production, including the use of farming equipment, fertilizer application, and product transportation, results in 17.3 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually. According to researchers, this massive release of gases that contribute to the climate crisis is equivalent to 35% of all global emissions and more than double the US’s total emissions.
Atul Jain, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois asserts in his paper that the raising and culling of animals for food is far worse for the climate than growing and processing fruits and vegetables for people to eat, confirming previous findings on the outsized impact that meat production, particularly beef, has on the environment. The average footprint of beef, excluding methane, is 36 kilograms of CO2eq per kilogram. This is still nearly four times the mean footprint of chicken. Or 10 to 100 times the footprint of most plant-based foods. If methane production is to be considered, ruminant livestock can produce 250 to 500 L of methane per day.
Many environmental scientists have pleaded for a global shift in our eating habits as the impact of the meat industry on the environment is less than sustainable and largely contributes to climate change. But is mass vegetarianism the only solution? As most scientists have already confirmed the harmful effects of meat consumption on the environment, would it not be best for humanity to switch fully to a vegetarian diet?
The answer to this question is no.
Mass vegetarianism is an unsustainable solution. There are many regions in the world where growing plant-based food is highly difficult due to its climatic and geographic conditions. And in these areas, an animal-based diet is the only viable option. The large lands where nothing but the grass grows can also be used for livestock grazing. It would be the logical thing to do so. From an environmental point of view, there is also no real objection to careful grazing with a limited number of animals.
For poorer regions of the world, asking them to switch from a meat-based diet is also idiocratic. As they lack a variety of food sources for the purposes of macronutrients, their only reasonable option is animal-based food. Many people depend on the farming industry for their income as well. If the revenue from milk, eggs, and meat is lost, this can threaten their livelihoods.
However, the poorer countries are also not really a problem.
The average annual meat consumption across the globe is 42.5 kilograms, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The average weight in developing nations is 32.4 kg compared to the average amount of meat consumed in industrialized nations- 79.2 kg. According to statistics, a single Nepali consumes 11.15 kg of meat on average each year.
The contribution of poorer countries to global warming as compared to that of industrialized countries is insignificant. This means that rich countries in particular must reduce their meat consumption.
A person’s diet is highly personal. And a lot of times, cultural. With the recent increase in the individualization of responsibility by corporates and assigning individuals specific roles to help solve environmental problems, it is understandable that people are unwilling to act since their action seems insignificant to the grandeur of things. However, if people are concerned about the environment, they should be ready to change their dietary habits.
Scientists have repeatedly emphasized the need for a significant change in farming and eating practices if dangerous global warming is to be avoided. Along with the policymakers, it is also the responsibility of us as intelligent beings to fight the climate crisis caused by meat consumption. While 100% removal of meat from our diet may not be the ideal and practical solution to fighting the climate crisis, reducing one’s meat consumption is. Reducing meat may look different to different individuals- for some, it may mean eating half the amount of meat you eat every day. For some, it may mean cutting off a certain kind of meat from the diet. For now, it is the most rational thing we can do together.