environmental impact of meat production

The Environmental Impact of Meat Production

Jane Marsh - November 29, 2019

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The environmental impact of meat production and protein consumption have come under greater scrutiny in recent times. One new study found that animals — used for meat, eggs, dairy, etc. — use 83% of the world’s farmland, despite providing only 18% of our calorie consumption. Plus, they contribute up to 58% of food’s emissions.

Many believe giving up meat is the most beneficial thing you can do for the climate. While this is debatable, one thing is not. Our reliance on animals for protein — and the production that goes along with it — negatively affects the enrichment in devastating ways.

Read on to discover the surprising environmental impact of meat production.

1. Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The meat industry is a large producer of greenhouse gases, emitting 7.1 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide each year. In total, livestock represents roughly 14.5% of global emissions. Cattle are primarily responsible, representing approximately 65% of the sector’s emissions.

Around 44% of emissions are in the form of methane, and 29% are from nitrous oxide. Methane emanates from animal flatulence and manure. Nitrous oxide, on the other hand, is primarily caused by the dairy industry, known to be 300 times more destructive to the environment than carbon dioxide.

2. Deforestation

Deforestation is a major contributor to global warming. It’s also a cause of ecological destruction. Global demand for meat is on the rise, with livestock products expected to grow by 70% by 2050. As a result, farmers are forced to clear forests to make room for vast pastures.

It’s essential to conserve as many of our forested lands as possible. Cutting back on meat consumption will lead to a decrease in deforestation.

3. Water Pollution

Livestock affects our local waterways and streams. Beef cattle pollute local water sources with waste and nutrient runoff. This pollution threatens water sources and hurts native species.

Farmers can mitigate this effect by fencing cattle off from local streams and rivers. They should also buffer pasture land with bushes and trees. An increase in grazing land will ultimately increase water pollution.

4. Loss of Biodiversity

Along with deforestation, another threat from grazing and farmland is a loss in biodiversity. One recent study revealed that 86% of all mammals are either humans or livestock. This staggering statistic is a reflection of species we have lost due to climate change and environmental pressures.

Continued reliance on meat will result in a more significant loss of biodiversity due to deforestation and habitat destruction.

5. Water Usage

One dire consequence of meat production is the decrease in freshwater resources. Agriculture is the single largest consumer of fresh water, accounting for more than 70% of all the water consumed in a given year.

Preserving drinking resources will come down to how farms conserve. For the meat industry, one pound of pork takes 576 gallons of water to produce. One pound of beef takes up to 1,799 gallons. Soybeans, for a protein comparison, only need 216 gallons.

6. Air Pollution

In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, livestock can also negatively affect our air quality. Emissions from agriculture, like methane and nitrous oxide, stay trapped close to the Earth’s surface, increasing the particulate matter in the air. This matter can cause adverse health effects for those with respiratory-related illnesses, such as asthma and lung cancer.

Air pollution from farming does not pose the same risk as emissions from factories and vehicles. Nevertheless, it’s essential to consider gases released by cattle and other animals when mitigating our impacts on climate change.

7. Crop Usage

The amount of food it takes to feed our livestock is not as big of a concern as greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. However, it’s still worth considering.

Much of the world’s crop production goes to feeding animals instead of ourselves. Therefore, demand amplifies the environmental impact of crops, such as corn and wheat, in the meat industry.

8. Food Scarcity

We must dramatically increase our food production if we are going to meet our future needs. If we continue with the status quo, global food demands could become too much for the planet by 2050.An increase in meat production, however, could prove detrimental to efforts. Due to the industry’s large resource requirements, this form of nutrition is not sustainable. We must cut back our meat production and increase our consumption of fruits, vegetables and legumes.

9. Desertification

Desertification is a process where healthy soil is starved of nutrients and vegetation. It’s a process where healthy, plant-filled areas transform into desert-like conditions.

With the ideal balance of grazing livestock and edible vegetation, desertification is not a concern. However, the soil needs sufficient time to regenerate. Unfortunately, this equilibrium is out of balance. It will only continue to worsen as demand grows.

10. Eutrophication

Eutrophication refers to a process where an excess of nutrients flows into waterways, causing algal blooms. When there’s too much of one element, like nitrogen, the growth of algae becomes uncontrollable. Once the algal bloom dies, it leaves an area devoid of oxygen.

The meat industry contributes to this problem due to runoff from fertilizer and animal waste. While this problem has a variety of causes, agriculture is a major contributor. Eutrophication is guaranteed to improve if we cut back on meat production.

The Environmental Impact of Meat Production

It’s clear the environmental impact of meat production must change if we’re going to solve our environmental problems. Issues like greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, eutrophication and food scarcity prove this is a time-sensitive matter. It’s time for people and businesses alike to call for change.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.