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Carnivore Diet: Meat and Its Environmental Impacts

by Julian Dollente, RN, Edited by Christopher M. Cirino, DO MPH

When did humans start eating meat? There was a time in our history when grazing animals were more abundant than digestible plant foods. And because humans adapt to their environment, our human ancestors — known as hominids — were most likely scavenging the remains of herbivore carcasses before they learned how to hunt. By studying the teeth of these human ancestors and the cut marks on the bones of large herbivores, experts believe that humans began adding meat to their diet at least 3 million years ago.

Cooking, which made meat more digestible, was practiced more recently, dating back 800,000 years. Some believe the energy-rich protein gained from meat consumption played a crucial role in developing our species by boosting our energy intake and helping our brains evolve and become more complex. Meat became a luxury in many civilizations and was enjoyed only on special occasions. 

Today, however, people consume meat regularly and in more significant quantities; in 2020 alone, an estimated 328 million metric tons of it. A meat production of this scale has some severe ramifications for our planet. While humans adapt to the changes in nature, the environment we live in suffers the consequences. 

The meat industry and cattle farming
Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

Arguments for and against eating meat

We consider our diet to be a highly personal thing. Although, it can also be something that we take for granted. The subject of meat consumption often leads to quite a significant difference in opinion and controversies. Are there benefits in including meat in our diet? Or should we stop eating meat altogether? The answers to such questions are rarely simple, and arguments can be made by those who are for eating meat and those against it. Below are some of those arguments to consider:

PRO Meat Consumption

The majority of the world’s population has some meat in their diet. Ipsos, a market research specialist, conducted a 2018 global survey and found that 73% of the worldwide population were omnivorous — regularly eat both animal and non-animal products. Here are some arguments for meat consumption:

  • The nutritional value. 

Meat is rich in protein, amino acids, and several essential micronutrients your body needs for optimal health. It is also a natural source of vitamin B12 that plays a crucial role in maintaining brain and nervous system function, normal metabolism, and high energy levels. 

  • Culture and society.

Developing countries often use animals as crucial assets and investments. The meat industry can be a vital part of the economy, particularly in highly rural communities.

  • Land usage.

Large hoofed herbivorous grazing or browsing mammals (ruminants) such as cattle, sheep, buffalo, deer, elk, giraffes, and camels have evolved to live on marginal lands which are otherwise useless for agriculture. These animals also consume a plant — called grass — that cannot be eaten by humans.

herd of cattle in daytime for meat industry
Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

ANTI Meat Consumption

Diets based on animal products may be popular, but a rising number refuse or choose not to eat meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. Approximately 4.38% of the UK’s population, or about 600,000 people, identified themselves as vegan (2020). 

There are many reasons against eating meat:

  • Health risks.

Eating too many foods high in red and processed meat and high-fat dairy foods are associated with an increased risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers. 

  • Animal welfare.

The increase in demand and the competitive market of the meat industry has driven suppliers towards lower-cost meat and milk, leading to intensive or conventional farming. To maintain low running costs, some farmers limit animal behavior, such as space and socialization restrictions, which compromises their health and welfare. 

  • Environmental impacts.

Methods for livestock production are considered one of the main drivers of environmental damage, including biodiversity loss and climate change. 

  • Sustainability.

According to a 2020 report from IDTechEx, analysts believe the meat industry to be unsustainable because, despite using a disproportionately large amount (77%) of agricultural land for animal livestock, only 17% of global caloric consumption comes from animals.

7 Environmental Impacts of Meat Consumption

Deforestation

As mentioned above, the industrial meat system requires a considerable amount of land to sustain itself. To graze cattle and grow enough crops to feed billions of farmed animals, forests — particularly in South America — are deliberately slashed and burned every year. With issues of sustainability and climate change becoming increasingly urgent, most experts advise us to try and limit our meat consumption. So how does our meat consumption affects our planet?

In reality, several factors related to the production of meat contributes to its global environmental impact, but we’ve highlighted seven (7) of those below:

Greenhouse gas emissions

Meat production is both directly and indirectly related to the loss of forests in South America. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), beef and soy production are responsible for the tropical deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest and other forests found in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. 

Vast areas of these landscapes, notably the Amazon, are being cleared of habitat for cattle farming and soybean production for animal feed. Farmers often rely on fire to clear the forested regions, causing double environmental harm. The burning releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere and removes the forest’s carbon reservoir (CO2 sink).

Meat consumption releases greenhouse gases like CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide, contributing to climate change, such as global warming. Several ways that livestock farming contributes to these greenhouse gases include:

  • The destruction of forest ecosystems through the release of enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. 
  • Raising livestock. Animals like cattle and sheep create large amounts of methane as they digest food. 
  • Decaying manure. Manure releases methane that ruminant animals produce. 
  • Fertilizer use. Most fertilizers used in the production of soybean are nitrogen-based, producing nitrous oxide emissions in the process. 
forest on fire
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Biodiversity loss

Forests are not the only ones in danger from the meat industry. An estimate suggests around half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, with roughly 77% of this for grazing by cattle, sheep, goats, and other livestock.  

The repurposing of land to raise cattle and grow soybeans destroys animal habitats. The destruction of the natural environment jeopardizes many species and puts them at risk of extinction. Some estimates place the number of plants, animals, and instincts that go extinct from deforestation as high as 150 species daily!

Water usage

Producing meat takes a lot of water. Beef is the most water-intensive food, requiring two times more water than pork and four times more than alternative protein sources such as lentils. Compounding this issue is the water needed for the animal feed, such as soybean farming. Livestock production also contributes to water pollution around the world because animal manure can contaminate watercourses. 

Soil degradation

Raising livestock and other animals requires a lot of grazing land, and the intensive nature of this grazing can lead to bare soil. This bare soil is often lost due to wind or rain, resulting in fertile lands becoming barren, waterways clogging, and an increased risk of flooding. 

When plants and trees die, the soil breaks down their carbon compounds and use them for metabolism and growth, making soil a large reservoir for carbon. Soil erosion leads to the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Land-use changes that reduce soil, such as animal agriculture and deforestation, have been the second-largest global contributor to CO2 emissions.

Climate change

The meat and dairy industry has an enormous impact on the climate. To illustrate this, it is comparable to about one-third of the environmental effect of the world’s vehicles and airplanes. The use of land for agriculture and the destruction of forests accelerates global warming due to billions of tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

The decomposition or burning of fallen trees contributes to further CO2 emissions. Healthy trees are crucial in the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere. Cutting them down rids us of much-needed help in our fight against climate change.

Future pandemics

The destruction of forests and other wild areas for animal agriculture is a significant cause of emerging infectious diseases. An estimated 58% of new conditions affecting humans come from animals. Deadly viruses pass from animals to humans from the loss of habitat, as wildlife seeks refuge in closer contact with people. The more forests are destroyed (deforestation) for raising livestock, the greater the risk of a new pandemic.

The increased risk of diseases from industrialized farming is not just due to animal encroachment from deforestation. It is also a source of infection, both from between animals and from animals to humans. Contagious diseases transmit more easily when there are a considerable number of animals crammed into small spaces. The animals themselves have weaker immune systems, meaning that viruses can develop more rapidly and have the potential to pass to humans. 

Is Eating Meat Bad for the Planet?

The evidence mentioned above seems almost indisputable. If that is not enough, there are plenty of studies to back it up. The scale and intensity of meat production, combined with our growing popularity, show that our current practices are bad for the environment.

Should You Stop Eating Meat Then?

There is no exact answer to this question. In the end, it all comes down to your personal choice. While we’ve covered many environmental factors related to meat consumption, we haven’t looked comprehensively at the ethical and cultural elements. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conducted a special report on climate change and land, recommending reducing meat consumption. Although experts involved with this report don’t want to tell people what to eat, they highlight that eating less meat would benefit both the climate and human health and if politics would play a role in creating appropriate incentives to that effect. 

Although individual choice plays an essential role in curtailing consumption, the responsibility falls on governments and organizations to make policy changes that benefit both humans and the planet.  

Meat Alternatives

Eliminating meat in your diet would result in loss of potential nutrients such as protein, amino acids, and several essential micronutrients. However, there are alternatives to meat that you could consider. Your options include:

  • Plant-based proteins

Foods such as soy, seitan, quinoa, and walnut can provide a rich source of protein and other nutrients. 

  • Algae 

Algae is a good source of protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and fiber. It is also rich in vitamin B12 and has a higher yield per unit area than other high-protein crops. 

  • Insects

Edible insects are not only a healthy source of protein and minerals, but their production has a much lower environmental impact than meat in terms of water consumption and greenhouse gas emission. 

  • Cultured meat

Production of meat via in vitro cell culture of animal cells could be a food of the future. It reduces the need for grazing livestock because it uses less land and water. Benefits include the customized nutritional content, reduced food-borne diseases, and fewer antimicrobials are needed to produce this meat. 

Of course, none of these alternatives come without potential disadvantages or downsides. An approach to producing alternative meat products remains to scale up, and the cost and health implications are not yet fully understood.

Final Thoughts

As evidence would have it, eating meat is bad for the environment, especially at the current scale and intensity of meat production. The global meat industry is contributing to climate change by damaging ecosystems and releasing greenhouse gases. 

What’s more, as the world’s population continues to grow, we will need to feed more and more people. The current impact of meat on the environment is not sustainable. 

We can each help reduce the damage to the environment by eating less meat and striving for a more sustainable diet. It also helps that, while there are pros and cons of eating meat, more people choose to give it up entirely. As new policies and technology roll out, we can all make a difference in protecting the planet with our dietary choices. 

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