Why we might have to cut down on meat — whether we want to or not
If you have a friend who is a vegetarian, or you’ve ever seen an advert advocating the diet, you’ll be familiar with the typical modes of appeal. “Save animals”, accompanied by a picture of a sad-looking cow or pig is a common one. There is, though, a very practical reason for going cutting down on meat, and one that has genuine scientific backing. That reason? The environment.
Right, full disclosure: I’m somewhere in between veggie and vegan. Not the militant kind, don’t worry, you’re safe. Rather the kind that is genuinely interested in a meaningful debate about the subject, and what people should/shouldn’t do to help.
Let’s leave aside the animal welfare part of the debate, which I find to be completely futile, as well as the pointless and meaningless: “are we supposed to eat meat?” debate. They are not good reasons to stop eating bacon or steak — particularly the latter of the pair. Meat production has an actual impact on the environment, and these two debates tend to shut this more important one out far too often.
How does meat production impact the environment?
There are two main ways: water and greenhouse gases. Let’s look first at the water consumption, with the aid of a particularly handy new study.
This study highlights water consumption from food and how to reduce it using three countries: the UK, France, and Germany. Average water consumption due to food per person per day for the UK is 2,750 litres, for Germany is 2,950 litres, and for France is 3,850. These figures aren’t incredibly high (although France is pushing it), especially when compared to the average 5,000 litres for an American.
However, they are, the authors of the study say, much higher than they ought to be if we ate according to national healthy eating guidelines. A healthy meat diet would see a reduction of anywhere between 11 and 35 percent for the three separate countries. That’s a reduction of 1,350 litres for the average French person.
So why is water consumption higher than it should be? The best current theory is that we simply eat too much meat, compared to vegetables, carbs, and pulses. This would increase water consumption past healthy levels as meat is the most water-intensive foodstuff, particularly beef. The further you go up the food chain, the more water is consumed. Therefore, a pound of beef is roughly equal to 8,000 litres of water. Not great.
There is, of course, the dissenting theory, which adds obesity and over-consumption of food. This is a factor, but the numbers simply don’t stack up. It must be the case that we eat too much meat.
The world doesn’t have water to waste, when you consider that only 3% of all water on earth is freshwater, and that most of that is inaccessible. One problem contributing to the water crisis is climate change.
Climate change is that thing that you know about, you think you care about, but you don’t really know what to do — or simply don’t care enough to do anything about. Well, meat production isn’t great for climate change, so cutting down to healthy levels could be a good place to start.
Again, beef is the major culprit, with 105kg per 100g of meat, while poultry, pork and fish are all below 20kg per 100g. I won’t dwell too long on this: everyone knows what climate change is and does, so just keep in mind that eating beef as a treat rather than a ritual could cut out tonnes (literally) of your greenhouse gas emissions per year.
Remember that livestock use 80% of farmland, but produces just 20% of total calories. A slight reduction in consumption, nothing spectacular, could help to ensure that everyone has sufficient food.
Going veggie is even better than a healthy meat diet (for the environment), but it isn’t necessary, at least not for the time being. A collective cut-down now would ensure that everyone can keep eating meat, whereas no action may lead to a situation where governments feel the need to enforce vegetarianism. No-one wants that, do they?