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Ethical and Sustainable Guide to Eating Meat

By: Fresh n, Lean

Eating meat has a substantial negative effect on the environment, but you don’t have to go vegan or vegetarian to reduce your impact. Choosing more environmentally-friendly meats like chicken instead of beef, being careful where you source your food from and reducing your consumption can all make a big difference.

An unavoidable truth is that one of the best things you can do to protect the environment is to go vegetarian or vegan.

As University of Oxford researcher Joseph Poore put it, following a vegan diet is “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”

By completely removing your dependence on the meat trade, you’re discouraging intensive farming of animals and dramatically lessening your environmental impact.

But I know what many of you are thinking: what if I don’t want to give up meat? Is there any way to reduce my environmental impact while still enjoying the occasional steak?

Admittedly, accomplishing this as a meat-eater is a little bit harder, but there are steps you can take to reduce the impact you’re having on the planet. This will still mean changing some of your diet, but you can still make a substantial difference if you’re dedicated to making a positive change.

9 Ways Meat Trade Seriously Impacts the Environment

But changing your whole lifestyle isn’t something you’re likely to do for no reason. People often say that reducing your meat consumption or going completely vegan is the best thing you can do to help the environment, but why is that the case? There are many points that can be raised to explain the problem, but these nine give a good overview of the nature of the problem.

1 – Meat Uses a Lot of Water

The easiest way to understand the greater environmental impact of meat is realizing that animals are fed crops which also need to be grown. Rather than eating crops, you need to grow crops to feed to animals to then eat the animals, leading to more waste over the whole process. This is the reason animal products require more water than plant-based products. Beef, for example, uses around 15,400 liters of water per kilogram of edible meat produced, pork is close to 6,000 liters/kg and chicken takes around 4,300/kg. In comparison, vegetables use about 300 liters/kg and fruits use about 1,000 liters/kg.

2 – Cattle Produces Methane, a Potent Greenhouse Gas

Ruminants like cows and sheep – that eat grass – tend to be the worst when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the bacteria in their stomach which allows them to digest grass creates methane as a by-product, and methane is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) in terms of the greenhouse effect. Translating the environmental impact into “CO2 equivalent” amounts – that is, an equivalent effect to the stated mass of CO2 – cows release about 16 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of meat, and sheep release about 13 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of meat.

3 – Freshwater Fish Farming Also Produces Methane

Although it’s for a different reason, freshwater fish farms are also significant sources of methane. These farms are the source of almost all the fish in Europe and two-thirds of it in Asia, but as excrement and unconsumed feed sinks to the bottom of the pond, the oxygen levels drop dramatically and this environment is ideal for methane production. Consequently, farmed fish is about as bad as poultry and pork when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, despite often being assumed to be environmentally friendly.

4 – Meat Accounts for 83 Percent of Farmland Used but Only 18 Percent of Calories

Producing 18 percent of calorie intake for the human population and about 37 percent of protein, meat manages to use up a whopping 83 percent of farmland used. In addition to this already unflattering statistic, livestock is responsible for about 58 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and 57 percent of all water pollution. The amount of damage to the environment is wildly out of step with the nutrition and energy we get from it.

5 – The “Best” Meat and Dairy is Worse for the Environment than the Worst Veggies and Cereals

Even if you take the positive step of moving towards more sustainable forms of meat, there is still bad news compared to being a vegetarian or vegan. The unfortunate truth is that even the most sustainable forms of livestock and dairy are still less sustainable than the worst offenders out of cereals and vegetables.

6 – Meat Contributes to Deforestation

With a large proportion of farmland taken up by meat production, it also takes a big share of the blame for ongoing deforestation, which is largely caused by agriculture. Once the trees have gone, chances are they’ll never come back, but they are a vital ally in the fight against climate change because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and only emit oxygen.

7 – Livestock Causes 14.5 Percent of All Emissions (As Much as the World’s Cars, Planes, Boats and Trains)

The level of greenhouse gas emission from livestock is a substantial chunk of total emissions – about 14.5 percent of total man-made emissions – identifying it as one of the most important sources of greenhouse gases to reduce. The most shocking part of this fact is when you compare it to emissions from transportation, in the form of all of the world’s cars, planes, boats and trains: the meat trade is responsible for an equivalent amount of emissions to all of these combined.

8 – The Meat Trade Creates Pollution and Possibly Contributes to Antibiotic Resistance

While agriculture in general – including the production of plant-based foods – is a source of pollution due to fertilizers, pesticides and other factors, the fact that 30 percent of all crops are ultimately fed to livestock means that meat takes a substantial proportion of the blame. Eutrophication of water bodies, for example, results from an excess of nutrients and things like animal excrement and leftover feed. This leads to overgrowth of algae and plants, using up all of the oxygen in the region and having serious impacts on other aquatic species. Antibiotic resistance is also a serious problem, and it’s expected that the over-use of antibiotics in livestock is partially responsible for this.

9 – Meat Consumption is Expected to Rise Worldwide

The final fact is probably the most worrying of all. As more nations become wealthier, meat consumption worldwide is expected to increase. This is likely to be a substantial increase, too, estimated as a doubling of consumption in the next four decades. This means all of the problems identified above will be doubled in impact unless something drastically changes.

How to Eat Meat More Sustainably and Ethically

The facts above show that if you’re going to continue eating meat, your contribution to the issues surrounding global climate change is going to be bigger than if you became vegetarian or vegan. However, that doesn’t mean the only way to reduce your impact is to make such a drastic change in your lifestyle. You can actually make a substantial difference by just thinking about how you eat meat and your relationship with food in general. Here are five simple suggestions you can use to make a difference without waving goodbye to meat altogether.

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