Meat and sustainability
Meat can be a part of a sustainable lifestyle.
There are two important issues when it comes to sustainable meat production:
- Minimise the use of land that can be used to grow food crops directly for humans. It’s the extra inputs and processing required for meat production and the inefficient use of land that makes meat environmentally unfriendly.
- Minimise greenhouse gas emissions. Some kinds of meat production generate higher greenhouse gas emissions than others.
With that in mind, here are seven tips on how to be kind to the planet without missing out on meat!
1. Eat less meat
The environmental impact of meat is generally higher than for other food sources. Some startling facts:
- Half of the world’s crops are grown to feed animals
- The meat industry contributes about 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions
- 30% of the all land and 8% of the water we use is devoted to raising livestock
- Producing 1 kilogram of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kilogram of grain protein
- For every kilogram of meat protein that is produced, 6 kilograms of plant protein is fed to livestock
- The US livestock population consumes seven times more grain than the human population. That’s enough grain to feed 840 million people on a plant-based diet
- The average American eats twice the recommended daily allowance of protein
2. Avoid beef and lamb
Ruminants, including cattle, sheep, goats and camels produce methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Each cow produces much more greenhouse gas emissions than a car. In New Zealand, a small country that gets most of its electricity from hydro-power, about half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from sheep and cattle.
3. Choose grass-fed beef
If you aren’t ready to give up beef, choose grass-fed beef.
Animal welfare is an obvious reason for choosing grass-fed beef over feedlot beef. I can’t read a cows mind, but it’s hard to imagine that a cow would choose to spend the last several months of its short life in an overcrowded feedlot being fed food that makes it sick and would eventually kill it – if the unfortunate beast lived long enough! That’s what happens in a feedlot.
Aside from the ethical issues, grass-fed beef is likely to come from marginal land that isn’t suitable for cropping. Providing the land is not over-grazed, this is more sustainable than keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them food that should be produced for people – not livestock.
Critics make the valid point that marginal land is not productive enough to meet our insatiable demand for beef. That’s true. We eat too much beef! If we want to live sustainably, we need to eat less. Period.
4. Choose organic or biodynamic
The overall environmental impact of organic or biodynamic and free range meat is generally lower than for conventionally produced meat. There are benefits in relation to carbon emissions, soil erosion, biodiversity and air and water pollution.
Organic food is more expensive and organic production systems seem to produce less food per hectare than conventional systems. This has led to some concern that organic food can’t feed the Earth’s growing population. Nobody really knows.
However, a major reason that organic food is more expensive is because the ‘real’ cost of production is incorporated into the price. In conventional systems, food is cheaper, but someone else is paying for the environmental impact. ‘Someone else’ may include taxpayers, people living downstream or future generations.
To put this in economic jargon, in organic systems, many production costs are ‘internalised’, whereas in conventional systems, many costs are ‘externalised’. If we want our economic system to work better, we need to make the polluter pay. That is, we need to correct a ‘market failure’ and ‘internalise the negative externalities’.
5. Choose chicken, turkey or pork for lower greenhouse gas emissions
Chicken has the lowest emissions of conventional meats. Turkey and pork also have relatively low emissions.
Comparison of total greenhouse gas emissions from alternative protein sources: EWG Meat Eaters Guide.
6. Choose free range pork and poultry
The main reason we choose free range meat is because of concerns about animal welfare.
Most pigs are raised in factory conditions and never see the sun until they are sent for slaughter. On some farms in Australia - and in other countries – female breeding pigs (sows) are confined to metal stalls that are so small the animal can’t turn around. When the piglets are born, their teeth are clipped, tails cut off and they are castrated without pain relief. The young are removed before 4 weeks of age and the sow is impregnated again.
It’s a similar story for battery hens. In some countries, there is little regulation around what ‘free range’ actually means. Fortunately, when it comes to chickens, there’s an easy way to tell if the birds are being looked after… If there are too many chickens in a given space, chickens peck each other to death. To manage overcrowding, some free range farmers de-beak their birds. Whether you are buying meat or eggs, find out if your ‘free range’ provider de-beaks their birds. If they do, the pens are overcrowded. Buy from someone else.
7. Choose wild-caught game meats
Free-living game can provide a sustainable source of meat.
People have created environmental conditions that have led to a boom in the population of some native species. For example, the population of deer have increased because we’ve killed off their predators. Kangaroos in Australia have benefited from the increased supply of grass and grain on land cleared for agriculture. Sustainable harvesting of wild game can supply us with meat and reduce ‘total grazing pressure’. Reducing grazing pressure has the added benefit of making conventional meat production more efficient.
Providing the method of hunting is right for each species, hunting game can also be good from an animal welfare viewpoint. Sometimes these species suffer from starvation due to overpopulation, especially over winter or due to drought. Also, unlike farm animals, game live natural lives.
And what is more, hunting feral animals can provide food and help reduce the impact they have on the environment. In Australia, culling wild feral camels has been proposed as a method for reducing their impact on the environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If we can find a way to get camels out of the outback and on to dinner plates we’ll be helping the environment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accessing a new, sustainable source of meat. A win-win-win!
And a bonus tip!
Well. It’s not my thing, but I’ve met a ‘vegetarian’ who wouldn’t say no to fresh roadkill. Enough said.