The Meat Muddle

Food is a constant, or so we would like to think.  Because we need to eat, and because agriculture has been a stable societal element since the Neolithic Age, it is easy to assume that the there is nothing more natural than depending on the purposeful culturing of other organisms, both plant and animal.  In this train of thought, only the obviously-chemical Twinkies and Sliders become the ‘bad food,’ and we can gravitate to anything marketed as ‘green’ or ‘organic’ for clean-conscious dining.  While in some ways this can be true, new findings are starting to show that a revision of how we think about food is a more pressing problem than we originally thought.  And, perhaps unsurprisingly, much of this conversation is based around meat.

When one thinks of the consequences of a meat-based diet, animal cruelty and poor health are often the first topics that come to mind.  Yet, while both of these points are important and worthy of much discussion, in the past five years a new concern has began to take precedence on the world stage.  Through studies conducted by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), universities, and private environmental groups, meat-production has revealed itself to be a leading contributor to global warming, environmental degradation, and national carbon-footprints.  This, as opposed to other anti-meat production arguments, is a problem that cannot be easily ignored.  Feeling a responsibility to animals can be turned into a caricature of bleeding-heart naïve hippydome.  Shouldering the responsibility of  your health, both mental and physical, can be considered so personal, so ‘that’s not my problem,’ that it leaves the sphere of public discussion.  But understanding that your Big Mac may be hastening our planet’s inability to support human life is harder to wave off.  Whether we like it or not, eating is no longer private: our every decision reflects our responsibility to the world, and each other.

The grievances of meat-production can be largely classified into four areas:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions.  Our current form of meat-production emits high amounts of harmful gasses into the environment.  Some of these come from expected sources, such as those released during the making and use of fertilizer.  Others are not as obvious, such as the amount of methane released by highly concentrated cattle.  Even the amount of C02 released by these purposefully-overpopulated animal populations has reached critical levels: for example, producing a half-pound of chicken for consumption is equal to driving a two-thousand pound car 0.75 miles; a half-pound of beef is equal to a staggering 9.81 miles.
  • Land and water use.  Raising livestock puts the earth under a double-strain, for not only does grazing require immense tracks of land, but an equally large amount of land is needed for growing crops to feed them.  The problems this raises are broad, ranging from soil desiccation to the release of fertilizer into groundwater to the clearing of rainforests and other fragile habitats.  And as freshwater becomes increasingly scare, the amount needed to sustain these animals is taking on a greater cost than its monetary figures reveal.
  • Transportation of food. With the expansion of the global market, all food (vegetable produce included) is moving further than ever before.  To make things worse, the use of fossil fuels and the release of harmful emissions endemic of transportation is exaggerated here by the need for these products to be cold, as well as the need for them to be shipped quickly.
  • Waste and excess. Even though dieting and weight-management concerns have helped consumers say no to overeating, that does not mean that we aren’t over-demanding.  The need for meat products drives the meat industry, regardless if we end up eating it or not.  So leaving half your plate at a restaurant does not count as cutting back – only a change in what we expect in serving sizes will.

Of course, there are no clear answers in this meat muddle.  Meat-production does have its benefits, such as job creation and the transformation of otherwise inedible plants (grasses) into a food source for humans.  However, as with all things, the question comes down to cost – even in terms of the types of limits we put on meat-production.  For example, if our concerns lie with land and water usage, then it makes the most sense to continue condensing the meat industry into factory farms, which use as little space and resources as possible.  Is severely worsening the quality of stock animals’ lives worth lessening the environmental costs?

While I do not have the answer to this, my answer is no.  Mitigating negative effects seems to more often pass the harm along rather than making it disappear, spreading it thin enough to avoid notice until it is often too late.  For instance, reducing grazing-land for cattle means a heavier reliance upon corn-feed …which in turn leads to larger amount of methane produced by the livestock.  Overcrowding with chickens leads to more injury and death, and thereby means that more chickens must be raised to keep ahead of the losses.  It is a race without end.

So what emerges from this mess?  The closer you are to the food you eat, the better.  The less meat you consume, the less need there is for the undeniable harm caused by the meat-production industry.   Vegan and vegetarianism, then, reveals itself to not only be a choice of taste and health, but of responsibility to the earth and its inhabitants.  Of course, not every community has a farmer’s market, and not everyone will become a vegan or vegetarian.  But the one thing that everyone can do is to cut back significantly.  Instead of having three servings of meat a day (or more!), limit yourself to one.  Incorporate meatless days into your schedule.   Cut out meat where it is not needed.  If you are to eat meat, try to offset your carbon footprint by walking or biking to the grocery or restaurant.  But above all, be aware of what you eat.  Eating is never neutral, and more than any other activity, connects us to each other and our planet.  Beware of habitual meat consumption and reliance upon imported produce, for the consequences of convenience can be very large indeed.

Interested?  Here are links to helpful articles for further reading:

Anex, Robert.  “Understanding Your Carbon Footprint.” The University of Iowa.’sConference/Anex_Cattle_Feeders_June2009.pdf

Carus, Felicity.  “UN urges global move to a meat and dairy-free diet.”  The Guardian.

Frey, Sibylle and John Barette.  “The Footprint of Scotland’s Diet: The environmental burden of what we eat.”  Stockholm Environment Institute.

Goodland, Robert and Jeff Anhang.  “Livestock and Climate Change.”  World Watch.

Levitt, Tom.  “Have we got it right on meat and greenhouse gas emissions?” The Ecologist.

Wallace, Jacob.  “Easy on the Oil: Policy options for a smaller waistline and a lighter footprint.”


  1. J

    Note: I am doing my best to use the most correct wording to express my thoughts in a clear *and concise* manner. As such, please take care to read and understand this response before critiquing it.

    Granted, I am not fact checking here, I don’t really have the time or desire for it (or else I would already have the answers to the questions and ideas I pose); I am providing a considered response to this article, and will try to do so following the flow of the article, not of my own scattered thoughts. This article, while suggesting a global concern, is primarily focused towards Americans. So I will try to respond to the same audience, but will likely use global examples as well. Most humans do not eat much meat at all, perhaps only on special occasions.

    First, the expansion of mankind into unsuitable lands (unsustainable environments) means that food is not always constant. _______ (fill in some large number) of human beings die, everyday, from starvation. Agriculture has allowed humans to populate almost everywhere that can be populated, but still requires innovation and progress. Last I checked, there are about 6.5 billion humans on Earth, and present agricultural techniques can support roughly 5 billion….ish. Not only does meat need to “step it up”, so do plants; at this point, I am only speaking in sheer number, or quantity (I will address quality soon). We simply are not good enough at making food.

    I am also going to gloss over animal cruelty (as I understand it), giving only three ideas, of increasing importance:
    1. it is immature and silly
    2. it is still prevalent
    3. it is isolated and quite uncommon

    The notion of meat = poor health is also misguided. One does not balk at the taste of meat. It contains proteins, fats, and oils that promote human health. Some even think it is tasty. Things that you body desires taste good. That there is enough meat available to allow us to eat until we are sick and that we will eat it until we are sick is the issue. Meat is nutrient dense and as such, is an excellent food source. Ted Nugent put it quite succinctly: “This meat is food…case closed.”

    It comes down to the point that in our society we have the ability to eat the food we like almost all of the time.

    Next, you state, “meat-production has revealed itself to be a leading contributor to global warming, environmental degradation, and national carbon-footprints”. Nearly all production of any sort contributes to global warming and environmental degradation. For example, flooding rice paddies causes the anaerobic breakdown of the plant, which releases massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Even recycling is an industrial process that uses harsh chemicals, which have to be disposed of somehow. These issues are most closely linked with the quality of agricultural processes. Many facets of current agricultural practices and production are outdated and detrimental to the environment. Ditch irrigation, for example, is one such practice that only continues because it is cheap and easy. However, I believe that our planet still has plenty of ability to support human life. I maintain that the across-the-board quality of the average human being’s life has only increased for the past….ever…ish (I have not really fact checked this, but I feel like typhoid is down, overall).

    -Greenhouse gas emissions: There are a few points here that I am not clear on. Does the overcrowding of livestock cause increased methane production? Restated, do 1,000 head of cattle produce more methane in one year when they are kept on 1,000 acres than when they are kept on 1,000,000 acres? I think this is a numbers issue, not a concentration issue. The (I believe) quoted statistic of 0.75 miles lacks reference. To me, at least, the only way I can tell that this number is too high or bad is from the context; is 0.75 miles actually a ridiculously high number? How is this determined? Also, what *exactly* is a carbon footprint, really? More than just “how much carbon you use”.

    -Land and water use: Again, the main crux of this problem is that the land is not effectively and efficiently being used. Cows do not belong in America, they belong in Europe where there is plenty of grassland, not the Great Plains. Bison, which are hardier, leaner creatures, are really what should be on ranches. Cows require lots of grain and take up valuable farming space, especially in the breadbasket Midwest. However, in the West, where wheat and corn cannot be grown due to lack of water, bison have and can thrive in massive numbers feeding on scrub grasses. Using land in the best manner possible is how we can improve the lives of human beings as well as the environment.

    -Transportation of food: Food needs to be cheaper. Produce and meat are shipped in from Chile and Mexico because even including farming and refrigerated-shipping costs, it is still cheaper than food grown in the good ol’ US of A. Pay farmers here less, and food will not travel as far. (Realize you will also put potentially millions of foreign farmers out of business)

    -Waste and excess: This follows a lot of what I have already mentioned about our current agricultural processes and or own ability to fight the biological urge to eat everything.

    It was stated that “meat-production does have its benefits, such as job creation” and this is never a valid to perform any sort of production. I could hire 15 people to cut my lawn with nail trimmers, but it would be a massive waste, except for the humor in watching it. There are plenty of jobs to be done. If meat-production is really that detrimental, it does not need to be one of them.

    I believe the question of worsening an animal’s life for the price of lessening the cost to the environment should be restated. One should examine whether alleviating the burden on the environment improves the quality of human life. If so, then go ahead. And as for the idea of overcrowding chickens leading to more injury: I am almost certain that there are at least several engineers in charge of crowding the chickens just to the point where injury and death (losses for the company) does not occur. That would be terrible business practice and any practicing engineer would quickly be jobless.

    However, if you are looking to increase your health and limit your individual impact on the environment, that best thing that I can recommend is surely to not reproduce; human beings are very hard on people and the environment.

  2. c

    eating animals does not necessarily stress the enviornment any more than other agricultural practices. it is how they are raised that is the deal breaker. Cattle raised on pasture and rotated on a regular basis actually contribute to the health of the soil. This enables various microbial activity with the end result being more carbon being sequestered in the soil and further contributing to the soil health. The world already produces enough food to feed everyone if A. we stop over eating, B. figure out how to get it where it is needed and C STOP wasting it. It is said that we waste 50, yep, that’s right, 50% of what is grown, worldwide.

  3. Suzanne

    I’ve been trying to address the myth that meat production is ALWAY bad for the environment, but somehow my three attempts never make it to the page.

  4. Suzanne

    The North American prairies, South American pampas, northern European steppes, and African veld were enormously resilient and productive for millennia, while being grazed by a multitude of animals ranging in size from bison to beetles. In northern Europe, great herds of horses ranged the grasslands. In North America, there may have been a core population of 30-60 BILLION BISON prior to the great land rush by which white settlers displaced the native peoples and destroyed the herds for the sake of grain.

    Imagine a situation where the prairies were harvested for meat; suppose there were only 30 billion bison, of which only 25% were females of breeding age. That’s 7.5 billion calves born every year, of which roughly half are male. Let’s suppose we harvest enough 2-3 year old bison each year to come to 4 million (for the math!). A dressed bison yields about 680lb of meat.
    Out with the calculator: 4 billion x 680lb = 272,000,000,000 lb of meat. Each year. Damage to environment: practically negligible. The soil under the grass deepens annually, as roots and leaves die back in fall and nutrients are returned through urine and faeces. The regular culling of the herds keeps the bison population in balance with the available grass, as well as in good health. True, the animals belch and fart, releasing both methane and carbon dioxide, but grasslands sequester both underground to a large extent.
    That amount of meat is bison alone. What if we figured in the yield from deer of several species, jackrabbits, grouse, all sustainably harvested? What about the wild fruits so lovingly described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House series?
    Other products of biomimicking meat production: oxygen (grasslands do a lot of photosynthesis, taking in carbon dioxide and producing oxygen), clean water, constant replenishment of aquifers, natural flood control (water is slowed down by thick grass cover, percolating into the soil instead of rushing off into rivers), maintenance of biodiversity, habitat for threatened species…

    The Great Dust Bowl was created by ploughing up the grasses and growing of annual grains. These grains were not used for force-feeding confined livestock; they were for human food. Trainloads of wheat and corn were railed to the exponentially increasing cities. By 1930 almost unimaginable damage had been done to the prairies, without a single CAFO in sight for another half-century into the future.

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