May 25, 2016

Less meat per day keeps emissions at bay

Reducing your meat consumption is the simplest way to improve your environmental impact

Taken together, the small choices you make every day about your food can have a big environmental impact.
Taken together, the small choices you make every day about your food can have a big environmental impact.

When you’re deciding whether or not to shell out an extra dollar to add bacon to your burger, you’re making a choice that affects more than just your wallet. You’re deciding whether or not to support a system that systematically destroys our ecosystems.

Now stick with me. I know a lot of you are turned off right now because you think I’m going to come at you with a guilt-trip, but I’ll do my best to present you with some facts about the environmental impacts of food production and leave shame out of this.  

Overhunting, habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, pollution and climate change are the five biggest threats to biodiversity and the health of the world’s ecosystem, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. All five threats can be addressed directly by making a conscious effort to eat less meat.  

2015 saw over 190 countries come together to discuss climate change at the Paris Climate Conference, or COP21. With all the media attention the event received, many of us have started thinking of how our actions affect global warming. If you really want to reduce your impact on the environment, the simplest and cheapest thing you can do is to eat less meat.  

What we don’t see when we sit down to enjoy our third hamburger of the week is the incredibly wasteful system of farming that depends on fossil fuels, pollutes our waterways and air, destroys forests and is largely responsible for climate change.  

In 2006, the UN released a report that stated that livestock production generates 18 per cent of the globe’s emissions. That’s more than all forms of transportation, including cars and planes, put together. Think about that for a second.  

One of the most problematic factors in meat consumption is that the animals we raise also need food and water. One billion people go hungry every day, but livestock now consumes the majority of the world’s crops. According to a 2002 study, nearly 30 per cent of the planet’s available ice-free surface is now being used by livestock or for growing food for these animals.

Eat a chicken breast or a pork chop and you’re effectively also consuming the water that animal needed to live and grow. The same can be said for plant foods, but while a pound of potatoes requires 27 litres of water to produce, a pound of beef needs around 9,000. 

A cow excretes around 40 kilograms of manure for every kilogram of edible beef it puts on.  Now times that by the thousands of cattle that are typically kept on a single industrial-scale operation and you can see how much waste is produced. Factory farms now dominate Western livestock and poultry industries, and a single farm can generate as much waste as a city.

To deal with this huge quantity of waste, bovine manure and urine is funneled into massive lagoons sometimes holding as many as 40 million gallons. These cesspools often break, leak or overflow with catastrophic effects, polluting underground water supplies and rivers with nitrogen, phosphorus and nitrates.

Our North American animal farming economy is based on oil because every step in bringing meat to the table demands electricity — from the production of the fertilizer put on the land to grow the animal feed, to pumping the water they need from rivers or wells, to the fuel needed to transport the meat in giant refrigerated ships on the journey to supermarket shelves. According to some studies, as much as one-third of all fossil fuels produced in the United States now go towards animal agriculture.  

From greenhouse gas emissions to habitat loss, eating large quantities of meat is unsustainable, but there is hope. Incorporating meat-free meals into your diet is super simple, whether you’re going out to eat or preparing a meal. 

I’ve never been to a restaurant that didn’t have at least one thing I could eat — whether it’s a veggie burger, pasta, a falafel wrap or a salad.  Websites like thugkitchen.com are full of awesome and easy recipes to make at home. Even deciding to not eat meat at breakfast, or to only eat meat on weekends could significantly improve your environmental impact.  

Climate change is a big, scary problem, but part of the solution lies in the simple, everyday decisions we make around food. A conscious effort to reduce your meat consumption is one easy way to affect a lot more of the world than what’s on your plate.

Kathleen Houlahan Chayer is a fourth-year Environmental Science major and the Chair of Sustainability for the Society of Conservation Biology, Kingston Chapter.

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