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The Environmental Impacts of Eating Less Meat

Updated: Mar 4, 2019

This is part one of a two part discussion, to read Part two of this article please click here.

What we eat has a huge effect on the world around us, with our diet closely linked with global farming practices and the health of environmental systems. With agriculture responsible for up to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and most of these emissions coming from red meat production, simple changes to our diet could have a huge impact on the world around us. According to a new report published in The Lancet, eating less meat is critical if we want better personal health and improved environmental outcomes. Let's analyse the rather persuasive environmental argument, and leave the health argument to part two of this article.

According to the new report from the EAT–Lancet Commission, "Many environmental systems and processes are pushed beyond safe boundaries by food production." While current agricultural systems manage to feed some of us, with 10 billion people estimated to inhabit the planet by 2050 and a growing disparity between rich and poor, "a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed." The personal red meat target set in the report is rather ambitious, however, with a single serving, or 100 grams, of red meat suggested per week.

It's important to understand just how many resources are needed to produce red meat, with land and water required to grow feed grains and additional land needed for grazing. In what is a mind boggling statistic, roughly one-third of all the grain produced worldwide is used as animal feed. As you might expect, this is not the most efficient use of our resources, even if you account for the nutritional value of the meat produced.

According to the World Resources Institute, beef production uses 20 times more land and produces 20 times more emissions that producing beans, not just in total, but per gram of protein produced. Limiting your meat intake could have a hugely beneficial effect on the planet, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, freeing up water and land for other agricultural activities, and reducing land clearing and associated biodiversity losses. According to a separate study from the University of Oxford and Agroecology and Environment Research Division in Switzerland, published in the journal Science, livestock requires 83 percent of global farmland in order to provide 37 percent the world's protein and just 18 percent of the world's calories.

Other data from the report is just as worrying, with livestock responsible for 59 percent of greenhouse emissions, 57 percent of water pollution, 56 percent of air pollution, and 33 percent of freshwater withdrawals. According to Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford, and the man who led the research, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use... It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

While most people would struggle with a vegan diet, the recommendation from the EAT–Lancet Commission may be slightly more realistic. Even though a single serving of red meat per week is a lot less than people currently eat in the western world, there is some historical precedent. According to Dr. Walter Willet, the lead author of the report, the recommendations are "actually in line with what the traditional Mediterranean diet was when the Greeks were the healthiest people in the world." While some agricultural groups have criticised the recommendations based on nutrition, the environmental benefits of eating less meat are quite clear and largely undisputed.

Image source: Eight Photo/Shutterstock

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